Culture Drives Expectations
We are wired to adapt. We are made to live.
We often underestimate how much our culture influences and drives the expectations we have of ourselves and what others hold about us. That, alongside what we hold onto others.
You see, our brains are biologically wired to adapt to our environment. It has been said by many that we are the most adaptable creatures on this planet — largely due to our brain’s capacity to learn.
Culture is Biologically Embedded
Learning encapsulates both the ability to strengthen or create new neuronal connections between prior neurons and also the ability to weaken or cut away prior connections.
This malleability between connections changes how we perceive and respond to the world. For example, this may look like us learning to control our anger before speaking to someone who has disturbed us. This could also look like us learning how to let go of worrisome thoughts that lend themselves to anxiety.
Knowing this, it is understandable that once we are born and as we age, we begin to adopt the customs, beliefs, traditions, etc of the people that surround us, which are often our parents and other family members.
These customs, beliefs, and traditions become embedded within us and constitute what is “normal.” Oftentimes, what is culturally normal or correct in one cultural setting may be perceived as offensive or wrong in another.
Culture affects us in more ways than we can think possible, such as the food we eat and how we cook or process it. It also influences:
- The clothes we wear and the way we externally express ourselves
- The way we speak and the body language we portray
- The age that we start dating and if we marry or not
- What our family looks like
- The way we behave in our daily lives when we’re alone or with others
There are more ways that culture affects us, and this list is not exhaustive.
The Risk of Derailing From Culture
Of course, as with all things, we have the option to consciously derail from the cultural expectations placed in front of us. Evolutionarily speaking, this is not always ideal because it places us in a “dangerous” place.
Aside from being evolutionized to adapt to new changes, we are also wired to cooperate with others — to survive the tough environment bestowed upon our ancestors. If we didn’t we would risk being a loner, being aloof from everyone else, or having others to fend for themselves.
Therefore, derailing from your environment’s culture takes a lot of conscious effort.
Personal Perceptions of Derailment
As someone who grew up biculturally, I often saw myself needing to take conscious decisions about what culture I wanted to follow at a given moment.
For example, in the American culture, independence and finding oneself are encouraged. Most American individuals are socially engrained to leave home after reaching adulthood, where they make a life of their own, and carry on with their lives.
However, in Mexican culture, we have familismo. Although we are also encouraged to find work and create a family of our own, we are expected to keep close ties with family. Yet, I didn’t grow up in Mexico. I’m not sure what this process is supposed to look like for me. I do however have:
- Daily and/or monthly calls
- Possible weekly visits
- Sending gifts and money
- Being attentive to family needs
Personal Bicultural Clashes
As you can imagine, trying to follow and hold both cultures seems impossible. I haven’t been able to find a way to do both to their fullest.
When I was in college, I commuted my first year through public transit as my parents didn’t have the funds to help me live closer to campus. They also didn’t want me to take out loans.
Although the act of commuting was stressful for me, what I found to be harder was the lifestyle I needed to carry. I was in a constant back-and-forth state between what I needed to do in order to do well in school, be physically and mentally healthy, and find myself as a person — while also helping with chores, errands, and my parents’ needs at home.
Sometimes my parents would ask why I spent so much time studying. Whenever I would dedicate more time to my family, my teacher's assistant would ask why I didn’t study more. Even when I started working and was able to afford to live closer to campus, my parents had the expectation for me to call them every day — and for me to be free on the weekends to be with them.
Despite all of this, culture is protective. It provides us with a guide on how to “just be” in this complex world. It is our default mode when we feel lost or confused about the next steps.
Culture also works as a foundation to build off of when we are finding ourselves and starting our own lives. We can then utilize this as our overarching way of being, in addition to our own personal asynchronies.
Ultimately, culture drives expectations in general, despite derailment and clashes between sociocultural norms. Luckily, we have a choice of how much of our respective cultures we want to follow. We simply need to be consciously aware that we are responsible for the consequences that come from derailing them. Plus, culture informs us on survival, and how to thrive around those who live amongst us.
Blanchette-Sarrasin, J., Brault-Foisy, L.-M., Allaire-Duquette, G., & Masson, S. (2020). Understanding your brain to help you learn better. Frontiers for Young Minds, 8(1). doi: 10.3389/frym.2020.00054
Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2009). Culture and the evolution of human cooperation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1533), 3281–3288. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0134
McKelvie, C., & Pappas, S. (2022, October 17). What is culture? LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/21478-what-is-culture-definition-of-culture.html
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