One of my colleagues has a neat little trick.
Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation—especially if things are heated or tense or confusing—they’ll pause, and they’ll say something like:
“I’m sorry, but—look. In my culture…”
…and then they’ll go on to explain something that one might easily mistake for a rule, or a request, or the enforcement of a social norm, but which is actually (as far as I can tell) just a statement about the version of the world they carry around inside their head.
Because none of us quite have the same culture, after all. We all differ in different ways from the Basic Package—even those of us who’ve lived in the same towns, gone to the same schools, worked in the same industries, played the same sports, read the same books, watched the same shows—we’ve all got our own unique little takes, built up out of the odd quirks of our parents, tiny traumas and formative experiences, countless accumulated musings about how Things Could Be So Much Better If Everyone Would Just _________!
And so Your Culture, though it might match mine at a thousand different points, will also be noticeably different at a thousand others. You and I would found different churches, write different constitutions, build different schools and startups—
—and we would recognize different things as trespasses or offenses, and react to those trespasses and offenses in different ways.
“They must talk to each other directly, Ender, mind to mind. What one thinks, another can also think; what one remembers, another can also remember. Why would they ever develop language? Why would they ever learn to read and write? How would they know what reading and writing were if they saw them? Or signals? Or numbers? Or anything that we use to communicate? This isn’t just a matter of translating from one language to another. They don’t have a language at all. We used every means we could think of to communicate with them, but they don’t even have the machinery to know we’re signaling. And maybe they’ve been trying to think to us, and they can’t understand why we don’t respond.”
“So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.”
“If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you.”
There’s a particular school of therapy called Internal Family Systems, which was founded on the basic insight that a lot of the stuff we’d come up with for mediating conflicts between family members could also be used for handling disagreements within oneself. Identify conflicting impulses, goals, and restraints, loosely anthropomorphize them as child-figures or parent-figures or spouse-figures or sibling-figures, and treat them with the same sort of respect you’d offer real quarreling humans, and voilà—suddenly a bunch of interpersonal tools and skills can be used to make personal therapeutic progress.
In a similar fashion, my colleague has been doing something like adapting the tools of international diplomacy for use in difficult conversations between family and friends and coworkers. Not by demanding that everyone follow their rules, and not by asserting any one culture’s superiority over another, but simply by acknowledging the fact that their culture meaningfully differs from everyone else’s. By taking that fact seriously, the same way that diplomats do, and putting forth conscious effort to work sensibly around it.
I don’t claim to know what’s going on in my colleague’s head, but from the outside, the process I see looks something like this:
- Someone will make a move that’s generally known to be okay in the broader context culture, but which would be recognized as mildly offensive or blasphemous if everyone were on the exact same cultural page as my colleague (like offering a handshake to a business partner from Thailand).
- They’ll pause, and do their best to make that aspect of their culture transparent and accessible and comprehensible—“in my culture, if someone is in the middle of a thought the way I just was, and somebody else interrupts in the fashion that just happened, this is generally interpreted to mean X, Y, and Z about what was going on in both our heads and what our relative positions are and so forth, and it has such-and-such ripples through the social fabric of the conversation, and as a side note I get the sense that you expect me to be able to just pick back up in the middle of the sentence but actually this isn’t a reasonable expectation because in my culture thoughts don’t quite work like that.” The emphasis is always on clarifying the sort of Rube Goldberg causal structure of the culture—if you push button A, you’ll get effect B, and if you want effect C, you should push button D, and here’s why those specific if-then relationships make sense in context.
- If necessary, they’ll ask for clarification about the other person’s culture. If, say, it wasn’t entirely clear how the other person might have thought their actions were good and correct, or if there’s any lingering resentment about the trespass that might be cleared up by a richer understanding of where the other person was coming from.
- Occasionally, there’ll be a negotiation about which norms should be adopted in the larger context—whether side A’s norms, or side B’s norms, or a specific compromise between the two, or a set of triggers for distinguishing when to do A versus when to do B. More often, though, it’s simply left up to everyone to do what makes sense, given both the knowledge that things-will-sometimes-land-this-way and the knowledge that this doesn’t compel anyone to change their behavior in any particular way.
(It happens to be a part of this particular conversational culture that sharing something about yourself is distinct from making a request of others; i.e. you can say “X results in me being sad” without implying “if you continue to do X, you’re bad/will be interpreted as intentionally trying to harm me.”)
I find this beautiful. Beautiful enough that it is now one of the foremost elements of my culture—that in my culture, this is a move people can make, and which I myself will make unilaterally. Not only does it allow me to reduce the number of unnecessary spats and misunderstandings to the theoretical minimum—
(i.e. fewer and fewer trespasses happen “for no reason;” I and my conversational partners asymptotically approach a state in which all the disagreements are real disagreements, and not just translation confusions over what was intended by a given hand gesture or conversational move)
—but it also gives me a glimpse into each person’s vision of utopia. The tiny flaws that each person sees in the larger culture around them, the tiny little fixes and wishes that they’ve built up in themselves over the years—when I’m embedded within a subculture that does this kind of cooperative conversational anthropology on the regular, it feels like I’m constantly expanding my sense of what-better-worlds-are-possible.
And there’s something particularly attractive (to me) about the frame of “this is already true in my culture.” It’s sort of like the NVC shift of expressing emotions and impacts rather than claims about other people’s intentions—even if you’re the only person with your particular culture, you are an example of it working, and so it’s less about arguing over the shared normspace and more about just laying out options and alternatives. “This is how it works for the people of Duncanland” is simultaneously more true and less confrontational than “but we all know we should X” or “obviously things would be better if Y” or “I can’t believe you would Z!”
(I think this applies all over the place. It’s often easy for requests of a cultural nature to either slide toward, or be interpreted as, something like “change your behavior to match my cultural expectations, or be seen as a bad person.” And naturally, even the perception that that’s what’s happening is enough to make some people dig in their heels—from that perspective, someone’s trying to move the overall culture to a new setpoint, and also preemptively allocating the costs of that shift. That’s the sort of thing that will reliably produce resistance in some fraction of humans, no matter the nature or magnitude of the request.
Whereas a statement like, “Oh, in my culture we do X, and we find this low-cost and mundane” highlights an opportunity for greater cooperativeness, but falls short of being a demand. The frame creates a boundary right from the start—this is my culture, not everyone’s culture, and therefore conformity is … contingent on relationship, or something? Like, you’ll certainly need to up your game in this area if you want to do a lot of business with me, but to the extent that our interactions are confined to the broader context culture, and to the extent that the norms I’m personally comfortable with are not actually universal in that culture, it’s more a matter of politeness/friendliness/extra credit. There’s a strong implication that your nonconformity, as long as it’s not clearly antagonistic, will be taken in good faith, just as someone from Greece will likely forgive you if you happen to forget that a thumbs-up is a rude gesture in their home culture. And surprise surprise, that gentler version is often more successful at getting people to willingly and cheerfully put forth effort than a version that is perceived as being tinged with demand or threat or judgment.)
And sure, it’s true that none of us actually have perfect introspection, and that maybe we think of things as being part of our personal culture that aren’t in practice, or we mislabel and misdescribe them, and maybe there are things that kind-of-work for us as individuals that would actually be disastrous if they were installed for everyone, and so on and so on. Perhaps simply declaring “in my culture, X is true” is overconfident or misleading.
But it seems much less overconfident than declaring “X is true for everyone,” or “X should be true for everyone,” and so it feels to me like a step in the right direction, even if it glosses over some important uncertainty/humility.
I want to zoom in for a moment and give some examples of the sorts of things that might fill in the blank after the words “in my culture.”
- What interactions between different classes of people are or are not okay (e.g. whether a high-school teacher can or can’t give their students permission to refer to them by their first name).
- What certain actions are widely interpreted to mean (e.g. “everybody knows” that if you plead the fifth, it’s because you’re guilty).
- What obligations you have when discussing controversial topics (e.g. whether you have a responsibility to include historical context, or a responsibility to remain dispassionate and logical).
- What sorts of idiosyncrasies are defections (e.g. whether it’s okay to go to a party and be the only one who remains sober).
- The “rules of engagement” for various levels of disagreement or antagonism (e.g. whether it’s justified to engage in otherwise-disallowed behavior if it’s in response to someone else doing it first).
- The order and ranking of swear words and epithets; which curses are mild and which are unspeakable and unforgivable.
- What things are sacred and what things may be mocked.
- Whether or not birthdays and anniversaries are special.
- When and how to decide between focusing on people’s feelings and interpretations in a way that doesn’t particularly care about the truth of the matter (which is often useful for healing and processing) versus focusing on cause and effect and objectively verifiable truth (which is often useful for a lot of other things).
- What it’s okay for an employer to ask of its employees, and whether or not society should put limits on what adults can freely agree to (e.g. questions about mandated minimum wage).
- Which side of an argument or disagreement is the default, and which bears the burden of proof, and how that decision is made, and whether it’s made implicitly or explicitly.
- Whether or not cargo shorts are a valid thing to wear, and whether or not the question “are cargo shorts a valid thing to wear?” is a valid one to pose.
The above list was generated mostly by me trying to recall examples of times I’ve found myself in disagreement with other white, college-educated, non-religious, American-raised, upper-middle-class males, to show that even people who look extremely similar to me on paper can still have meaningfully different cultures. And of course, that list could easily have been hundreds or thousands of entries long.
One important thing to note is that even the smallest and most trivial entries (like the cargo shorts thing) are more than enough to send destabilizing waves rippling through the social fabric—to turn a good evening into a bad one, for instance, or to spark long-lasting antipathy between people who were otherwise getting along just fine. The TV show Seinfeld got endless mileage out of just this sort of cultural mismatch, and it was resonant and successful in part because that sort of thing happens all the time. It’s sort of tragic, and it would be nice if we could do better, but as things currently stand it’s a part of our social reality.
This is part of why the diplomatic approach gives me cautious hope. It seems like a hammer in a world full of nails—the sort of thing that might actually make a difference, both in the moment and in the aggregate.
In that spirit, I’d like to take the remainder of this essay to outline a dozen or so of the more important and idiosyncratic customs that are native to my culture. It may be that none of them seem interesting to you, or worth the effort, but it may be that some of them are small gifts you’ll feel like giving me, on the level of learning to say “thank you” in someone’s native tongue, and it may be that some of them are worth taking home and tossing into your own cultural stew.
One last thought, though, before diving in to my own norms and traditions: there’s a difference between
noticing that there are many different cultures, and wanting to find a context culture that allows them to communicate and cooperate to the extent that there is mutual desire to do so
treating all cultures as fundamentally equally good or valid.
I don’t want to take a firm stance on the latter question in this particular essay. I certainly have opinions, but those opinions have enough doubt and fog and uncertainty that they’re not worth promoting. I simply want it noticed that you can advocate for the former (for practical reasons) without advocating for the latter (which seems like more of a moral or ethical question). Even when the US and the USSR were at each other’s throats over a conflict of cultures, they still were able to recognize the instrumental value of having a red phone, and that seems to me like it was the right move.
In my culture, everybody simply takes for granted the existence of a larger context culture that exists to foster communication, cooperation, conversation, compromise, and so on and so forth. It’s understood that this context culture emerged over the course of long, hard millennia of trial and error, with lots of death and suffering and war and outrage along the way, and that, while it’s far from perfect, it’s absolutely critical to the safety and success that those of us currently living in the developed, modern world rely upon and enjoy.
(For instance, the founding fathers of America were certainly aware of the flaws in the concept of religious freedom, but they rightly recognized that those flaws were vastly less terrible than the history of war and persecution and oppression that came from attempts to constrain how people worship.)
It’s understood that attempts to change this context culture are fraught with risk, and that sometimes even shining too bright of a light on its faults and failings can be a mistake. This is because, in any given room of 100 people, at least some will misunderstand a claim of “some part of this is bad” to mean “this whole thing is bad.” And of those, some will go on to virtuously attempt to tear down the whole thing, not realizing that they’re digging away at the foundation that lets us have any sort of civilization at all.
(To continue the religious freedom example, it’s often not clear to a young idealist why even saying the sentence “hey, is religious freedom actually the right way to go?” out loud in a public forum might be treated as a risky or dangerous act, especially given other cornerstones of our context culture like the enshrined freedom of personal expression. But in fact the sort of unofficial social pressure that is often brought to bear to discourage such expressions is an important part of the context culture’s immune system. Turns out that such sentences are often a prelude to atrocity, and even when they aren’t, it turns out that it’s reasonable for people to experience a kind of background elevated stress in response to hearing them, and even when it’s not reasonable, turns out some people will anyway, with corresponding downstream effects, and that wishing this weren’t the case or talking about how it shouldn’t be the case doesn’t actually fix it, and that much of the time we’d rather keep on quietly and imperfectly cooperating than engage with or tolerate a literally endless series of erosive complaints and suggestions.)
Thus, it’s known and acknowledged (in my culture) that all of the expressions below are things which may not be possible in the broader context culture. They are things which may be negotiated away in the service of building a world that accommodates more people. They are things which may occasionally be sacrificed, for the sake of collaboration across cultural lines. They are things which it is easy to find oneself arguing for with language that implies that disagreement is tantamount to defection—that one is either with you, and on the side of goodness and rightness, or on the other side—and in my culture we take the stance that letting oneself get away with that kind of slippery narrativemancy is a meaningful transgression against the larger context culture that lets us all live side by side in relative peace.
And so, to the extent that we want to continue cooperating with people of other cultures (i.e. to the extent that there is a diplomatic summit going on that you want to be a part of and are willing to make tradeoffs to stay a part of), people in my culture acknowledge that it is important to be careful, and to be charitable, and to prepare for one’s care and charity to be insufficient, and to be wary of poking holes in the social fabric, and to be ready to repair those holes that will inevitably accidentally be poked, and to—when writing an essay such as this one—take pains to draw a bright and solid line between “this is how it is in my home culture” and “this is a bid that the overall context culture shift in my direction,” and to not immediately dismiss a claim that we did not draw that line brightly and solidly enough.
Another way to put this is that, in my culture, if you want to engage in an act of civil disobedience in order to change the culture around you, it’s important that you at least stick around and let them arrest you and put you in jail. Otherwise (so say my cultural norms) you won’t be interpreted as trying to cooperatively influence that context culture, but rather as trying to outright undermine it and replace it with your own.
(Which is sometimes justified, to be clear. Sometimes you are trying to break the context culture, because the context culture is rounding up and murdering Jews and you symbolically going to jail won’t actually accomplish anything. The point is not that you should always cooperate with the context culture, but that you can’t have your cake and eat it too—you can either cooperate with it or break from it, and you should pick.)
(It’s worth noting that these points are so obvious in my culture that the first draft of this essay excluded them entirely, and my friends had to remind me to make them explicit. I just took it for granted that the rest of the post would be interpreted in that light, which is not at all obvious to people in cultures even only just a little bit different from mine.)
In my culture, with the exception of certain subsets of neuroatypicals or disabled persons, it is assumed that the vast majority of people over the age of (say) eight or nine are straightforwardly acting in accordance with their will.
This is not to say that people don’t make mistakes. It’s not ignoring the fact that people often have their options constrained by circumstance. It’s not meant to legitimize or trivialize things like oppression and coercion and abuse.
But in general, for most people, most of the time, the assumption is that you are doing things mostly on purpose, and that the sum of your inner values is revealed through your visible actions—that you are pretty much always choosing your most-preferred option from the options available. In my culture, there isn’t really any such thing as akrasia, or a persistent inability to act in line with your values. It’s understood that people often have aspirational values—things which they genuinely wish they could express in their actions even though they currently kind of don’t—but in general if you’re not acting in line with those, it’s assumed that it’s because you have some other (possibly hidden) wants that are getting in the way.
Thus, in my culture, it’s considered reasonable and standard for people to model you and react to you as if you generally want and endorse the things you generally do. Your revealed preferences are taken to be a reflection of your net values in all but a few special cases. Hence, apologies are treated as falling somewhere between predictions and promises—if you are genuinely sorry, then in my culture you will demonstrate it through future action that meaningfully differs from past action. And if your future actions continue to resemble the past, people in my culture will conclude both that you weren’t actually sorry and also perhaps that your word can’t really be trusted in general.
(Another way to say this is that, in my culture, you get to decide what’s true inside your head, but other people are justified and supported in making predictions and taking actions based on what you do in the world. If you have a mood disorder that makes you judgmental and suspicious and unpredictably mean twenty percent of the time, you’re welcome to say “that’s not really me,” but other people are not mistreating you or morally bankrupt if they decide not to take the risk and end up avoiding you altogether—if, in essence, they behave toward you as if that really is part of your character.)
In my culture, it’s understood that emotions can be right or wrong—or, to use less charged language, they can be appropriate responses to a situation, or they can be inappropriate responses. In the latter case, it is absolutely still a sacred right to have the emotion (no one in my culture can tell you that you should feel a different way than you feel), but what you do with that emotion is constrained by social norms.
This means that if Alex does something, and Bailey becomes angry, and furthermore if both Alex and Bailey want to avoid such situations in the future, the fix could be on either side. It’s neither obviously on Alex to stop doing the thing, nor obviously on Bailey to leash their anger. Instead, the question at hand becomes something like “what actually happened? What are the relevant contextual details? How reasonable is it for Bailey to feel a sense of trespass at Alex’s actions? Was a commonly-acknowledged boundary violated? What about a rarely-acknowledged-but-previously-communicated-and-agreed-upon one? Sometimes people jump to conclusions, or make wrong guesses at motives, or get angry at a made-up caricature of the other person—is that happening in this case, or is Bailey’s anger a straightforward response to Alex’s observable actions?”
This may sound trivial or obvious, but it’s important to note that what this means, in practice, is that sometimes I will feel wronged, and I will act in what feels like defense of myself or of important principles, and afterward I will have to apologize (and possibly accept punishment), because it will be deemed that my sense-of-being-wronged and my subsequent actions were not, in fact, an appropriate or justified reaction to the situation. In my culture, when we find ourselves on the wrong side of judgment in this way, we often suck it up and make public peace even if we still hold resentment or uncertainty on the inside. Because otherwise—if your peers can’t ask for surface-level amends unless and until you’ve made a deep, internal update—you could simply get away with anything by sort of … weaponizedly never-noticing-you-were-wrong?
To put it another way, in my culture, sometimes one’s personal satisfaction must come second to a sort of public dance which maintains the norms and standards of the group as a whole, and those norms and standards are seen as sensible and necessary and worthy of occasional personal sacrifice.
In my culture, there are limits to the judgments you can hold about a person, and the predictions you can make about them, and those limits are derived from the complete set of your previous experiences of that person, leaving out nothing.
Another way to say this is that, in my culture, vague suspicions and unfounded intuitions are allowed only insofar as they are openly flagged as such, and in general will not carry much weight when they’re in conflict with a consistent, coherent, observable record.
(Although if a vague suspicion or unfounded intuition is born out, then the person who registered it will have earned a solid point in favor of being good at making accurate predictions that run counter to existing data.)
This also means that updates about a person must be gradual and Bayesian, and that in general people are expected to seek the smallest possible update. If a seemingly loyal colleague has seemingly betrayed you, you are obligated in my culture to be confused and curious and look for alternate explanations, rather than leaping straight to a new story which contradicts all of your prior evidence. If you learn an unpleasant secret about someone (e.g. that they privately abuse heroin), your update is confined to the domain of that secret, and can’t be used to invalidate or dismiss their record of e.g. completing work projects on time or being kind to animals and the elderly.
(You might easily still be justified in firing them, if they are your employee, or ceasing to associate with them, if they are your friend. For instance, the new data might actually be relevant to your estimate of entangled qualities like their integrity or conscientiousness or decisionmaking or trustworthiness. But in general, even if the new data is damning, people in my culture make a conscious effort to compensate for the human impulse to round everything off to a single answer. Sometimes people aren’t simple or straightforward, and in my culture you can object to the costs associated with one trait without unjustly and inaccurately lowering your evaluation of the rest.)
Symmetrically, in my culture, there are limits to the kinds of claims you can make about yourself. If someone does not believe that you have Trait X, and you believe that you do, you’re not allowed to just declare that you do, and expect them to update. Instead, the most you can do is say something like “Look, of course you’re going to hold this with some skepticism, I endorse that—not that you needed me to endorse it, it’s not like you need my permission—but I claim I have Trait X, and I’d like you to accept that as a hypothesis, and give me a chance to prove it. Like, I’m requesting that you keep your radar open and be receptive to evidence on this question.”
In my culture, unless you’ve made a specific commitment to the contrary, you can end any conversation at any time.
There are ways to do this which might be blunt or rude or cruel, and people might dock you social points for your bluntness or rudeness or cruelty.
But they will not dock you points for the leaving itself. In my culture, you do not owe anyone your attention, your ear, or your thoughts. If you and I were romantically engaged, and we broke up, and I am desperate for closure, that is my problem, not yours. If you want to provide me the opportunity to talk further, that’s great, but I have no right to demand it, and if I’m being pushy, other people will step in to remind you that you’re morally justified in simply cutting me off.
In my culture, if I cover the check and you agree to PayPal me your share, it is not up to me to remind you.
In my culture, if I lend you a book, I should not have to ask for it back.
In my culture, if you break something that I own, it goes without saying that you will take the initiative to replace it, or reimburse me, or make it up to me in some other fashion.
In my culture, failing to fulfill an obligation until someone else reminds you to do so is itself viewed as a transgression. It’s seen as imposing an additional cost upon your creditor, and onlookers will tend to notice that, and remember. There’s an instrumental argument for people to remind you anyway (since otherwise they might never get what you owe them), but in that case, it’s understood that you’ve lost an additional point, and have to either accept that fact or make up for it with some kind of concrete action.
In my culture, if you’re going to a Cirque du Soleil show, and one of your friends is a gymnast, it is viewed as slightly rude to fail to think of inviting them. Ditto if you’re planning a night of Magic: the Gathering and one of your friends is always lamenting a lack of people to play with.
You don’t have to actually invite them, if there’s reason not to. For instance, if you simply wouldn’t enjoy their company, or if they’re incompatible with someone else who’s already going. But it’s expected that you will pause to ask yourself the question. That you will notice the opportunity to include them, especially if their interest is sufficiently well-known that they might reasonably expect their name to come to mind. To fail to do so twice in a row will undoubtedly be taken as a signal that you dislike them or don’t particularly care for them or are willing to prioritize other things above their preferences in this domain, and they will update their expectations with regards to you accordingly.
(There’s an interpretation of this which sounds vaguely threatening, à la “invite me or else.” But in my culture it’s actually much gentler and more stoic than that—it’s more like “invite me, or I’ll update toward believing that you’re not the kind of person who will invite me.” That doesn’t have a strong moral shading of any kind, in my culture—it’s just using the past to make predictions about the future.)
In my culture, it is seen as trivially obvious that if a friend has to ask you whether or not you want a hug, the friendship is weak enough that the hug will probably not be particularly nourishing in the first place (since it comes with a reminder of distance and insecurity).
This is not to say that all hugs are always welcome—it’s a bad idea to simply hug people willy-nilly, or to offer hugs as a way to cargo-cult your way into a closer relationship. If you’re not sure, you ask anyway and pay the distance cost, or you just don’t hug at all.
Rather, the thing you aim for is to grow your friendship to the point where your friend knows you well enough, and feels secure enough in their relationship with you, that they can tell when you need a hug, and aren’t the slightest bit anxious that it’ll be taken badly if they happen to be wrong.
In my culture, birthdays matter, and celebrating birthdays matters, and remembering to celebrate birthdays matters, and actually knowing what kind of celebration will be warm and wanted is more important and more highly valued than the mere desire to do so.
(Another way to say this is that, in my culture, the thought does count, but other things count more.)
In my culture, we play punch bug.
In my culture, if I’m trying to help you, it’s important both that it’s not about me and that it doesn’t seem, on the surface, that it’s about me.
(Note the “if.” Sometimes, the situation can be more complex, and my primary goal is not simply to help you, but to investigate a situation, or to protect myself along with you, or to preserve community norms and standards, etc.)
But if I’m actually in it for your benefit, as opposed to because your feeling bad makes me feel bad and what I really want is to stop feeling bad myself—
If that is the case, then it’s important to avoid setting up a dynamic whereby you, who are already struggling and low on resources, feel pressure to reassure me. I don’t want to make it seem like my own failure to help will mean that I will not be okay, such that you have to put on a mask and pretend to have been helped, regardless of whether or not you really have. In my culture, we recognize that this is the opposite of helping—it’s adding yet another item onto the pile of stuff you have to deal with.
(Which is not to say that I’m not allowed to feel distress, and possibly take actions in accordance with that distress, when someone else is sending up distressing signals. If you express extreme depression and suicidal impulses to me, for instance, of course I’m going to have an emotional reaction.)
But absent any of those other considerations—if it’s just you and me in a room and my goal is to help—if I want to have any chance of actually helping you, it’s understood in my culture that it has to be clear that my own ego is not relevantly in the mix. It has to be clear that I’m okay with you being sad/mad/stressed. It has to be clear that I’m there to offer you tools and support to get at the root cause, not to punish you for your symptoms, and furthermore that if you don’t want my tools and support, or don’t find them helpful in the end, that’s okay too.
In my culture, we distinguish between what a situation looks like and what it actually is.
When we can’t tell the difference, we intentionally form two reactions—one appropriate for each possibility—and we take only provisional and reversible actions (or actions that are good in both branches of possibility) until we have some hint as to what’s actually true.
(To make this more concrete: in my culture, there simply isn’t anything like the Duke lacrosse scandal. That sort of unjustified public excoriation just doesn’t happen.)
In my culture, we believe that a peace treaty is not a suicide pact.
Civilization works (at least in part) by mutual agreement to set aside options. As the Freud quote goes, “the first person to hurl an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” We learn in kindergarten not to hit each other as a method of expressing disagreement—we mutually sacrifice that option, trading the ability to hit at will for the safety of not having to be constantly on alert against being hit.
But in my culture, there’s a distinction between “I agree to follow these rules with everyone I interact with” and “I agree to follow these rules with everyone who also agrees with them.”
This can be tricky when it comes to balancing my culture with the needs of the broader context culture that allows us all to coexist. If Lord Duellington comes from a culture where people get into duels over perceived insults, it needs to be really crystal clear to everyone else at the diplomatic summit that Lord Duellington really understands that this aspect of his culture is not shared, and that there is zero chance that Lord Duellington will propose a duel, regardless of how insulted he perceives himself to be.
Even the mere perception of Lord Duellington as a loose cannon who cannot distinguish between [his own local culture] and [what’s agreed-upon by everyone present] is costly, regardless of whether or not it’s true, because it results in a dynamic where other people at the summit feel like they have to spend lots of energy and attention tracking and maintaining their personal physical safety, rather than being able to rely on the social contract. Thus, it’s important that Lord Duellington not even mutter under his breath that back home, we have a way of dealing with people like you, and it’s entirely reasonable for people to disinvite Lord Duellington from future summits if he does.
(Although it’s also reasonable in my culture for Lord Duellington to object that his track record indicates that he would never actually do such a thing, and that it’s not fair for people to see him as a risk, as noted above. But it can both be true that he’s not actually a direct risk, and also be true that his presence nevertheless puts too much stress on the social fabric to be worth it, and even Lord Duellington will admit that this is possible.)
This is why, for instance, I no longer use my car’s horn as a tool for reacting to perceived defections in traffic. In my home culture, certain traffic violations effectively equate to opting out of the treaty whereby people don’t honk at each other.
In the Bay Area context culture, though, that’s a sort of violence that isn’t justified even by overt defection, as far as I can tell. People will socially punish it even if they agree that the honker was wronged, because use of the horn for that purpose is seen as corrosive in other ways.
(For instance, it hurts nearby people as well, and reduces the effectiveness of the horn as an exclusively emergency signal, and grabs people in a sort of deep, visceral, monkey-brain kind of way that is almost guaranteed to escalate the situation rather than resolving it.)
And it seems correct to conform to the context culture in this way, and for others to expect you to conform, regardless of your home culture. A clause that releases you from the social contract in your home culture does not have the power to release you from the social contract at a diplomatic summit. The whole point of a diplomatic summit is that people are setting aside their native standards for what constitutes transgression, and agreeing to a cooperative compromise culture. If a person isn’t willing to make that sacrifice, then the diplomatic summit can’t afford to have them around, no matter what value is lost in the process of excluding them.
But in my home culture, if Cameron is behaving toward Dallas in ways that are proscribed by social norms, and Dallas has tried a couple of times to get Cameron to stop, and has actually made efforts to bridge the gap, and has taken actions which reasonably rule out the possibility that Cameron was just making a one-time mistake out of frustration or misunderstanding or whatever—
In my home culture, if Dallas retaliates in kind, no one will assign Dallas the sort of blame they would otherwise receive for taking a forbidden action.
And if Elliott steps in to protect Dallas from Cameron, and uses Cameron’s tactics against them, no one will look sideways at Elliott, either.
In my culture, there’s a fundamental difference between people who are trying to play by the rules, and people who are unmistakably willing to violate them. The former category gets a lot of protection, and the latter gets meaningfully less, especially when it comes to open antagonism. In my culture, we try to be really damn sure that it’s actually fire, and not just smoke, but we are indeed willing to fight fire with fire, and we don’t dock one another points for doing so.
I sometimes wish that other specific subcultures had more in common with my home culture in this way, but I think that it’s correct that the broader context culture does not, because the whole thing rests on the idea that there can be clear common knowledge about what constitutes a transgression and what doesn’t, and that everyone can see what’s justified and what isn’t, and that seems to me to be an impossibly naive expectation when we’re talking about a diplomatic summit with representatives from thousands of individual cultures.
This is not at all a complete list. On reflection, it’s probably not even the most important differences between my culture and the general culture—just some of the more important ones, the ones which floated to the top over the two weeks I spent tinkering with this essay. No doubt I’ll discover more after hitting ‘publish.’
But it’s okay that this is incomplete, because me sharing my culture is only half of the process. The other half is you sharing yours, and so this feels like as good a place as any to pause and listen, in case you feel like talking.
(If enough people respond in commentary here or elsewhere I may write a followup someday on other people’s specific cultures.)