Can we free ourselves of cultural bias?

I saw the sign ‘Real Estate—Apartments and Condos for Rent’ so decided to stop in and inquire. The professionally dressed middle-aged man running the office approached me and asked, in his decidedly American accent, if he could help me. We chatted for a few minutes about my desires for a living space—small, a studio apartment with a balcony—and he then asked my price range. When I said I would prefer something under US $1000 per month, he laughed and said, “Well, you’re not going to find anything for that price unless you want to live in a (with verbal stress) MEXICAN neighborhood.”

It was September 2016 and I was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico looking for a small apartment to rent on a long-term basis. I was so shocked by this American’s brash rudeness and the way he was disparaging the citizens of the foreign country where he was a guest that I couldn’t respond. I simply turned and walked out. I thought about his attitude a lot over the following few weeks and wanted to return to the office and give him a good telling off but I felt it would be wasted energy and a stressful confrontation that I didn’t need.

Fighting cultural bias within

Living in a variety of developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America over the past 15 years has taught me a great deal about my own attitudes and prejudices and forced me to examine my cultural biases in a way that I never would have done if I’d remained in the USA. I’ve encountered my share of ugly Americans (and other Westerners) on the road—such as the real estate agent in Puerto Vallarta–and I must admit that I’ve also fallen into that category on some of my worst days.

As those of us who’ve traveled extensively or lived for long periods of time in poor developing countries can attest, things often just don’t work as efficiently as they do back home in one’s comfortable Western environment. Sometimes things don’t work at all—things like electricity, hot water and most importantly an internet connection. The food is different. Sights, sounds and smells can be offensive. And the locals may not speak a word of English (egads!).

Besides the normal bureaucratic trials and banking challenges, the things that slowly grate on my nerves are the incessantly barking dogs, blaring music from huge speakers placed in the street as ‘neighborhood’ entertainment at all hours and seemingly complete lack of the concept that noisy activities might be disturbing a neighbor. I believe the vast majority of the locals in all the countries where I’ve lived have been kind and caring people, so what gives with the lack of consideration for others when it comes to noise?

Houses in the developing world often share common walls with neighbors–think apartments–and the narrow street in front of a house may become a motorbike garage or party central at any time.

The questions I keep asking myself are: why are my cultural perceptions and attitudes so difficult to change, even after years of living abroad? Why haven’t I grown used to the barking dogs and loud music? Why can’t I simply change my expectations and therefore my habitual ways of perceiving the world around me?

I’ve had this conversation with friends and colleagues of many nationalities and the answer that keeps coming up is that we are culturally programmed from an early age to perceive, feel and interact with the world around us in specific ways.

What research tells us about cultural conditioning

According to Northeastern University neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barret, “Empirical evidence suggests that not all mental and social capacities are universal and deep cultural differences exist between groups.” Barret’s research indicates that “emotional and social concepts are environmentally constructed in each culture, and these cultural differences become biologically embedded in brain structure.”

So, depending on the specific conditions in which we are raised, our brains are wired at a very early age to react differently to external stimuli around us. Therefore, according to writer Ambadi Nalini, “Culture affects both what and how we see.”

Part of a school band which decided to practice for hours every afternoon in the street right outside my friend’s house, seen on the right side of the photo.

This would explain why a child who grew up in a culture where people live in very close proximity to their neighbors’ barking dogs and loud noises would not be bothered by such things in adulthood. For those of us who spent our formative years in Western settings where there is often more separation between housing units, privacy is more highly valued, and where noise ordinances enforce some degree of neighborhood silence, our adult brains are more easily disturbed by things like barking dogs and loud music.

Some of these differences can be traced back to the basic differences between collectivistic cultures vs individualistic cultures. In individualistic cultures (such as the USA), an individual’s rights are seen as being equally (or more) important than those of the group, whereas in collectivistic cultures (much of the developing world) maintaining group harmony is more important than individual desires. While there are both positive and negative aspects to living in a culture that operates in either extreme, the fact is that accepting such differences exist can help us to better understand and make more informed decisions when interacting with people from other cultures.

I found out the hard way (in 3 successive countries) that construction projects can pop up across the street without any prior notice or concern for those living in the neighborhood.

But can we adapt and change our cultural biases

While understanding that cultural differences are physically ingrained somehow makes me not feel quite so guilty for the negative feelings I sometimes have toward a host culture, it still doesn’t answer my lingering question: Is it possible to change this wiring that took place at an early age when our brains were still pliable and developing?

I want to believe that all human beings on our planet have far more in common than that which divides us. We all need the basics of food, clothing and shelter, along with security, love and nurturing from friends and family in order to thrive and reach our full potential. [If you want to delve more deeply into this, see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.]

Understanding the implications of such research should give us insights into the difficulties immigrants arriving in the USA and other Western countries face when trying to adapt to different cultural expectations. From my own experiences, I can tell you it isn’t easy. Adaptation means letting go of habitual ways of thinking that have become so ingrained that it sometimes feels as if you’re ripping out essential parts of your very being.

Research in the field of second language learning informs us of a critical period in early childhood when the plasticity of the human brain makes it easier to acquire a second or third etc. language. Although a child is more likely than an adult to learn the new language more fully and without an accent, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests adults can also learn new languages. Furthermore, most of us know from past experiences that we have the capacity to adapt to the inevitable changes in the world around us. Change seems to be the only thing we are guaranteed to experience in life.

Writing in Psychology Today, Marianna Pogosyan, Ph. D. says, “The capacity of our brains to undergo structural changes from recurrent daily tasks has been well documented.” So, does this not indicate that we may also essentially be able to change our cultural biases and learn to live in harmony with the conditions in a different cultural environment from the one in which we were raised?

I have friends who say, “This is the way I am and I can’t change,” but I choose not to believe that. Even though recent research has shown that some behaviors and attitudes may be hard-wired at an early age and therefore difficult to change, it doesn’t mean that increments of change are impossible when it comes to eliminating cultural bias.

I’ll be continuing my own personal experiment in Latin America while I wait for more answers from the emerging field of cultural neuroscience.


Categories: Culture, Personal DevelopmentTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Good read — reminds me of how many “ex-pats” (immigrants) referred to my neighborhood in Guanajuato as “dangerous” when what they meant was “Mexican.” In two months, I never encountered any dangers except for the occasional banana peel in the callejon. My neighbors were always looking out for me and I met lifelong friends.I almost got used to the roof dogs barking all night!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’ve met many expats who move abroad and live in gated communities–seemingly simply attempting to recreate the lifestyles they lived in the USA, UK etc, but at a much lower cost. Of course, living in such compounds usually entails only socializing with other expats or the occasional wealthy local. The blandness of such developments always reminds me of suburban Southern California, an area that never appealed to me even if I could have afforded it. To me those places feel lifeless, like the proverbial elephant graveyards where one just sits and waits for death to arrive. At least being annoyed by barking dogs lets us know we’re still alive and part of the world around us.

      On a more personal note, if you can block out the barking rooftop dogs, then you are further along the road to enlightenment than I am and I admire you greatly. As for me, I’ve discovered moldable silicone ear plugs which do wonders for blocking out noise. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely presented, Henry. The example of the bias of the real estate agent was a good place to start. I think even if you had told him “A Mexican neighborhood is exactly what I’m looking for,” he may not have been qualified to help you with that request because of his cultural blinders. Your walking out was probably something that surprised him and created a second of dissidence in his worldview (one can hope: ). I admire that you didn’t leave it at that and gave personal examples of cultural differences that have challenged you. In Chile, the abbreviated personal space was a challenge for me, especially body to body in ATM lines! After a year I got used to it, and now I need to ask if people are in line at the ATM here in Wisconsin when they are 10 feet apart! -Rebecca

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, I can totally identify with the discomfort brought on by a lack of personal space. I was challenged most by that while living in the Arabian Gulf. The multitudes of Indian and Bangladeshi laborers would push their bodies directly onto yours when attempting to form a queue. I understand that culturally it stemmed from the over-population and constant scrambling to secure (and maintain) a place in line that they were accustomed to back in their home countries. As much as I dislike being labeled an ugly Westerner, I made a point of turning around and using my hands to demonstrate the amount of space I needed between my body and theirs on multiple occasions. Rubbing my body against a stranger’s body is something I can only accept on crowded trains or buses, not in situations where there’s clearly enough space that such contact is unnecessary. Add in the 120 degree temperatures in that part of the world, and, well, you get the picture. The need for personal space seems most assuredly to be a Western concept.

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  3. Interesting post, Henry. Adapting to cultural differences, especially at an adult age, can be very difficult. Like Fakeflamenco, I struggled with reduced personal space during my days in Brazil. When traveling in public buses, I had to accept being body to body with strangers. When speaking with people, both men and women, I had to adjust to being constantly touched during our conversation.

    After living for over 16 years in Brazil, I had so well adapted to the Brazilian way of being that I had to begin again when I moved to the United States. I had also become so accustomed to external noises–dogs barking, loud music, children playing outdoors–that the silence in the apartment complex where I live was very disconcerting and alienating. Gone was the day-to-day, neighborly interaction that helped me to integrate with the Brazilian people and culture.

    As you’ve mentioned, “[s]ome of these differences can be traced back to the basic differences between collectivistic cultures vs individualistic cultures.” I versus We. Both worldviews come with the upside and downside. But, it has been my experience that we humans weather the storms of life much better when we can count on each other, our neighbors, and our community.

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    • You’ve made excellent points Rosaliene. I agree there is a great deal of isolation and loneliness in places like the USA that have had very negative consequences for the health of the population in general–increasing rates of suicide etc. I fully appreciate the role togetherness and family bonds play in maintaining close knit communities in much of the developing world. This is definitely one of the aspects of culture that the West would do well to recognize and try to emulate. As much as I appreciate my freedom to be an individual, from my experience the family unit is the glue that holds cultures together.

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  4. Living abroad (Germany ’71 to ’73) provided me a perspective that I have cherished ever since, one that changed me permanently, it also gifted me a language that has served as a springboard to other tongues. The unemployment rate in those years was 0.8%, that low rate brought in the waves of immigrants that are now deeply disdained — the crime of existing in Whiteous countries where White Supremacy is on the ascendant. Now I seek to learn Arabic by way of the German that so many “inconvenient” refugees have also learned. There is nothing quite as sublime as learning a third language without recourse to your mother tongue 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good for you Bill! Learning Arabic is a true challenge, and I say that after living and working for 8 years in the Arabian Gulf. Research has shown that language learning in our senior years is one of the best ways to keep our minds mentally tuned and alert. I wish you great success!

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      • Thanks for the enthusiastic and informed encouragement, Henry. Language learning really does open new paths, it also repairs and fills old paths in my old brain. Best of all, it breaks walls, fences and politically charged borders. Kindest thanks 🙂

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  5. Expats or not expats, whether we can adjust to a situation or a new culture or not is a highly individual thing. Some people can do it (the lucky ones), others can’t. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad, there are no shoulds and no morality is involved. People seek what makes them happy and if they are unhappy and want to change their situation, what can be wrong with that? Pity those who have no choice. It is intolerant and smug to expect others to behave as we do and morally questionable.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Marios. True, we all react to unfamiliar situations differently just as we all have different personalities and tolerance levels for dealing with the unknown. Life is all about making choices–neither right or wrong–and people making different choices is, of course, responsible for creating much of the world’s diversity which surely makes our planet far more interesting.


  7. I don’t think we can stop being American, British, etc., anymore than we can stop being anything else. I do believe we can change, to a point, and even fit into a new culture and stay there, however, like with a new language, it takes time and you have to think the words in English (or whatever you speak) then translate it into the language you’re learning. You have to unlearn, while you’re learning.

    I’m from Chicago where I learned to “mind my own business.” That was something I knew from a child onward. People who in some cultures may be friendly may be perceived as nosy and intrusive. I’ve been surprised, in indifferent parts of the country, by people who ask personal questions and say all sorts of things that would never by considered okay in the city. In Chicago, you don’t look, you mind your own business, and you never pry, at least where I came from. So, while I may learn to be more accepting of people I would have to let go of the “Why do they want to know that?” and “It’s none of their business,” attitudes first. That’s a part of me and when you live in a city those things serve you well and keep you out of trouble.

    There are often reasons for the way we act, in the places we live. The way we act serves a purpose and it’s difficult to give those things up when they have worked for so long. I don’t believe it’s truly possible to not be part of where we came from. We had nothing in us as infants, tabla rasa, so to speak, at least from this time around. What we learned from the beginning is who we became. It’s who we are, in the most literal sense. It was the only thing we knew.

    My neighborhood had a mixture of nationalities. Irish, German, Swedish, Italians, Polish, etc., so I never lived in a non mixed neighborhood. Because of that, I’ve always been okay with everyone because I grew up around everyone and all my friends were different from each other. I don’t know what it’s like to live where everyone is the same.

    They didn’t like Italians in my area and they painted the Black Hand on our front door. They threw water on my grandmother when she went to the store. My mom was Swedish but even though the kids all played together, there were still nasty people around. I didn’t see that. Kids were left out of it. No one ever said, “You can’t play with anyone else.”

    I am that person and always will be, no matter how much I try to change I can’t not be Chicago, let alone the USA. Chicago is as much a part of me as my name and gender. I love other cultures and want to live in Paris but I’ll still be me wherever I go. The funny thing is, there are SO many rules when visiting other countries but people come here and they don’t change at all. Not one little bit. They expect US to change when we visit them but they could care less about how they act, or what they say about us, when they’re here. Double standards are everywhere.

    I feel more at home in Paris and Italy than I do in some of our states, that’s for sure. Parts of America are alien and completely strange to me. Their belief systems would make it impossible for me to stay there for very long. Anyway, great post. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello hitandrun1964
      If I may say so, there is a lot of sensitivity and tolerance in what you say.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your points about how different culture can be even on a more local level. I’ve always been a nomad so I lived in many regions of the USA before heading abroad, and I agree that cultural differences–religious beliefs, world view etc–can be very different from one city or state to another.

      The neighborhood where you grew up in Chicago sounds fascinating–all the different immigrant cultures struggling to maintain their identities and some degree of power. I had to go to Dr Google to learn more about the ‘black hand’–interesting!

      I agree that the early brain-wiring we experience is basically ‘who’ we are for the rest of our lives. From all my reading, it’s during the first 2 years of a child’s life that their personality becomes imprinted. This is the reason it’s of critical importance that babies receive proper nutrition and the love and nurturing that make them feel valued and secure.

      My personal quest, however, is to try to push beyond the limitations of that early imprinting, both out of a desire to tame my own ‘monkey mind’, but also because I don’t feel as if I fit into my native culture any longer either. I’ve made some progress, but like all challenges, it’s often one step forward, two steps back. I’m still struggling and probably always will be.

      Thanks so much @hitandrun1964 for adding your personal experiences which make this discussion so much richer!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I do believe we can change but we change according to who we are. Do you know what I mean? We change as Americans, as Mexicans, Italians, wherever we’re from. Everything we do and see comes from who we are so we change from that place which colors what we change into. 🙂 You’re post is so interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There is never a space problem on this blog. 🙂


  10. Interesting & thought provoking !

    Liked by 1 person


    Liked by 1 person

  12. Certainly there are cultural differences, but there are also social strata differences within cultures. Colombia is very stata defined; we divide ourselves into 6 distinct economic groups, 6 being the highest, the richest group in our society. Those in the 6 category pay the highest taxes and pay the highest rates for services such as gas, electricity and water. Supposedly that gives the government the ability to charge those in the 1 and 2 categories much less in terms of the cost of necessary daily services. The government determines your economical health (and wealth, depending on where you live.) The rich subsidize the poor is the idea. There are, as always, pros and cons to the system, and as always there are loopholes, and there are those who benefit from the loopholes and those who don’t. But my point here, in terms of this article, is that there are distinct differences in allowances for noise pollution within the various strata. Whereas loud speakers on the street or at an apartment window, or dogs barking day and night, or roosters crowing, or the shouts of street collectors looking for recyclables or books solely for their paper value may be daily events in neighborhoods from strata 1 through 4, they are rare or unknown in 5 and 6 neighborhoods. You are never going to hear roosters crowing in a Strata 6 barrio unless that neighborhood abuts a Strata 1 or 2 community, which happens. And in strata 3 and 4 neighborhoods you’re sort of of in a no man’s land.

    And although the strata system of class is unique to Colombia, the phenomenon of class difference is terms of noise pollution is widespread. In California, when I went to visit Thomas Keller’s acclaimed French Laundry restaurant in California, I stayed at an upmarket boutique hotel nearby where the noise from a neighboring Mexican apartment was more than I could tolerate.

    In Brooklyn, I lived in an expensive loft in a gentrifying neighborhood. My loft faced, at the back, an ungentrified street where residents let their dogs bark at any time of the day or night and where drunken fights and beer bottle smashings were common. We never called it anything, except for a call to the cops from time to time. Colombia would call is Strato 4 meets Strato 2 or 1.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Christopher,

      Yes, I agree and thanks for bringing up that point. Socio-economic circumstances create some of the greatest divisions both within and between cultures.

      Western educational norms have become the standard for the wealthier classes in much of the world and many students whose families can afford it study abroad. These graduates tend to be much more Westernized in their behaviors and lifestyles which is readily apparent in the way people tend to live their lives in more expensive neighborhoods of the developing world’s major cities–the upper strata barrios you mention in Colombia.

      The Colombian estrato system is helpful for expats looking to settle in what we perceive to be more Western-friendly environments and also speaks to safety concerns many might have as well.

      Personally, I dislike the idea of social stratification in general, but this is the world we’ve all had a part in creating and must live within while we attempt to transform societies into more equitable places for all.

      Thanks again for your valuable contribution and for your support of this blog!


  13. Excellent post, Henry. Thank you for sharing and for your honesty. Whenever I’ve come back to the States after traveling abroad, it’s always been an adjustment as I’m sure it is for most travelers – the ‘Western culture’ we have here seems so strange and staid and distant. I’ve been back from my recent travels for just over two months now and I’m still not sure where I ‘belong.’
    You’ve brought to mind some things that took place when I was in Morocco. I’ve never been afraid anywhere I’ve traveled in the world until I hit Morocco. There were things about it that I loved and I met a few truly nice people, but I had more than one experience there that really frightened me. It’s something I’m not sure I’ve completely dealt with and I’ve realized that from reading your post.
    You’ve given me encouragement to ruminate on the subject. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ruminating is good for the soul I think :-). The important thing is that you had the experiences, whether good or bad, and came back safely. I think most people who travel widely have had their share of narrow escapes, and not necessarily because they were doing anything unwise.

      All of my most harrowing and dangerous experiences have been in the USA–being robbed at knife point, tragic car accidents where someone was killed. Those are the experiences I still have trouble processing.

      Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts and experiences!

      Liked by 1 person

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