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A Gift From The Journey-I versus We Cultural Narratives


Welcome to Conversation With Katherine and my podcast "I" versus "We" Cultural Narratives

In my getting to know people from various cultural backgrounds I am struck by the common factors and the differences.  One of the major differences is whether an individual comes from a community based culture versus and individual based culture.  

The broader American cultural context is an individual based context.  What do I mean?  Think about the narratives that are used in this country.  The climbing up the ladder of success by your bootstraps.  The value of independence versus a collective decision.  The freedom of making your own individual decisions about who you marry, where you live, your profession and any other "I" decision that comes to mind.   That is an intellectual way of stating in this country we value choice and the freedom to make independent decisions.

The individual's right to choose  is part of the constitution, laws and institutions that govern this country.  The right to bear arms, freedom of speech are just a couple of the ways that the individual has freedom in this country.  This cultural narrative has the eagle, as a symbol , flying high above the land, solitary and majestic.  When I refer to the context of America I am referring to its structure.  How this country was structured and the foundation of core values were created with the idea and desire for freedom from constraint.  This is not how much of the world exists.   Their cultural context's or structure does not revolve around "I" but the "We".  

What is the We? When I have met humans from a community based cultural context living in this country, they may have a conflict in their lives because of these two different narratives or views of the world.  A community based narrative operates very differently than Me, I, and myself narrative.  The community based narrative is about the "we".  An individual"s decisions have impact on the collective community.  Someone from this perspective would not make the assumption that their personal decision does not impact their community.  If they were to make this assumption the community would view them as selfish.  There is not the focus on being individually happy, especially if the individual's happiness causes unhappiness to others.  There is the ever present watchful "eye" of the community deciding whether honor or shame is being brought to the collective.  Your success or failure is not determined by your "I" but by how much you have helped the "We".

The level of concern that the community has towards one individual can bring all of the community to having an intervention with that one individual.  When I was a social worker, I had an intervention with a family from Tonga.  It was explained to me that within their cultural context, a family meeting, with elders from the community would come together and discuss the individuals behavior jointly.  I was given the privilege of experiencing this and was able to watch how the community decision making differed from the individual decision making.  

The individual has a collective responsibility to not bring shame onto the family.  The community has a responsibility to assist the individual in what was viewed as unwise behavior.  I have noticed a common theme within community based narratives.  Achievement, honor, shame and respect.  The pursuit of happiness which is one of the core values of the "I" perspective is looked upon with askance of that type of thinking.  What does your personal happiness mean if you have caused dishonor, and unhappiness to others?

I am struck by how some cultures on the surface would not look like they have anything in common with the exception that they are community based cultures.  I find dissimilar looking cultures when the cultural context is the same have some of the same core values.  I have meet people from Vietnam, China, Korea,Thailand, Indonesia Kenya, Nigeria,Tonga,Mexico,Laos, Indians, Fijians, Indio Fijians and they all have a common theme.  Achievement,honor,responsibility and shame are themes that tie their cultural contexts together.  There may be cultural differences in how those themes are realized, but underneath they have common goals. 

How do these various cultures have similar cultural themes?  I am suddenly aware that a community based narrative is more of a global perspective than the individual based narrative. The American context values freedom from constraint and community narratives value the collective good with collective responsibility.    For an individual to live within a community based narrative they would have to sacrifice their personal desires and wants for the collective good.  

Each cultural context has its value.  The American cultural narrative gives an individual the freedom to make or break themselves within their climb for success.  The individual can use different roads to achieve without be told what path they may take.   They can look at their life as a creative landscape where anything is possible.  Anyway to succeed is possible and anyway to fail is possible.  They don't have to factor their individual decisions within a cultural standard of impact.  The individual decision is not viewed as selfish but more from a choice perspective.   I have often heard individuals say "I did not do that"  You can't blame me for what someone else has done in the past". It is a way of looking at oneself as separate from others and therefore not responsible to or for other's behavior.   My question?  Does this separation from the human collective come at a high price.  If the individual does not see our common needs is it just the "other's" that suffer or does the individual suffer as well?

What does the community narrative bring.  If the person honors the community narrative, by following the rules and understanding their impact and honoring that impact.  They can have a safe harbor.  The community helps the individual not to feel isolated and there is a sense of shared responsibility   Their are communities that value education and they have given someone in their community an opportunity to become educated and the community has paid for that individual's education.  The person is expected to bring honor to those that have made it possible for their education by doing well and achieving.  

There are rules of thoughtful accommodation.  I have a friend that told me that within her culture you are suppose to argue over who pays for the check.  She asked me a question did Americans always let some pay for them at dinner.  The thinking about how your personal behavior impacts the group is not a general American concept.  From her cultural context she would concern herself with how comfortable someone was and she felt a responsibility for their comfort.  There was an uncomfortableness with confrontation so she would not have asked the American did they not understand the cultural value of fighting over the check.  My guess would be the American did not think of it as a cultural faux pas.  In dealing with her I am always aware that I am comfortable with saying no, I am comfortable with asking direct questions from her cultural context could be viewed as rude.  I pay attention and I try and I don't always succeed in paying attention to the impact of my very individual behavior and how it impacts her.

I have had significant advantages of being in the "I" culture.  I have been able, sometimes, to sidestep gender and racial expectations by forging my "I" path.  I have not been held back by group expectations and can create individual expectations for myself and others.  I also know that I have paid the price of isolation of having a sense of being singular in my responsibility for success or failure.  My question is that in viewing Americans in general we seem to gravitate towards sub-communities.  There are political communities, religious communities, social communities, employment communities that adhere to many of the same rules and requirements of larger cultural communities.  Question?  Does the "I" still need to find a "We" to feel safe?

Cultural narratives can be confusing when you are outside of a specific cultural norm.  The more diverse the cultural contact you have  life the world of I and We can open your eyes.  In honoring another person's cultural narrative it does not mean that I have to disown my own cultural narrative.  It is my making space within the relationship to see a difference without judgement.

How many different cultural narratives have you been exposed to in your life?  How much have you learned about yourself?  How much have you learned about others?  Has your knowledge changed how you look at your world?

Thank you for listening to conversation with Katherine and my podcast, Individual versus Community Narratives. Have a great day and enjoy the conversation in your life in my podcast "I" versus "We Cultural Narratives".  


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