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Understanding Our Culture by Getting Outside It

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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!

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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:   

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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.

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About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.