ICS 7: Intercultural Communications
Copyright © 1993 B. A. Collie Collier
My childhood was not what I would call "typical American". We were upper middle class, we moved a lot, our sport of choice (horse-back riding) was practiced by the whole family at once, and we spent time in a foreign country. However, I was never given the feeling that this was significantly different than how other people lived. Indeed, it was not until I was much older that it occurred to me, with a sense of wonder, that my life could not be considered average... that everyone did not do things the way my family did them.
I am of German and Irish ethnic stock. My mother's family came over from Germany many years ago, but they still retained a lot of the old German ceremonies and culture. My father's family was recently (only two generations ago) from Ireland, and there is still a field in Ireland which carries the family name, and has for over 200 years. The Irish side of the family immigrated recently enough that some of the cultural rituals might have remained. However, if they did, they were similar enough to "normal" American that I never noticed them. On the other hand, Christmas at my great-uncle's place has left me with memories of countless wonderful, spicy smelling cookies, huge family gatherings, mysterious, colorful and fascinating presents, a fabulously enormous (to a small child!) stuffed toy snake, and a few German (I think!) rituals which seemed exciting and unusual to me.
We moved a lot. My mother figured out once that by the time I was twenty I had moved 10 times. We never stayed in one place more than five years, and two was the average. This meant that I got exposed to a lot of different places and attitudes. It also meant that I quickly realized the friends I would be making would soon be gone. I don't believe I was ever a very expressive child, and I simply became quieter as I realized that the effort of making friends was a waste of time. This does not mean I did not want friends, or that I was not lonely. It simply meant that I became a passive observer, shielding myself from the pain of parting by never getting close. American culture says people should want other people to be close to, to have as friends. Those who don't put any effort into making friends are considered unusual at best; weird at worst. So I unwittingly started a vicious circle, effectively getting others to help isolate me.
If anyone could be said to have raised me, it would have to be the animals in my life. I know there were always people around, but it was the horses and, most of all, the dogs that were mute testimonies to everything I had been told was admirable. Bravery, honesty, courtesy, loyalty, beauty; the pets of the family were anthropomorphosized by me into expressions of what I should emulate. Since love of animals was acceptable in American culture, I simply became an animal lover. The intensity of this in me might be considered by others to be unusual, but on the whole, acceptable. Thus, through our pets, I found folks who were never judgmental, and always there to be friends with.
When I was about 7, I think, we moved to Spain. Spain was fascinating. For the first time I was, for multiple reasons, a minority. It is a humbling thing, to be a minority. To have everything about you, from your looks, to your mannerisms, to the way you talk, brand you as "not one of us." It is to the credit of both my family and the culture of Spain itself, I think, that this was not a crippling or overly inhibiting experience. I had had extensive preparation in what Spain was like, so that I would be less of a "sore thumb. However, as always, the reality dwarfed all expectations. I am only half joking when I assert that the most patriotic Americans have lived outside the country. Love of country is always both most sincere and easiest when the alternative is an unwanted or unacceptable known.
I was doubtless strongly influenced and aided in my first stumbling attempts at intercultural communication by my father's strict assertions. He firmly believed that we were in their country, and so should make the effort to fit in well, while never forgetting we were American. I'll never forget his explanation of how we should act with people of other nationalities, "You may be the only Americans they ever meet. What you do will be the way they see all Americans. Be polite, always. Never forget, being American is something to be proud of, but being rude isn't." I may not get along with my Dad concerning other subjects, but it was he who taught me how important courtesy was. Whether or not it's your country, it's important to try to make the other person feel comfortable. You only gain by being polite. Thanks, Dad.
Thus I was initially raised in the assertive, inquisitive American culture. In Spain, I was exposed to truly excellent schools which taught me the joy of learning. It was the combination of these two things, I think, which showed me how to be objective about cultures, including my own. Because I didn't spend all my time in America, I didn't completely get the subtle indoctrination each culture gives its young. Spain was able to fascinate me with its diversity, but America taught me how to look objectively, and see both the ugliness and the beauty.
Admittedly, this learned neutrality sometimes- well, often gets me into trouble: objectivity enables you to discern hypocrisy more easily. As one polite friend put it, I don't suffer fools gladly. I also heartily understand and sympathize with what is often called the "stranger in a strange land" syndrome. If you become too objective, all things show some aspect of the ridiculous as well as the sublime. Who wishes to say, "Yes, this is an ignorant, pointless, or even harmful ritual, but it is mine -- and thus I shall blindly observe it, regardless of common sense?" When you find yourself unable to claim any place or society whole-heartedly as a result of this objectivity, where then is home? -what do you claim as yours? Perhaps this is the true reason I study humanity and its cultures with such fascination: someday I hope to find my own.
Last Updated: Tue, 2000-Feb-01