Understanding Culture

I find myself wanting to blog about Gaelic culture here in Nova Scotia, but I realized that I want to explain a bit about culture in general first.  There will be a post about Nova Scotia Gaelic culture coming up in the not-too-distant future.

I was going to call this entry “Cultural Awareness” to fit with the Gaelic Awareness Month theme, but I decided against it.  “Cultural Awareness” is one of those hollow phrases that sounds all meaningful and intelligent, but really has a very high potential to be overlooked without understanding what it really means.  I find a lot of official government documents use an awful lot of terms like that, but that is another discussion entirely.

“Culture” is very much one of those fluffy words, and everyone knows exactly what it means without really thinking too much about it. Or do they?  If someone who was learning English asked you “What is culture?” – what would you say?  I don’t think any two people would really come up with the exact same explanation.  In fact, even my little dictionary app on my phone gives no less than twelve definitions for the word culture. The kind of culture I’m trying to get at is probably best described by two of these definitions (all emphasis added) :

1. the behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group

2. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another

When I think of culture, it’s the behaviours, beliefs, and ways of living, among other things, that are passed from generation to generation (and that part is really important).  I’m not even going to start getting any deeper than that for now, because I remember trying to “define Canadian culture” in one of my high school classes and it was absolutely unproductive, resulting in some smart kid  summing it all up by sarcastically calling out “hockey and beer!” and the rest of the class agreeing almost unanimously. *sigh*

Now, when it comes to culture, I think a lot of people (but not everyone), especially in Western, “developed” countries, have this habit of thinking that their culture is the “best” culture.  That North American or Western European culture is the model culture that the rest of the world should strive to emulate.  Probably a large portion of the people who still think this way have been raised in a very mono-cultural setting, with little exposure to cultures other than their own.  But maybe other cultures feel that way too?  I wonder if various other cultures look at North American culture and think we’ve got it all wrong and that we should be trying to be more like them? Something to think about.

The thing is, this mentality of “my culture is better than your culture”, no matter which side it’s coming from, is not only just plain silly and wrong, but also I think it is one of the major forces behind language (and culture) loss all over the world.  The British are just one example from history – travelling around the world, attempting to “enlighten” the indigenous cultures they came across by forcing the “superior” English language, education and lifestyles upon them, and cetera.  And when a community is forced (by any means, really – residential schools, for example, or creating and enforcing laws, or even having a completely foreign society show up more or less unannounced to take over your neighbourhood) out of their language, all those cultural things like the behaviours, beliefs and ways of living, start to disappear as well. And all it takes is one generation.  As soon as that one generation changes the information (i.e. the behaviours, beliefs, and ways of living) that they are passing on to their children, the culture starts to change.  You can see that this is where the connection to Nova Scotia Gaelic comes in. And the sad thing is that it wasn’t just Gaelic – just about every indigenous language in Canada, as well as Acadian and even French in Quebec, among others were put in the same situation, all around the same time.

Luckily, I find that most people in today’s day and age are for the most part tolerant of other cultures, although I don’t think that tolerance really indicates understanding.  I sort of get the feeling that some of the mono-cultural North Americans are perfectly fine with other cultures existing in a quiet, passive way, just as long as those other cultures don’t get in the way of their own.  They may not understand the value of those cultures, but at least they are not going to try to force them out of existence.  Of course there are still those who will always believe that “if you come to our country you better learn our ways”, but thankfully they are in the minority.

I think it is so very, very important, especially for “developed”, Western cultures to recognize that there is no “best” culture that everyone should try to be like.  To understand that other cultures aren’t more primitive, or less respectful, they’re just different.  And I don’t mean different like the weird kid in school who wears underpants on his head, I mean think-outside-the-box different.  All cultures are valid and valuable, and having all those different cultures in the world adds to the unique awesomeness of humankind.

If I had taken any courses in anthropology (and I think I would have liked to), I would probably be able to present this in a much more eloquent and informed way, instead of this sort of rambly stream of spewing thoughts.  But I didn’t, so there you have it.

You know who does explain culture in a fantastic and interesting way? Wade Davis. Here’s a short little video clip of him, and here’s a link to where you can listen to his Massey Lectures (or you can read the book).

Also, here’s a neat little article about different cultural takes on time and sleep.


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