When biking we hardly notice the wind at our back, until we change directions and try riding against its force. Likewise, we may hardly notice the cultural winds that carry us until we step outside our boundaries. That’s one reason I benefit from the privilege of spending time each year visiting other countries. With each visit I am reminded that cultural norms—from how we meet and greet on the street to how we eat (fork in left hand or right? chopsticks?) to how we weave the social safety net—varies from my place to other places.
I write from Scotland, where my wife and I have frequently returned since taking a long-ago sabbatical year here at the University of St. Andrews. The last several days provide two examples of things many Americans take for granted, without realizing how culturally American they are.
Example #1: American supermarkets now have “foreign” food sections, where people can buy their favorite international items. Here in St. Andrews the largest foreign food section is “American.” And what foreign foods might you expect to find here (foods that, during our long-ago sabbatical were not available)? In this American section one can find peanut butter, pancake syrup, canned pumpkin, baking soda, popcorn, sugary cereals, Oreos, Pop Tarts, and Twinkies. American foods!
Example #2: The university’s library is a place of study for students from many countries, including cultures with squat toilets. For me, the way to use a Western flush toilet seems obvious—it’s the way we do it (and I’m unbothered by what might seem gross to others—sitting on a toilet seat that has recently been sat on by others). But for some, a flush toilet needs explanation, just as I might need toileting instruction when visiting their cultures. Thus, this sign appears in the library bathrooms:
Our culture’s widely accepted behaviors, ideas, attitudes, values, and traditions may seem so natural and right to us that we fail to notice them as cultural. Experiencing other cultures’ ways of acting and thinking helps us to see what’s distinctive about our own.