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?
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.”
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.
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.