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Beyond Culture

If one is working on a project with Israelis and Palestinians, and an email is sent to ten colleagues from each side, nine out of 10 Israelis will rapidly answer, while only one out of 10 Palestinians will respond.

Therefore, Western diplomats, with working habits heavily centered around email, will have a tendency to engage the Israelis more, resulting in an increased impact of their views, as well as an unconscious sense of familiarity with the Israelis – unlike with the Palestinians who will seem disengaged.

Among other more well-known factors, this is a hidden reason for a traditional Western bias towards Israel: its work culture is Western.

Palestinians, like many Arabs, prefer a direct and personal work mode, relying far more on human rather than virtual interaction; and oral rather than written exchanges. This is simply a cultural difference, and one that must be adjusted for by diplomats working between the sides.

That is, if one is even aware of that cultural difference.

Edward T. Hall is one of the great cultural anthropologists of the 20th century. He has produced seminal books on the critical role of culture in our lives. Some of his works include The Hidden Dimension, about cultural differences in the use of space; The Dance of Life, regarding how people in different places perceive and understand time; and Beyond Culture, a summation and integration of his views.

His greatest contribution is that of revealing the presence of an “unconscious culture” in all of us that often goes undetected, hardwired into the deepest recesses of minds and affecting such basic perceptions as the employment of space, the regulation and response to time, as well as to our ‘extensions’: our technological and figurative inventions, such as email in the above example.

Hall elucidated how many human differences are often accounted for by these unconscious cultural habits. These deep-seated assumptions permit us to interact with our own group, but, if we are unaware of them, they can become the source of considerable frictions and misunderstandings with other cultures. Furthermore, if we are unaware of our own most subtle cultural underpinnings, it is most probable that so are the outside cultures that deal with us.

Hall maintains that people in any given culture assume, often wrongly, that how people behave and see the world can easily be carried over to - or be understood in - another place. Sometimes a culture will not imagine in its wildest dreams that an interaction with another is missing some crucial component of understanding of how the two differ in the most seemingly minor, or detailed (but important) aspect. Individuals from different cultures, say an American and a Frenchman, may believe they are each carrying on a predictable transaction when, beneath the surface, cultural expectations may reflect two very different, even conflicting, worlds…

According to Hall, there are three ways of bringing this cultural hard-wiring to the fore of our consciousness, and to realize the underlying pattern: 1) when raising our young and we are forced to articulate and explain to them certain habits 2) by learning about and interacting with other cultures, thus being confronted by foreign habits that may force us to examine our own, and 3) when old systems start to fall apart and the formation of new cultures is demanded.

This awakening to one’s own culture is the beginning of a “cultural literacy” without which we cannot relate effectively to foreign cultures. The assumptions built into us about time, space, social interaction, and other habits are working on “automatic” until this awareness sets in.

In the example of work with Israelis and Palestinians, western diplomats need to become aware that, by instinctively giving priority to email interaction, for instance, they are unintentionally preferring one side. Once this awareness sets in, adjustments can be made to the differing work habits of each side.

In an increasingly interdependent and interactive world, the need for cultural understanding is unavoidable. As old political and social systems begin to falter the need to develop new cultures will become a necessity, and not a luxury. This ability to create “the new” will depend on our ability to recognize “the old” in us, and how our built-in “unconscious culture” is affecting us today.

It is only when we see clearly what is today unconscious and hidden in us that we can transcend its limits.

John Zada