When I see someone who is of a race or a nationality that is very different from mine, it seems obvious that this person is from a different culture than my own. It is not as obvious to me what my own culture is or even that I have one. This is because my culture is my definition and experience of ‘normal.’

The words of the cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, stopped me in my tracks one day. He said:

Individual flower

“There is an underlying, hidden level of culture that is highly patterned – a set of unspoken, implicit rules of behavior and thought that controls everything we do.”

Yikes! What are these implicit rules that control everything I do?

I came to understand that they are my norms – those unwritten rules that I learned from my parents, my teachers, and other significant people in my life. For example, I was taught as a female that I must always sit with my legs closed. I cannot walk alone at night, and I am always to be on my guard around strangers, especially male strangers. Oh yes, and I always need to wear clean underwear in case I get in an accident and have to be taken to a hospital. These unwritten rules and countless more are part of my reality, the way I live my life.

Elena Hernandez. Photo by Photo by Barbara Byrd.
Elena Hernandez shares aspects of her cultural self at the Union Women’s Leadership Conference at Sonoma State University.

What is it you do because someone told you it was what you had to do to “be good” and to live “the right way?” How many of these unwritten rules are now automatic behavior for you?

My culture also consists of my beliefs and my values. Some of our beliefs change over time, but our values – those beliefs that are deeply held – change much more slowly. For example, I grew up believing that if I didn’t go to Catholic mass every Sunday, I would go to hell. That belief has shifted over many years to become more open and less fear-based. Indeed, I question the existence of hell as a place. If anything, it is the deep suffering and persecution of people, which happens here on earth. In the days when I believed in the hellish consequences of not going to mass, I was in church every Sunday whether I found it spiritually nourishing or not.

Values, on the other hand, are those beliefs that are very near and dear to us. For example, I value my freedom and financial independence as a woman. As a result, it has always been a priority for me to make enough money to support my family and myself.

My norms, beliefs, and values affect my perceptions and my assumptions. If my culture is what is ‘normal,’ then what I see and what I think about others will be through the lens of my ‘normal.’ If another woman chooses to allow her husband to support her, my strong value around financial independence might result in my negatively judging this woman, rejecting her ideas, and possibly shutting her out completely. This whole shutting out can take place in the blink of an eye.

My culture – my norms, beliefs, and values that affect my perceptions and assumptions – is both a wonderful and a limiting aspect of who I am. My culture is wonderful and necessary because it tells me who I am; it grounds me in a people, a place, and a time. My culture also limits me because it can shut out others and/or keep me from experiencing and appreciating the creative diversity that is all around me.

If we believe that we are all interconnected at a spiritual level, then a key to creating a more inclusive environment is to first become aware of our own culture. For me this is an ongoing process. I am continually examining my norms, my beliefs, and my values. Noticing my perceptions, assumptions, and judgments can give me insight into my core beliefs, values, and behaviors.

I realize that you have had a difference set of parents and teachers who have given you a different set of norms, beliefs, and values. Now that I am aware of my own, I can become curious about learning more about yours. I may not agree with some of your values and beliefs, but I can make room for them and have compassion for your life experience, while I also maintain my own sense of what is right for me.

Through this ongoing process of expansion of awareness, deep listening and discernment, I can respect your culture while nurturing my own. I can also begin to consider what may be some shared values for our community and society.

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