Understanding 'culture' is very rare, though we use the word casually. My readers are smart so I expect many of you to understand what culture is the way I do. One of my daughters who is a biophysical chemist says I don’t understand science so I would guess my other daughter, a cultural anthropologist, would say I don’t understand culture. I think they are both wrong, we just disagree on some specific science and anthropology issues such as global warming where my background as a statistician is what counts. Enough family gossip.
I definitely have my understanding of culture based on having spent several months a year in Japan every year for over 55 years. My view of culture is closest to Sapir and Whorf two men who are banished outsiders in anthropology. They argue that cultures are mutually incomprehensible. Or nearly incomprehensible because they are large complex structures that don’t make sense when examined piece by piece. I think they are very close to Clifford Geertz the leading anthropologist whom I interviewed; but most anthropologists disagree with me about the similarity of Geertz and Sapir-Whorf..
For example, we American English speakers have pictures of rainbows and words for the colors. Somehow or other we see each word related to color to a segment on the rainbow where all segments are seen as being of equal width. The Japanese on the other hand see two colors of blue and have two words for the segment that we call 'blue'. Japanese images of rainbows have a wider spectrum for the area we call blue and they call it light blue and dark blue. The cones in our eyes are the same.
Over 55 years I have slowly come to observe hundreds of differences between my American perception of the world and what the Japanese see. We can communicate just fine and we can be good friends. But we can never comprehend each other’s world.
For example: I gave a speech to a graduate school class on international marketing at Waseda University in Tokyo. Afterwards about 14 faculty members from different faculties were invited to join me for dinner. Few knew each other.
In the 20 minutes before dinner they mingled and got to know each other briefly and exchanged business cards. When it came time to sit down at a long table where I was seated at the head of the table, everyone knew where they were to sit. In hierarchical social order. In a few cases where the correct seat was not clear the two people talked to each other for a minute or two to figure out who was higher on the social hierarchy.
Not credible that such a person by person hierarchy exists? Another time, when an important guest was visiting me and wanted to eat at a 400 year old tofu restaurant, I called a friend to make the reservations. This woman is high in the hierarchy and went to highschool with the crown prince. When my group got to the restaurant we were taken to the third floor to a giant tatami room with one table. The service was impeccable. I wondered if the restaurant might be empty or having a bad night. On the way out I checked the second floor. Packed. And the first floor was also packed with a long line waiting to be seated.
I think it was because of the phone call to make my reservations. Just my friend's voice and language were enough to send a message of her place on the hierarchy. We got royal treatment.
Where did the first question about culture enter my mind and what was it?
When I was young and living on a Kibbutz I had kitchen duty. We washed everything first in cold soapy water then rinsed in cold clean water. The kitchen staff was Romanian and they said that is how it is done in Romania. Nobody (out of several hundred) got sick on the kibbutz from that dish washing practice which seems impossible from my American germ theory ideas.
The same was true of the soda drinks sold on the streets in Israel at that time. The one plastic cup we all drank from was communal and was merely rinsed in cold water briefly. I never got sick and never heard of anyone else getting sick from those plastic communal cups.
What do we believe because of our culture and how different can it be from other peoples worldviews?