Cultural Issues

"We must not allow other people's limited perceptions to define us." --Virginia Satir

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Overview

  1. What is a culture?
  2. What are the main characteristics of American culture?
  3. Why do we use stereotypes?
  4. How do stereotypes affect the way we think and feel?
  5. How do cultural issues affect society? People? What role do they play?
  6. Wouldn’t we feel more comfortable if we were all the same?
  7. What can we learn from other cultures?
  8. How many cultures are there?
  9. Mary Pipher said that in America we live in a dysfunctional and poisonous culture. What does she mean? How do we grow up in a consumer-oriented, highly sexualized culture?
  10. What role does mass media play in our culture? (television in particular)
  11. How does language affect relationships?
  12. How do cultural issues come in to play in a counseling session?
  13. How do different cultures resolve their issues together?
  14. What’s a healthy view of cultural differences?
  15. Are black people that different from white people?
  16. Where does Black Culture come from?
  17. Is culture the same as race?

What is a Culture?

Different cultures have different patterns of behavior/ways and norms of living. In the US, what we generally mean by different cultures are foreign cultures and sub-cultures within our larger US community. An example of a foreign culture, might be a person coming from China to the United States. A Chinese person has patterns of behavior that are normal and healthy in his or her home community. However, certain aspects of their behaviors may be perceived by US citizens as not healthy (not within the US "norm" of behavior). A good example is the distance Europeans stand from others when talking. Europeans stand approximately 1/2 the distance from another person when talking as opposed to Americans, which may make an American feel very uncomfortable.

Misunderstandings also happen between sub-cultures in our own country. Such as between white and black Americans, or between a small US Italian community and a Jewish Community. Each sub-culture has new or different sets of behavior or ways of living that may at times be perceived as wrong. This is where the term Cultural Issues comes from. Issues arise when groups of people believe another group is wrong in their behavior; we’re not aware of what healthy behavior is for that culture.

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What are the main characteristics of American culture?

After many years of changes, the main characteristics of Americans remain: women are supposed to be supporting and not too loud; males are supposed to be independent and exhibit strong identification with their masculinity. We have a lot of confusion about what families are supposed to be like especially because we have a lot of extended families due to divorce and re-marriage. All Americans are to be able communicators and not too affectionate. We have a need for personal physical space; we are taught not to be too close to one another.

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Why do we use stereotypes?

We use stereotypes in part because it’s so hard to take in all of the complicated information about other people in the world. It’s difficult to spend the amount of time necessary to understand why or in what different ways people behave. So instead, we learn early in our lives to accept stereotypes of groups, or individuals. We develop stereotypes not just for large cultures, but smaller ones; such as police officers, Mexican Americans, women, or executive males.

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How do stereotypes affect the way we think and feel?

Stereotypes eliminate the challenges of understanding people who are different from ourselves; they supposedly give us a general overview of whole groups of people so we know what to expect and how to act. Unfortunately, so many stereotypes are inaccurate and are used as a method of scapegoating, or to separate "their" behavior from "my" behavior.

Remember, we don’t always agree with, or like the way another cultures behave because it is different, and we therefore perceive it as wrong, and develop negative/ugly descriptions (stereotypes). When we have problems with someone of a different group, we tend to identify the problem as having to do with the group, rather than ourselves or the specific person. So stereotypes do get in the way of how we think and feel. It makes us very judgmental about others and unfortunately often erroneously so.

Stereotypes prevent us from identifying the feelings that are really go on inside of us. With stereotypes, the belief will remain that someone did something to us, rather than the problem, fear, or rigidity/closed thinking being within ourselves. When we’re stereotyping we get caught up in the issue of that’s what "they do", that’s how "those people" are, instead of being in touch with our actual feelings of hurt, confusion, being slighted, left-out, anger, etc.

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How do cultural issues affect society? People? What role do they play?

The US is considered one of the more dynamic societies in the world. What’s meant by this is there is constantly new influx of immigrants into our culture. Approximately 10% of the population was not born here. So in the US those new immigrants bring their cultural backgrounds into the interaction in the culture. We welcome and pick up on many things in new cultures such as diet, art, music, patterns of behavior, language idiom, etc. While there is a welcoming of differences such as food and music, there is also a stress between new cultural influences and the predominant cultural influences. When people don’t understand each other, they become suspicious of one another.

People from new and different cultural groups are heavily discriminated against and negatively stereotyped because of their differences from the main culture. We have seen this in the discrimination of groups throughout our history, most notable with African Americans, Native Americans, Irish, Italians, and Jews.

There is a story of a child living in a racist environment who’d learned a lot of negative stereotypes about African Americans. He had an aunt in Minnesota who used to write letters to his mother. One day, his mother was reading to him from one of those letters. His aunt wrote about "how those people are so lazy and are good for nothing" and "they don’t do anything" and "we shouldn’t try to support them or helping them in any way". The white boy assumed his aunt was talking about African Americans, because in his environment, that’s what he had heard, but when his mother turned the page, it was actually Native Americans his aunt was writing of.

We attach negative stereotypes to people we don’t want to identify with. Stereotypes make it even more difficult to challenge and approach the different people around us; but more and more people are beginning to challenge stereotypes.

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Wouldn’t we feel more comfortable if we were all the same?

It’s doubtful. We don’t know that there’s ever been a situation in which all people were the same. People are individuals and we are all unique even within cultural bounds. It’s just a fact of life that different cultures have developed. So people are different from each other. And yes, if we are different enough, people can be fearful of the differences. It takes more work to get to know people who are different from us.

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What can we learn from other cultures?

There is so much to learn everywhere in the universe, there’s no single culture that seems to have had a corner on all the best ways to be in the world, whether that’s spiritual, dietary, the way we work or organize our societies. It’s not well known, but the early US revolutionary leaders modeled their ideas of government after certain Native American nations. In spite of having an overall disrespect for Native Americans, early US intellectual leaders used Native American ideas to plan democracy.

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How many cultures are there?

Thousands. Within any given nation there are many sub-cultures, and within many nations there are even completely independent cultures. There are a few hundred nation states in the world, multiply that by at least 10. Some people even believe every family has it’s own culture, afterall, have you ever known two families that are alike in their roles and customs?

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Mary Pipher said that in America we live in a dysfunctional and poisonous culture. What does she mean? How do we grow up in a consumer-oriented, highly sexualized culture?


It’s not just Mary Pipher who believes we live in a dysfunctional and poisonous culture, many people who have studied our culture say it is a very sick and addicted culture. It’s dysfunctional because it teaches negative things about human beings. Our culture reinforces poor diet, myths about our superiority and rights over the earth, sexism (rampant in most cultures in the world), consumerism, all of which push people to develop an addictive pattern of consuming (otherwise known as affluenza). Read about what affluenza is. In the US, people are encouraged and directed that the way to feel good is to have rather than to just be.

Yes, the US is a highly sexualized culture, because sex sells. There is a sexualizing of things all over the culture. Almost everything is pitched as a feel good, be better, get more sex item. For example, an advertisement for Florida vacations might contain words such as "miles and miles of beautiful beach", all the while focusing the camera on women’s breasts and backsides. Does this foster dysfunction? Does this lead to a track of personal happiness and health? Or does this kind of thinking and advertising foster more consumerism and less of what really makes us happy? Those who teach about affluenza would say it’s important for all of us to be aware, and therefore become "inoculated" to such potential destructive forces around us.

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What role does mass media play in our culture (television in particular)?

There are ongoing studies on how mass media affects humans in the culture. Some people argue it doesn’t affect us very much. This argument says what’s much more important is immediate family behaviors; that’s how children will be shaped. But we know mass media does make a big difference and we can see the affects in such studies as done with the gradual disappearance of accents. A person traveling through the US 25 years ago, if they turned on a television set in Savannah Georgia, would have heard a tremendous variation in pronunciation and word usage from say, what the news was like in the state of Indiana. Today news and media is very interchangeable. So one apparent example of media interacting with our culture can be seen in the disappearing language differences. Word usage and pronunciation is becoming more homogenized through the transfer and learning that takes place in the mass media.

Its becoming harder and harder to deny that violence on TV doesn’t affect children. The typical child watches far more hours of TV by the time they are 18 than time they spend in school. What do they see during that time? They see tens of thousands of violent acts perpetrated either by cartoons, heroes in action series, bad-guys on action movies, over and over again.

The Native American has been damaged by mass media. The American mythology of cowboys, and the process of moving across the west. The cowboys moved across the west glamorously riding horses, a strong sense of freedom, and conquering the land. In reality, the cowboys moved west by moving the Indians out. There are all kinds of misconceptions about cultures created by Hollywood.

The media continually normalizes violence, reinforces racism, and creates myths of who we are as Americans. Advertisement and movies are constantly reinforcing women as sex objects, and rarely as heroes except to throw a twist in a movie or story. The media really reinforces our notions of cultural stereotypes.

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How does language affect relationships?

Different people and different cultures use different words. Men and women also use words differently; even when trying to say similar things. Jay Leno on the Tonight Show recently joked that a study showed men and women interrupt conversations about the same amount, except women do so to add support and understanding while men do so to add their own story. How much of that statement is true?

Language differences exist within each culture as well as across cultural boundaries. There is a real problem in how we communicate. It’s important to always keep a mental note of that, and to make an effort to help others understand us better, and to ask others for clarification when we’re listening and understanding their language.

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How do cultural issues come in to play in a counseling session?

It’s been very popular lately for counselors to get multicultural training or cultural sensitivity training. Some of this training may not be as effective because people often take in information and forget it. There’s so much information about different cultures, and every person is different, it can’t be taught or learned effectively.

In general, say, if you’re African American coming to see a white counselor, it’s important to see if they acknowledge the difference; they are white, and there will be limits to their experience. They will need to ask questions. That’s what you want to look for in a counselor; one who knows the limits of their experience in relation to cultural differences. Whether you’re Russian, Jewish, or Chinese, it’s crucial that the counselor demonstrates sensitivity to your cultural needs, and acknowledges differences in their experience and yours.

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How do different cultures resolve their issues together?

There’s no easy answer to this question. Most of the time if one culture doesn’t have the power to dominate another, natural processes work in bringing these cultures together. A good example would be Quebec in Canada. The French culture and the British Culture have struggled a great deal through the years. For now, they have worked out ways to compliment each other while maintaining boundaries.

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What’s a healthy view of cultural differences?

It’s actually just an extension of a healthy view of human differences. We are very different as individuals.

However, there are issues that create tension between cultures. For example, the oppression of women in the US, versus women in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Despite the fact the US has been, and still is very oppressive to women (through restricting their roles, sexual advertising, referring to women as "girls"), we have disagreement about the "amount" of oppression we’re willing to let another culture put on women.

In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, women were just recently given the right to drive cars, and they are still held to strict behavior guidelines. How much do societies that are a little more progressive, (like the US), react to countries/cultures that treat women with even less respect? Where do we draw the line between difference in culture (none of our business), and our humanity and compassion for people who are oppressed? It’s an ongoing balance to decide how we’re going to view the cultural differences. There isn’t a simple answer. Generally, the idea is that different does not mean wrong. We can learn from others (like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), and continue to grow as individuals, and as a culture.

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Are black people that different from white people?

Human beings are each unique and different and yet very much the same in many ways. Every cultural experience adds to the diversity of individuals. Including the African American sub-culture in the United States, who have a legacy of being discriminated against by a dominant white culture. Whether we’re talking about African race, Caucasian or Asian, in all cases there are differences simply because of race, but there’s more individual differences due to personal development than there is from cultural differences.

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Where does Black Culture come from?

There is an overall trend in the US to value the blending of cultures (erasing unique cultural backgrounds). The white culture has for years attempted to insulate the remnants of African Cultures. African Americans were taken from many cultures, then their cultural preferences were sublimated as the white slave-holders wanted them to.

Parts of the many African Cultures were passed down, but were done so secretly. For instance: marriage ceremonies. In some slave environments, certain aspects of marriage ceremonies from African cultures were able to be retained, however secretly. Slave owners did their best to strip all cultural aspects from African Slaves to sublimate/control them by taking away their cultural identity and freedom.

Combine the stripping of cultural identity with the many different African cultures that existed even on one plantation. On some plantations there may have been even 15 different African cultures, all trying to live together. This made it even more difficult to pass on the specifics of one’s culture.

Despite the cultural stripping, many African Americans have created a new culture instead of swallowing the Euro-American culture of the US. But Black American culture is so diverse, that it’s hard to call it one culture. There are so many pieces and vast individual differences.

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Is culture the same as race?

Absolutely not. We have literally hundreds of cultures in the world, while we have only a handful of races. There may be more things similar between cultural groups of the same race than across cultures of different races, but not much more. Cultural differences are more about human development, and not so much about skin color.

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