Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I Belong, Therefore I Am

I mentioned in an earlier post Sarah Lanier's book, Foreign to Familiar, and the distinctions she draws between hot-climate and cold-climate cultures. One of many significant differences between these two groups is the concept of individualism as opposed to group identity. In most cold-climate cultures, children are brought up with an acute awareness of their individual identity. We are taught to think for ourselves, find our own path, and in America, we are made aware of our "inalienable rights" as individuals. And many Americans will go as far as to say that's the biblical pattern, the way God intended it.

In warm-climate cultures (which, incidentally, include the lands where biblical culture evolved), much more attention is paid to collective identity. Perhaps the most important thing a child can learn is that he/she is part of a whole -- a village, a clan, a tribe -- and because of that, the child has significance. The Maoris of New Zealand are said to have a saying, "I belong; therefore I am."

Needless to say, the implications are huge. When important decisions are to be made, the concern in the hot-climate culture will be the good of the group as a whole. A spokesperson will be careful not to speak for himself but make sure he is representing his people. A cold-climate person will not necessarily stop and think of the common good or the opinion of his group as a whole; what's important to him is that his voice be heard.

We must be clear that we are not distinguishing between right and wrong here -- those intent on a right or a wrong are missing the point-- but the distinctions are so significant that anyone seeking cultural intelligence -- whether the business person, the leisure traveler, or simply the culturally curious -- will do well to understand them.

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