Word World (par Jacques Demorgon)

  • France 2008- Presidence de I’Union europeenne 
  • Frankreich 2008 – Prasidentschaft der Europaischen Union 
  • France 2008 – Presidency of the European Union

How should cultural relationships be experienced and thought out ? by Jacques Demorgon

1/ Understanding the diverse concept of culture

It is essential that all aspects of culture be considered.

In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, culture refers to anthropology, i.e. the way we eat, dress, live and interact in organised societies that control the behaviour of their members.

In the Latin tradition, culture is the promotion of an area and its techniques. Agriculture is the promotion of the earth. Architecture is the promotion of living spaces. There is still a culture that can be called « cultivated ». It aims to be refined. It is a result of its own promotion, to stand out from others, the stratum that holds itself as superior within a society. It is found in the « culture » section of magazines discussing technology and science, literature and art: architecture, theatre, cinema, painting, music and dance.

However, all these aspects fall within the province of a single original biological fact. Human beings are relatively set apart from other animals. Birds do not learn how to build their nests, spiders naturally know how to spin a web.

This deficit is an advantage for humans. Without set natural programmes, we must build and rebuild them according to the various experiences encountered. This constant need to adapt is at the root of culture as a fundamental dimension of human development.

2/ Culture is much more than elitism, it emerges from all human experiences

We make a serious mistake by setting culture apart from human activities. On the contrary, we produce all forms of culture in all our activities.It then follows that economics is part of culture with research, production and marketing techniques. Politics is also related, in terms of the organisation of societies. Similarly, religion seeks to link mankind over the generations (such as ancestor veneration). It also serves as a link considering the very diversity of mankind. At any given time, culture is what we consider worthy of being selected, preserved, transmitted, to be reused. This is how we have the most precious aids available to us: information, communication and action. Anthropological and societal culture – economics, religion, politics – cultivated culture – techniques, aesthetics, science, justice, etc. -together make up the treasure-chest of human experience.

3/ Why are cultures both different and similar?

When we think about cultures, we think about differences. These stand out as key aspects. Differences in clothing and food are therefore very present in our experiences, as is the different related behaviour. Using fingers, chopsticks, spoons, forks, or knives are frequently part of table manners for different people. Cultural differences are often related to geographical areas, their physical and biological differences: landscapes, climates, animals and plants.

Another part of cultural differences stems from the various possibilities of human actions. In parts of Asia, people count in a different way. In the West, we count from our thumb to our little finger: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and change hand to continue to ten. In Japan, people count from 1 to 5, starting with the index finger and finishing with the thumb and continue from 6 to 10 in the same way and on the same hand.

Another source is due to the arbitrary nature of languages. This is remarkably true, once again, with numbers. The number 13 has both positive and negative meanings. It is often left out, whether on hotel room numbers or the number of place settings at a table. In Japan, the number 9 is not favoured because its homonym chu means « pain », « suffering », « grief. It is even worse for the number 4, pronounced « chi », meaning death. On this basis, no gifts of four flowers or four cakes are made. Eggs are counted in fives. Generally speaking, the Japanese prefer odd numbers to even numbers, seeing them as more beneficial.

Colours also hold many a surprise. The colour blue became a positive and even sacred colour in Christianity while the Romans saw it in a rather negative light. In many countries, the colour of grief is not black but white. This is the case in Japan, where people do not usually make a gift of white flowers. All these differences impress us to the point that they prevent us from seeing our similarities between these cultural differences. For example, whether the colour of grief is black or white, in both cases, the absence of a person is symbolised by the removal of all other distinctive colours.

We must go further in understanding these similarities and differences if we want to adapt more to the world’s cultures. We have to recognise that cultures are created by the manifold possibilities of human adaptation. Therefore, in certain cultures, we stay a large distance away from others, or, conversely, we even touch others a lot. There are cultures in which expressions are more exuberant, whereas in others they are more reserved. It is always humans who decide to act one way or another.

4/ Cultural characteristics are heightened by commonly inherited habits and identity-related pride

We have seen that cultural responses are a result of specific environments and also of human adaptations. However, once conducted, repeated and passed on, they become usual responses reused by people and groups. These responses no longer seem to be conventional for them. They are their responses, and, particularly as regards third parties, they become characteristics of people, groups and societies. By becoming habits and identities, culture can become rigid, to the detriment of human adaptations that are still necessary.

5/ Each person must adapt in his/her own culture

If adaptations create cultures, once created, cultures can limit adaptations. We must first of all remember that adaptation must not be considered in a simplified manner. It is not simply acceptance or submission. Human beings must be able to confront the animals that may attack them. Similarly, they must be able to face bad weather, storms, floods, fires, etc. Adaptation is not always directly related to current realities either. Culture is made from realities that we remember or imagine. Consequently, adaptation is also invention. Memories, analyses, anticipations of our experiences help us to understand how our responses change when faced with situations that themselves are changing. As much as we must be open to new things that are necessary for us, we must also be able to cut off to protect ourselves from too many or too hasty stimulations. It is not always easy to know to what extent we must close ourselves away or open ourselves up to the world, to others, to ourselves. From such situations, human beings have been able to see that real adaptation issues structure their experiences. Each situation must be assessed. On this basis, human adaptation fluctuates between more and less openness and closure.

These psychological adaptations are an extension of the physiological adaptations that we know well. Thus, our eye’s pupils close when there is too much light and open when there is not enough. When our movements require additional energy, the heart beats faster. The vasodilatation of our blood vessels works for better circulation. When at rest, our heart rate slows and there is a vasoconstriction of our blood vessels.

As our experience must adapt, our accompanying culture must also follow suit and break away from its own rigid nature. In every culture, it is necessary to be able to modify the usual response as necessary when faced with new situations.

Variations, modifications, reconstructions of common responses require adaptive trial and error, a fair level of fluctuations around a usual cultural response. Regional fluctuations – because cultural responses can vary within a country. Personal fluctuations – because cultural responses vary within a group.

6/ Intracultural and intercultural adaptations: communication

A very illuminating example is that of communication difficulties. Some people have an « implicit » communication culture. They deliberately imply what they mean, supposing that their listeners can understand them all the same. Yet listeners cannot understand if they do not have the same references.

Conversely, some people have an « explicit » communication culture. They suppose that others will not be able to understand unless they give all the necessary references. They sometimes give too many references to their listeners, who are bored by hearing what they already know. Thus implicit and explicit speakers have difficulty communicating, even when they have good command of the other speaker’s language or when they share a language.

This intercultural difficulty is already intracultural. Within each culture, we can be implicit with the people we know and explicit with strangers. This example of communication cultures helps us to understand why the relationship between human adaptation and cultures is so necessary. People with implicit communication are often biased against those with explicit communication. The opposite is as true. The mistake ofculturalism is to confuse cultures and natures.

As regards knowing why in some countries communication is generally more explicit and in others often implicit, this is due to differences in the political history of countries that are more unified or more diversified over the long term. History is a very important source of culture differentiation and we are beginning to understand this.

7/ With globalisation, are we becoming multicultural, transcultural, intercultural?

We have previously used the terms « intercultural » and « intracultural« . However, these terms are not universal. Different countries use different words. In some, the terms « multicultural » and « transcultural » are preferred.

If we look at the separations between people, groups, societies and their cultures, relations are termed « multicultural ». They can be hostile, indifferent or respectful. We move from inhumane segregation to a drive to recognise others, called « multiculturalism ». Multiculturalism is a reference in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and also in continental Europe.

If we look at what brings people, groups and societies together, relationships are often termed transcultural. These transcultural references may be taken from religion or politics. This is the case in France where many people refer to transcultural, republican and secular relationships. Transcultural relationships are promoted by some but not others. However, no religion has become universal, neither has a secular policy.

If we look at interactions between people, groups and societies, relationships are termed « intercultural ». They may be violent and inhumane or humane and full of goodwill. When we speak of intercultural relationships without specifying, we only consider the positive intercultural relationships we would like to develop.

It is neither essential nor preferable to choose between multicultural, transcultural and intercultural perspectives as they interfere in the changing experiences of people, groups and societies.

Let us take a meaningful example. Researcher Nathan Glazer states empirical research demonstrating that in a large sample from the American press, the term « multiculturalism » is absent until 1988. In the same sample, it appears around one hundred times in 1990, 600 times in 1991 and 1,500 times in 1994. The change is visible.

We would like to conclude by giving a very concrete example of this mixture of multicultural, transcultural and intercultural perspectives. We may be surprised to observe that it was written in the 1930s by anthropologist Ralph Linton:

« When our friend [the American citizen] has finished eating he settles back to smoke, an American Indian habit, consuming a plant domesticated in Brazil in either a pipe, derived from the Indians of Virginia, or a cigarette, derived from Mexico. If he is hardy enough he may even attempt a cigar, transmitted to us from the Antilles by way of Spain. While smoking, he reads the news of the day, imprinted in characters invented by the ancient Semites upon a material invented in China by a process invented in Germany. As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles, he will, if he is a good conservative citizen, thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is 100 percent American. « 

(Ralph Linton (1893-1953), The Study of Man. (1936)

There is only a step between Linton’s wisdom at the beginning of the 20th century to current popular wisdom. Here the step is taken in an anonymous text, photocopied and displayed in a Turkish restaurant in the 11tharrondissement in Paris, now printed on postcards:

« Your Christ is Jewish. Your car is Japanese. Your pizza is Italian and your couscous is Algerian. Your democracy is Greek. Your coffee is Brazilian. Your watch is Swiss. Your shirt is Indian. Your radio is Korean. Your holidays are Turkish, Tunisian or Moroccan. Your numbers are Arab, Your writing is Latin… and you criticise your neighbour for being foreign! »

Turkish restaurant in the 11th ar. in Paris now printed on postcards

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