The Chasm of Culture

May 27, 2018

If you know a bit about me, you’ll know that I grew up between multiple cultures: my mom’s side of the family lives entirely in Brazil, my dad’s side almost entirely in Portugal, and I myself grew up in Canada. Those three cultures have some pretty profound differences, from Brazil’s laissez-faire looseness, to Portugal’s focus on social rituals, to Canada’s more British-style aloofness and distance when compared to the other two.

I was exposed to all those cultures young enough that I internalized the different aspects of them. I grew up knowing that these different sides of my family and social groups acted and expected to be treated in different ways, and managed to find a way to center myself in the common ground between them while adjusting myself to fit them wherever necessary.

It’s led to a lifetime of feeling a bit like a misfit no matter where I go, but it’s also helped me have a broad perspective on a wide variety of different issues. I consider that outlook and perspective to be a very fundamental part of who I am today.

But even that kind of upbringing didn’t prepare me for the culture shock I would be exposed to when, as a kid, I moved from downtown Toronto to a semi-suburban neighbourhood in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I grew up in the heart of little Portugal in Toronto, where the majority of my schoolmates were second or third-generation Portuguese immigrants. Their parents tended not to have a good education, largely due to issues that go all the way back to the Portuguese dictatorship under Salazar. Because of the poverty and low educational standards under the dictatorship’s regime, the Portuguese community has had ongoing educational underachievement problems that have spanned generations.

My family’s situation, at least on my dad’s side of the family, wasn’t too far from theirs: my grandfather was a welder with a grade 4 education, my grandmother only grade 2, and my dad even spent some time himself working in jobs like construction and serving tables at a restaurant when he was younger. But while I was growing up, both my parents had post-secondary degrees and were working on their PhDs, and so I had a more intellectual dimension to my upbringing that many of my peers unfortunately lacked. Many of my middle school classmates later ended up as high school dropouts, and few ended up going to post-secondary education.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I was nearing my middle-school graduation, my parents were finally making headway with getting themselves tenure-track jobs as professors, so that they could stop relying on the uncertain sessional teaching jobs our family had been subsisting on to that point.

This involved applying to jobs far outside the province, but at the time, we still weren’t sure whether we would move or not. And that meant that I still had to face down one of the toughest decisions a 13-year-old in downtown Toronto can face: which high school to go to.

There are a pretty wide variety of choices of high school in that area, even when looking at public schools only. Perhaps the most important difference is between the two public school systems in the area: a general public school system, and an equivalently-publicly-funded Catholic school system, which exists as a quirk of Ontario’s education system resulting from the compromises and negotiations made during Canada’s founding. In that part of the city the Catholic system tends to be overwhelmingly filled with the kids from the Portuguese community, with all the socioeconomic and educational problems I mentioned above.

I was in the Catholic system during elementary and middle school. Most of my close friends were staying in the Catholic system through high school, going to one of the bigger Catholic high schools of the area. But if we were to stay in Toronto, my dad was adamant about having me switch to the public high school system instead, leaving most of my friends behind. He argued that the public schools were much more likely to be a better environment for me.

The reason for that was because of the differing student body in the two school systems. Many of the kids who were in the Catholic system didn’t really value having a good education, or if they did, they had little idea how to go about succeeding in it. For a kid that was way more academically-inclined than his peers, that caused me some problems. I’d struggled with some anxiety issues through middle school, which in retrospect were at least partly due to the fact that by acting like a responsible student, I was positioning myself as an outsider among my peers.

My dad, being intimately familiar with that community in that area of the city both through personal experience and through his academic research, understood that I was far more likely to flourish in the public school system, as it had a broader diversity of students, with more students that were academically-inclined.

But at the time? I had no idea what he meant by “a good environment”. All I knew was that most of my friends who I’d known all my life were going to one school, and I was going to another.

The question became moot soon afterwards. Both my parents got jobs in Halifax, and so we moved out there instead. I joined the regular public school system there (as there is no Catholic school system in Nova Scotia), and I ended up having to make new friends anyway.

And after a short while of living there, I finally understood what my dad had meant.

The area we had moved into in Halifax was far more middle class than the area we had come from in Toronto. Rather than my peers being children of blue-collar labourers with minimal education who’d lived through Salazar’s reign of poverty, they were… a lot more mixed. Some richer, some still poor, but overall, the school had a lot more children of knowledge workers.

In Toronto, I spent most of my time dealing with the fact that I felt like an outsider. In Halifax, things went a lot smoother: I could find people that were into the same level of academic and nerdy stuff as I was, and spend time with them. I matured a lot, got a handle on my anxiety, and finally managed to become the good, responsible student I always should have been.

Now, you can try to compare these two environments, and make arguments about how one’s better than the other. But although I do think the environment in Halifax was ultimately better for me, comparing the two of them is not what I’m here to do.

Instead, the point I’m trying to get at with this story, or at least one of the points, is that this difference was completely incomprehensible to me until I was immersed in it.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the public schools I would have gone into in Toronto would have been an experience closer to the one I had in Halifax. At very least, that’s what my dad believed at the time. And yet, until I left, I could not understand why he was so insistent on it.

I remember my eighth-grade teacher in Toronto, who had transferred in from another school and struggled dealing with the unruly students in mine. He went as far as telling our class that in other schools, most of the class acted like the handful of good students that were in our class. And I shrugged it off. I had no context for what he was talking about back then. The environment that he was struggling to deal with was all that I knew.

There’s a lot that you can pull out of this story, so let me try to get across the points I’d like to focus on.

To start off: I’d argue that these two environments were distinctly different cultures. Maybe not as different as you get between different countries, but still, they were different cultures within the same country.

I think people underestimate the degree to which this happens. Differences and fractures in cultures happen everywhere: between social classes, between rural and urban areas, or even between areas that are just geographically distant enough. In the case of the United States you could kick out every single immigrant and you’d still end up with a country that I’d describe as “multicultural”.

Then there’s the idea that cultural differences can be hard to grasp until you’re immersed in them. My story above was one example, but I’ve seen similar cases all over the place:

  • My dad’s second wife, whose family has been living in eastern Canada for generations, was shocked by the attentive and close way Portuguese family members treat each other when she visited there and spent some time with people like my great-uncle and my godmother. This is despite the fact that she’d been living with my dad for years up to that point.

  • I know of a doctor who said that he never understood why, in his high school social studies class, they called modern American society “atomized”, until he lived for a while in a third-world village doing medical work, and saw how there was practically no individual sense of identity as separate from your place in the community.

  • One of the biggest problems in my first serious relationship was that my girlfriend, who was a Chinese immigrant, had a lot of trouble dealing with the way my family treated each other, because for her, the idea of family was much more tinged with responsibility, formality, and stress. And despite my efforts to explain what I meant, she still had immense trouble grasping it.

What I’m trying to get at is that if you haven’t experienced a culture first-hand, it can be very hard to say with any sort of certainty that you really understand it.

The last idea I’d like to pull out has to do with values. Arguably the biggest difference between the students I dealt with in Toronto versus Halifax was the fact that, generally speaking, the students I was interacting with in Halifax valued scholarship and learning to a far higher degree than those in Toronto.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty small cross-cultural value difference, despite the impact it had on me. When it comes to values, you can find far more profound differences.

In fact, fundamental differences in values are one of the biggest things that make dealing with other cultures hard. You can tell you’re immersed in a foreign culture when everyone around you is taking something in stride that you find profoundly upsetting, or when they get upset about something that you find completely innocuous.

At the risk of making things inflammatory, let me present a few examples of some of the really difficult ones:

I strongly suspect that liberal-minded people who have limited or shallow exposure to other cultures, especially those who have never really been immersed in one, severely underestimate just how fundamental these differences can be, and how difficult it can be to be tolerant of them.

When you disagree with someone on an important moral issue—such as whether your social network should allow child pornography, what rights you afford to women in your society, or whether you should cover up a crime that a family member has committed—there is little room for compromise. Someone has to make the final decision, and they’re going to do it according to their own values.

All this matters a lot when we’re living in a world that’s globally connected and getting more connected by the day. The stronger those connections get, the more cross-cultural exchanges you’ll get, and the more clashes between different value systems you’ll get. And importantly, this includes cultural clashes between the people operating and building the communication networks and those using them.

Of course, there’s a silver lining to this: the more exposure and cross-cultural exchange you get, the better you can understand where these differences lie, and the better a grasp you’ll have not just of other people’s cultures, but also of your own and how it fits into the cultural landscape of the world.

But getting there takes a lot of hard work.

You have to accept that this is a hard problem. There will be times when someone says something or acts in a way that you find appalling, even though they find it innocuous. And sometimes you will have to make a hard value judgement based on your own sensibilities even though it disagrees with theirs.

At the same time, it helps to find common ground. Although cultural differences definitely exist, no two cultures are ever completely dissimilar. Emphasizing and pushing the differences will only make people feel alienated or angry, but emphasizing the commonalities can help make people feel like you’re on their side.

Still, though, you have to commit to listening, and ask important questions. Above all else, try to understand their values and their frame of reference, because your own frame of reference can often be inadequate to understand the things that they’re saying. If you try to interpret their actions through your own value system you’ll just end up confounded. Understanding the “why” behind cultural differences can be difficult, but can also be extremely enlightening, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

And finally, have patience and treat people with charity. You’re much more likely to convince someone of something if you approach them as their friend rather than as their enemy. They also might very well have trouble understanding your culture and your frame of reference, because not everyone is good at clearing the hurdles I mentioned above.

And to bring back the point I started this article with: all of this applies not only to cultures across the world, but also to the variety of cultures within your own country. These differences can be bigger than you might realize, and all the same hurdles still stand in the way of achieving a mutual understanding.

It takes time, effort and introspection to be able to deal with all this, to know when to be flexible and when to stand your ground, to recognize the limitations in your own viewpoints, and to learn to argue for things in a way that people with different value systems will accept. If you can cultivate those skills, they’ll pay off for you a hundredfold in our globalized future.