A few years ago I was in India and I met a travel writer for Outdoor magazine. We chatted about life, travel, writing. I was a little jealous of his life and work. I had overheard him talking to an Indian guy about his wife and so I asked about his family. He told me that he wasn’t actually married, but in Indian culture it made sense to refer to his partner as wife.
I understood why he did so. I was also there with my wife Supriya, although at the time she was my girlfriend. We had gone for a walk in Pune one night, we held hands and, looking for a place to buy water, made our way into a roadside pub. Almost immediately Supriya’s cousin Biyah appeared to ask why we were there? It seems we had violated a number of unspoken cultural taboos. Taboos such as: Holding hands. A woman in a bar.
Biyah was kind and graciously let us know that we were putting our reputation at stake. I wasn’t exactly sure why this was so, but I appreciated his concern and moved on. This time Supriya and I walked at a respectful distance from one another.
Looking back it is easy to take an incident like this and come up with some sweeping generalizations. To see some new key concept about Indian morality, culture, male-female roles, or any number of other issues. That is the problem.
It is easy to take one incident and make up an entire theory. Most of the time we are wrong. In fact one of the simplest but most common way in which people misunderstand another culture is in this way.
Thinking that one incident is more important than it is.
In trying hard to understand another culture we can revere it a little too much. Give too deep a reading. Try to understand the depths a little too far. Cultures are deep, very deep and complex, but my deep and complex theories about cultures are usually far from reality.
To illustrate, consider a headscarf. This is a piece of clothing worn by millions if not billions of people around the world. What do you think when you see a person wearing one? If a headscarf makes you think of oppression, restriction and a lack of women’s rights then when you try to understand why a person might wear this particular piece of clothing, you might ask your questions from a certain (often intense) perspective.
Instead of a cheery, “so why do you wear a scarf?” the question becomes something like “Why do you have to wear a scarf?” This difference in the question is really important.
How you ask a question says more about what you think about the culture than what you want to discover.
The woman being asked the question may think of a burka much like you think of a pair of socks … she has never considered why she ‘has’ to wear the scarf, it is just what normal people do. Why don’t you?
Have you ever misunderstood a person from another culture?