About Cultural Differences

Something I’ve been ruminating about for a while is the assumptions people have about cultural differences. There’s an unwritten implication that the subjects learned in school and later experienced as entertainment end up as a consummation of beliefs such as: ‘The West has a history of racism but things are different now’ or: ‘there has been a steady increase in technological innovation and it is going to continue.” One such unwritten (or even unconscious) belief is that things are done in unique ways in different countries, this is how things are, and this is how they always will be. In my limited experience so far, I have witnessed this in small ways. The French really do place more emphasis on their meals, kiss one another on either cheek when greeting and parting, and drink a lot of wine. Germans really are unusually energy conscious, drink lots of mineral water, and put butter on bread even if it doesn’t make much sense. Europeans as a whole do tend to smoke more cigarettes, watch more soccer, and are more invested in politics than we are in the United States.

But what strikes me about different Europeans in different places is not the fact that their are observable cultural distinctions, but that despite our histories, architectures (especially that!), languages, clothing, foods, etc. being so different, there is an underlying sameness. The way I am coming to understand it, I split this sameness into 2 parts: 1 that is worthy of praise and 1 that I would prefer to end. The examples from which I’m drawing include people I’ve spent a lot of time with, as well as similarities I’ve identified between specific groups whose members I’ve come into contact with repeatedly. The first is some kind of a creative impulse. It doesn’t necessarily mean creating in an artistic way, but working towards some kind of goal so that something that doesn’t exist now will exist once the job is done. I’ve seen this with music, literature, and all sorts of learning. 

The other and more obvious part of the European (including North American) sameness is the way modern life standardizes what we do, what we think about, what is important to us, etc. Each Western country consumes massive amounts of entertainment, be it television, music, movies, internet videos, or video games. Each Western country has dominant political beliefs which are either overtly secular (i.e. humanism, feminism, capitalism, socialism) or wrapped in the thin, tattered garments of religion (i.e. Catholicism, Protestantism). Pretty much everyone wants some vague notion of human rights, democracy, and freedom to sweep the world, while allowing the comforts of an easy life to be there for them from cradle to grave.

Walking by heroic or otherwise inspiring statues and pieces of architecture in cities like Boston, Paris, Berlin, Aix-en-Provence, or Barcelona, one gets the sense of a rich variety of European culture which branches off from a similar fighting spirit. The ancestors beckon us to be worthy of past struggles, artwork, and an impossibly long list of accomplishments. The overt sameness is most striking when TV’s and smartphones seduce our imaginations away from physical struggle or appreciating the stars. A few months ago I read on another blog that “No other race of people has looked up to the stars like European Man has.” Of course I have no idea of knowing if that’s true, but I suspect there is a latent tendency in Europeans to know what’s good for them and be perpetually distracted from it. It’s only because of the vapid shopping centers inside of the old and beautiful buildings in Aix for example, that it’s easy for foreigners to keep their eyes ahead of them, and not really get to know either the Roman stones beneath their feet, or the craftsmanship watching over them.

If (and I believe, when) something happens to disrupt our current coma, and entertainment and news propaganda stop being our common denominator, we will refocus towards our collective inner creative tendencies, and different groups will express themselves in markedly different ways.




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