Sunday, February 28, 2016

What we assume that just ain't so (not always, anyway)

What cultural assumption inform your reaction to this photo?

I find it interesting that my workplace is among the most diverse in Arkansas. I don't have statistics to prove this, but the fact that I have colleagues from four different countries (EXcluding the US) and that most of the teaching staff has lived for varying amounts of time out of the US, I think I can safely make that assumption. In addition, everyday we work with only international students, so we have a pretty international worldview as far as US workplaces are concerned.

Yet, I'm often amused (and occasionally disappointed) by how Western and distinctly American is our advice to students. Many a time I've sat in my office listening to an instructor give life advice to a student that has caused me to think, "But that's so outside what they would see as cultural accurate or appropriate!" In any culture, we are often blind to the assumptions that we have about life, about what is most valuable and desirable. Evidently, even those with cross-cultural experience often fail to note it.

 Yesterday I was reading the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services Refugee Co-sponsorship Guide. In it was this list of characteristic descriptors of US culture. I thought it was a good, accurate list.

  • A belief in rugged individualism where people see themselves as independent and autonomous, rather than integrally related to a family unit or ethnic group
  • A system whereby positions and material resources are given as rewards for personal achievement, not based on need
  • A concern for efficiency and for solving problems in a pragmatic way, regardless of personal feelings
  • A limited need for privacy, other than physical privacy
  • A preference for separation of the elderly from the rest of society
  • An acceptance of displays of affection in public
  • An expectation that families will often be separated by long distances
  • A lack of acceptance of the world as it is and strong efforts to change it
  • A view that mental, managerial, and scientific labor is inherently superior to manual and service-oriented labor
  • A rational worldview where events can be explained and reasons for particular occurrences can be determined, rather than a belief in fate
  • A confidence that people with opposing viewpoints can be faced directly and intentionally confronted
  • A social order where the primary motivation is competition rather than cooperation

Your thoughts?


  1. I think anyone who does not share those view points will struggle, but I think there are plenty of Americans who do not share them. So it may be called the dominant American culture. I think it's best to assume not all Americans share the same culture. There are numerous "different worlds" that shape people here.

    1. That is a good point. I assumed that and, thus, thought it went without saying.

      That is, I assume that anytime one generalizes about an entire culture (especially one as large and widespread as US culture), those generalizations are simply that: generalizations. They describe dominant characteristics and the overarching ethos of the culture, not every individual person.

  2. Hi there! My name is Melody and I am the Volunteer and Outreach Specialist with MCC: Refugee Services. I'm so glad that our Co-Sponsorship Guide has been helpful for you. I strive to educate and support my volunteers in their own journey as they develop relationships with refugees and find their own standard belief and thought systems challenged and many time changed forever.

    Also, a side note...I used to live in Joplin, MO, and frequently visited friends in Fayetteville. Such a great town!

    1. Thank you for the comment. The guide has been helpful. Actually, I'm volunteering with a startup refugee support organization, and this was amongst the reading we've been doing.