Building Bridges

(We should be building bridges - not barriers)


Here's a somewhat simplistic but neat parable of unknown origin:

John and Stephen were two brothers who lived on adjoining farms and for 40 years they farmed side by side, sharing tools and produce, in total harmony.  One day they had a violent disagreement and the developing rift between them got worse and worse until finally they simply would not speak to each other. 

One morning there was a knock on John's door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter's toolbox who announced: "I'm looking for a few days work.  Do you have any small jobs that I might help you with?"

"Yes," said John. "I do have a job for you. Look across the brook at my neighbour's farm. That's my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he bulldozed  the river bank and now there is that brook you see there. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I'll go one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence - an 8-foot fence - so I won't need to see his place anymore."

The carpenter said, "I think I understand the situation. Show me where all your materials are and I'll do a job that pleases you."

John helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he went off to town for supplies, saying he would be away for the rest of the day.

The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.

About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job. The farmer's eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped.

There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge . . . a bridge stretching from one side of the brook to the other! A fine piece of work.   Handrails and all - and the neighbour, his younger brother Stephen, was coming across, his hand outstretched.

"You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I've said and done."

The two brothers met in the middle of the bridge, taking each other's hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. "No, wait! Stay a few days. I've a lot of other jobs for you," said the older brother.

"I'd love to stay on," the carpenter said, "but, I have many more bridges to build."



Cultural Values

Are cultural values diverging or converging as a consequence of globalisation?  Can a formula be developed to enable different cultures to co-exist in peace and harmony?  

Before harmony can be established, knowledge has to replace ignorance.  How are we to understand and appreciate other cultures if we know little or nothing about them?   On a really basic level, for example, how many of us have made the effort to learn a non-western language?

The ignorance that persists between people of different nationalities and language is but a reflection of the lack of understanding of different values between different generations within nations, and even within families.  Are the clashes between parents and their children really that different, in essence, from the clashes between races, religions and nationalities?  Do they not all derive from a lack of empathy.   

Nations will make decisions on the basis of their unique cultural and political interests and it is unlikely that any real progress will be achieved in peaceful co-existence until a global culture is created.  The major problem will probably derive from the fact that bridging differences in values and cultures inevitably involves economic and political self-interest on the part of the nations concerned, whereas a successful bridge must be forged out of love, friendship and respect three qualities to which many politicians pay cynical lip service and display total indifference.  


What is Culture?

We need to distinguish normal culture from formal culture.  The former comprises all aspects of everyday behaviour: how we act, how we dress, how we speak, how we think, how and what we eat, how we learn, how we use language (spoken, body, and gestures), how we react physically to each other, how we deal with conflict, how we interpret and understand abstract concepts (spiritual, philosophical, emotional, intellectual, sociological, moral and political).

Formal culture by contrast comprises art, literature, music, architecture, the performing arts and all those other higher forms by which people express their creativity.

Culture is habitually taken for granted.  We are born into our culture, we grow up in it, and it becomes a part of us and expressed in everything we do.  All groups develop or have inherited their own specific cultural norms.  We are usually not aware of the extent of the influence of our culture until we are confronted with people from a different culture.  In the 1950s the term culture shock was coined by Oberg[1].  The world has shrunk over the decades, yet the shock would seem to have increased rather than diminished given the violence that has escalated between and within nations.



All cultures are by their nature ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism is the belief that ones culture is superior to the cultures of others. The positive side of ethnocentrism is that it helps cultures survive. The negative side of ethnocentrism is that it leads to bigotry, prejudice and mistrust.  The polarisation that has resulted from racial, religious and political conflict both illustrates and augments the failure of people to develop tolerance towards those who do not share their beliefs.    


Cultural Awareness

R.G. Hanvey (in Luce and Smith, 1987)[2]  formulates four levels of cultural awareness related to the process of learning about a culture. These are described in  the following table.   

            Table 1: Four levels of cultural awareness

Level I

Awareness of superficial or very visible cultural traits or stereotypes

Tourism, textbooks, National Geographic

Unbelievable, exotic, bizarre

Level II

Awareness of significant and subtle cultural traits that contrast markedly with ones own

Culture conflict situations

Unbelievable; frustrating; irrational

Level III

Awareness of significant and subtle cultural traits that markedly contrast with ones own

Intellectual analysis

Believable cognitively

Level IV

Awareness of how another culture feels from the standpoint of the insider

Cultural immersion: living in the culture

Believable because of subject familiarity 

The table shows that when a person knows about another culture only from tour books or textbooks, his/her knowledge, at Level I, is characterized by stereotypes, facts, and inclinations to perceive deficiencies in the other culture. The person has many preconceived notions about the other culture.

The knowledge of the person at Level II is acquired through some cultural contact, for example, two countries that share a border. Knowledge consists of a shallow understanding of the other culture; at this level, the cultural learner is confused by many differences between the conventions of his native culture and those of the other culture.

The knowledge of a person at Level III comes through intellectual analysis, and it is characterized by an in-depth comprehension, but the person keeps his own perspective.  The knowledge of a person at Level IV is acquired through living in the foreign culture. Knowledge at this level is characterized by empathy; a person learns to identify with the target culture. He can walk in the shoes of someone from the target culture.


On the left-hand part of the table, Hanvey notes that at Levels I and II, a person does not understand the other culture enough to accept it. He states that "believability is necessary if one group of humans is to accept other members of the biological species as human" (p. 20). Thus, according to Hanvey, in order to attain awareness of the culture as highly believable, a learner needs to reach Level IV. Other experts, such as Scarcella and Oxford (1995), believe that Level II provides a good foundation for cultural understanding. Moreover, successful learners of a language and culture feel motivated to continue learning, and therefore, may reach an evaluative level of empathy. People without such exposure may not be as inclined to develop understanding for other cultures.  


Culture Shock  

Originally intended to describe the problems confronted by those taking up residence in a foreign country, being lonely, homesick, and neurotic, it is marked by symptoms such as anger with others for lacking understanding as well as self-pity and the display of defence mechanisms such as repression, regression, isolation, and rejection.  

Weaver (1998)[3] comments that culture shock is analogous to a cold. We can catch it over and over again, and the degree of the symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people who catch colds are inclined to suffer from severe reactions and additional stress. However, culture shock, like a cold, can be more or less harmless if we take some precautions to prevent it. For instance, having informed knowledge of the process of culture shock will provide a sense of control and predictability (Weaver, op cit). We can then develop our own coping strategies and control it as we do colds.  

Gorden's (1974)[4] book, Living in Latin America, is a case study in cross-cultural communication. The book describes, analyzes, and interprets the interactions between young Peace Corp Americans as guests in Colombian homes. The book has been considered a classic probe into cross-cultural communication and miscommunication between people from different cultures.  In one example from this book, Colombian senoras expect an American guest to keep his towel and toilet articles in his own room and to hang his towel on the service patio to dry each day. The guest fails to do that. Thus, the Colombians conclude that Americans are generally thoughtless of others and do not care about their reputations. The American, on the other hand, concludes that Colombians are impractical and dirty, because he did not find any toilet articles in the bathroom and because, if there were any, they were always dirty. 

Brink and Saunders[5]  have extended the work of Oberg, whose original paper described four phases of culture shock and named the first phase the "Honeymoon Phase." The other phases were described but not named. The following attempts to name and extend Oberg's discussion.  

1. Phase One. "The Honeymoon Phase" is marked by excitement. The desire to learn about the people and their customs is great; sightseeing is anticipated with pleasure; and getting to work and accomplishing all the goals envisioned at home provide the basis for this phase. Travelers, visiting dignitaries, and other temporary functionaries may never experience any other phase but this one.

2. Phase Two. "The Disenchantment Phase" generally does not begin until the individual has established residence, i.e., where he begins to become aware of the setting as his area of residence. This sense of awareness often is associated with the realization that one is "stuck here" and cannot get out of the situation. What was "quaint" may become aggravating. Simple tasks of living are time consuming because they must be done in a different way. This beginning awareness often results in frustration--either frustration because the indigenous population is too stubborn to see things your way or frustration because you can't see things their way and are constantly making social errors. Embarrassment coupled with feelings of ineptness attack self-image or self-concept. Particular, individual styles of behaviour are developed over the years through the principles of inertia and economy. Usually the individual is unaware of the operation of these principles and their effect on him. They form part of ethnocentrism: "The way I do things is the right way to do things." The disenchantment phase directly threatens ethnocentrism because the host country believes exactly the same way about its customs and sees no reason to change its ways. Phase two includes a re-examination of one's self from the vantage point of another set of values. In this phase, failure often outweighs success.

To this, add loneliness. No one knows you well enough to reaffirm your sense of self-worth. The distance from home is magnified. This form of nostalgia for the past and the familiar seems to have two effects. Mail and visitors from home assume immense importance as a contact with people who believe in you and think you are important. To protect yourself from these feelings of loneliness and lack of self esteem, you attack the presumed cause of these feelings--the host country. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy are often expressed through depression, withdrawal, or eruptions of anger at frustration. This period in the culture shock syndrome is the most difficult to live through and this is the period where people "give up and go home."

3. Phase Three. "The Beginning Resolution Phase." Oberg described this phase as the individual seeking to learn new patterns of behaviour appropriate to the setting, attempting to make friends in the indigenous population, and becoming as much of a participant-observer as possible in the ceremonies, festivals, and daily activities of the new setting.

This phase seems to be characterized by the reestablishment of a sense of humour. Social errors no longer are devastating to the ego. The host culture no longer is considered all bad and home all wonderful. This phase seems to be facilitated greatly by the arrival of fellow countrymen who are "worse off" and need help. You can show off what you have learned, you are important because you are sought for advice, you feel needed by the newcomer.

At this point also, the individual becomes aware that things seem easier; friendships are being developed; home is still distant, but less relevant. Letters from home somehow seem peripheral to current interests and concerns. Letters to home become more superficial; explanation of what is becoming familiar would take up too much time.

Without really becoming aware of the process one slowly adapts to the new situation. Each small discovery, each small victory in learning the new rules is satisfying, and helps to restore one's sore and damaged ego.

4. Phase Four. "The Effective Function Phase." This means being just as comfortable in the new setting as in the old. Having achieved this phase, the individual will probably experience reverse culture shock when he returns home. Or, the individual may decide only to go home for visits, but make the new culture his own.    


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[1] Dr. Lalervo Oberg; Anthropologist; Health, Welfare and Housing Division; United States Operations Mission to Brazil.    

[2] Hanvey, R.G. (1987). "International Cross-Cultural Awareness and Methods to Attain Empathy and Integration in the New Culture." In Luce, L.F., & Smith E.C. (Eds.), Toward Internationalism. Newbury House Publishers.    

[3] Weaver, G. R. (1998).  "Understanding and Coping With Cross-Cultural Adjustment Stress." Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations (2nd edition). Pearsons.

[4] Gorden, R.L. (1974).  Living in Latin America: A Case Study in Cross-Cultural Communication. National Textbook Co.

[5] As referred to in and Saunders, are two medical anthropologists.


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LINKS TO SITES OF INTEREST - A seemingly endless source of material on a vast range of subjects, with particular relevance to globalization and multiculturalism.  Definitely worth exploring! - Cultural differences with particular relevance to female health care.


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