Food – A Vehicle For Culture

In my CRS400 class last week, I finally tried Ethiopian food. As a foodie and connoisseur of anything spicy, I thought that trying Ethiopian food would have come a lot earlier. Nevertheless, it was fantastic.

My class and I dined at Addis Restaurant, a local Ethiopian restaurant near the Kings Cross train station in London, UK. From the moment we walked in, we were surrounded by unique African décor, and could smell the amazing food cooking in the kitchen. Our waitress briefed us on how to eat Ethiopian food, which is often done communally around small circular tables, and to my surprise, with your fingers. The dishes are each served atop a crepe-like pancake called an Injera, which allows the juices and seasoning to steep the bread for maximum flavor.

Addis Restaurant

Addis Restaurant

The dishes were wonderful, and by the time the infamous Ethiopian coffee was served, I had tried lamb, chicken, beef, lentils, and so much more. My love for spicy food had been satisfied and I had added another culture’s food to my ongoing list of foreign cuisine. However, this made me wonder about my own culture’s food—cuisine in America—and whether people had the same immersive experience I had trying Ethiopian food.

Unfortunately, my perception of American cuisine is characterized by greasy and fattening foods that can be produced cheap and in large quantities. I immediately think of McDonalds, Burger King, and other health-diminishing chains that contribute to America’s growing obesity problem and our cultural ignorance towards nutrition. As Americans, we “super-size” everything, and create inordinate portions that foreshadow health concerns. Ironically, one of the things I noticed while studying in London was how packed American chains such as McDonald’s were at all hours of the day. I thought to myself that surely Europeans knew how bad it was for them, however, every McDonald’s I have seen is more crowded than those in the United States.

American Fast Food

American Fast Food

Of course, there are certain American foods for which I am proud and feel a close cultural bond, however, because of the lack of culture surrounding American food and a national emphasis on fast food, I tend to hold no significant beliefs when it comes to American food.

Having a meal such as that at Addis Restaurant, I felt for one of the first times in my life, that the servers of the food had a connection with what they were serving us. The way they poured the coffee and described each dish highlighted the importance of food within their culture. Moreover, it illuminated the fact that Americans generally place little importance on food. Yes, the United States is filled with millions of restaurants and diverse food, but these foods are brought to America by other cultures, and shared as tokens of immigrants’ heritage. As a result of this culinary diversity, I have become adaptive to other foods. Living in Washington, D.C., a city characterized by diplomats and a diverse population, I have grown up next to foreign restaurants. Perhaps this is why I have such an affinity for Indian, Thai, and Lebanese food.

Because of my American heritage and my country’s national ignorance when it comes to food, I am indifferent when other people reject American food. I have been in situations where I have been the foreigner rejecting someone else’s food, and it is quite unpleasant (Note: never reject an Italian’s food). I recognize that there are some foods which one may not wish to eat, and thus, I am understanding of someone rejecting a culture’s food.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned at last week’s lunch was that food is often a vehicle for cultural interaction. It evokes emotion, creates social gatherings, and provides outsiders with a window into a specific culture or ritual. While pride and appreciation for my culture’s food may be negligible, I can appreciate other cultures that do place emphasis on their native cuisine. Although part of me wishes Americans valued food as an integral part of their culture, we can enjoy other cultures through their foreign cuisine.

Software of the Mind – A Personal Analysis

Culture is the Software of the Brain

Culture is the Software of the Brain

Over the past week I have added another quote to my ongoing list of favorite sayings. In case you did not know, I am a huge techy. I obsess over computers, lust for new software, and I even spend a large part of my life writing software of my own. So it should come as no surprise that the following quote is near and dear to my heart.

 Culture is the Software of the Mind

Written by Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and former IBM employee, this notion grasped my attention. It made me wonder if humans were truly powered by some form of software and not a magical and inexplicable conscious. It made complete sense to me that external factors, which shape our personal cultures, are seemingly variables and objects in a complex software system. As we progress through our lives, the people we meet and the places we go inevitably influence our identity and perhaps most importantly, our culture. Just as computers become “smarter” over time and with more data, humans and their cultures become richer as we experience the world around us.

However, what really intrigued me were the specific dimensions Hofstede uses to describe culture and it made me wonder how I would fall into each of his six categories.

Hofstede dimensions

Hofstede dimensions

Power Distance

Hofstede describes Power Distance as the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power to be distributed unequally. I believe that I would score a high Power Distance index because while I believe that the equal distribution of wealth is important, it is often wistful. While that may seem quintessentially capitalistic, equal power distribution foreshadows complacency and a reluctance to work hard and a failure to strive to be the best. As such, I believe that the less powerful members of a society will be galvanized to work harder to move up the socioeconomic ladder, ultimately creating a diligent and empowered society. However, differing Power Distance indexes may also result in disagreements on a multicultural team. The people with high Power Distance indexes will likely work hard and accuse the people with low Power Distance indexes of being lazy.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

 I am a very individualistic person, which often results in me figuring out problems and determining solutions on my own. I believe this is a uniquely American mindset that causes us to think in terms of “I” rather than “We.” Of course, there are times when working collectively may yield a better outcome, however, I often attempt to tackle problems on my own before asking other people. When working on a multicultural team, this could convince my team members that I do not enjoy working with them. Moreover, working individually on certain projects may take more time and ultimately lead to unmet deadlines and a slower work process.

Masculinity vs. Feminism

My approach to life is characterized by a masculine outlook because I value achievement and often measure this in the form of material rewards. While this may seem cynical and highly artificial, it is undeniably an American quality that I cannot shed. We tend to value work and the size of our salaries over ample vacation time and quality of life. Rather than viewing quality of life and money as two distinct entities, I view them as interlinked; the more money someone makes, the more they have to enjoy a comfortable retirement and a life free of financial worries. I believe that this mindset would foreshadow disagreements on a team composed of different cultures. Some members of the team may view the work environment and level of happiness as more important than the payoff, which would inevitably spawn a divide among team members.

Uncertainty Avoidance

 I believe that many things in life can be avoided with careful planning and attention to detail. I tend to value facts and data over gut feeling and pure impulse, which is why I have a tendency to plan everything far in advance to avoid any potential catastrophes. I attribute this trait to having a more technically inclined mind—I see things in binary rather than a spectrum. While I do believe in the existence of fate, terrible things can be easily avoided. For example, wearing a seatbelt might not prevent the car from crashing, but it will substantially improve one’s chances of survival. This strong belief that the uncertain can be avoided is bound to cause problems among a multicultural team. Some team members may feel as though their instinctive emotions trump facts, while others may see gut feelings as an irrational basis for decision-making.

Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation

Perhaps because of my love for technology and innovation, I adopt a long-term orientation way of thinking. This long-term orientation is characterized by persistence, and the belief that thrift and modern education are the best ways to prepare for the future. Unlike Short-Term oriented cultures that value family tradition and historical cultural norms, I believe the answer to future problems are found through hard work and a willingness to adapt. Societal change is a wonderful thing, as it brings about new ways of thinking, and it allows humans the ability to learn from previously made mistakes. This could certainly cause a divide in a multicultural team, as some team members may weight family tradition over modern ideas. This debate is highlighted through modern-day struggles such as that between religion and science and how archaic ideas are being trumped by technological advancements.

Indulgence vs. Restraint

 Countries with high-levels of indulgence often result in a happier population and a better quality of life. I believe that no human should be denied their right to enjoy life to its fullest, as long as they are not harming others in the process. Liberty and personal freedom is crucial to any happy lifestyle and people who feel as though they are oppressed by a greater power should stand up and argue for their freedom. While this idea may be characteristic of the American lifestyle, it could create a rift between multicultural team members. Some may have a firm belief in their place within society, while others may wish for a more indulgent environment.

Thus, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions provides us with a way to analyze cultures and form a sense of personal identity. Culture is the software of the mind because it determines our thoughts, rationality, and opinions, as well as our perspective on other cultures. While the above analysis of myself may be stereotypically American and perhaps offensive to people of other cultures, it proves that culture defines who we are and programs our brains as such.

Cultural Clashings in Sweden

language_barrier

Language Barrier. Source: barrierjumpsgalleries.blogspot.co.uk

In our last class I heard something that I have been thinking about ever since.

 “Communication and culture are inseparable.”

I must admit, prior to hearing this assertion my understanding of culture and the study of communication was at best, considered naïve. Sure, I had travelled internationally, visited foreign places, talked with other people, however, it all felt as though it was still inside my cozy American bubble. This was probably because I was visiting those countries for such a short amount of time.

After spending almost four weeks in London now, I have learned that an area’s culture and its communication go hand-in-hand. Perhaps the best example of this notion happened two summers ago when my family visited Stockholm, Sweden. We knew some family friends who lived there year-round, and we met them for dinner at a moderately priced restaurant that served typical American foods—steaks, burgers, chicken—and they even served a wide selection of American beers. For a moment, it felt like we were back in the United States, enjoying dinner after a long week.

However, that moment was interrupted when the waitress came to take our orders. Almost immediately, we all started deflecting to each other saying, “No, you go first.” The waitress stood there as we indecisively bickered about who would order first until she finally rolled her eyes and asked if she should come back. Resilient to let her leave and eager to eat, my sister finally ordered.

“Cheeseburger with swiss cheese, pickles and lettuce and a side of chips.”

To me, this sounds like a normal order. However, the waitress simply could not understand her because of how fast she was speaking and because her message was encoded in English. Although most Swedes speak fluent English, occasionally you will find some that speak broken English as in this case. She politely asked her to slow down and say her order again, so she did, and it was on to the rest of us.

However, the same thing happened to each of us. Each time we attempted to order, she had to constantly ask us to slow down. I was curious about why this was—why she could not understand us despite her having a basic understanding of English—so I asked her, “Do you think we speak faster than most people?”

She looked at me and said something along the lines of, “you Americans are always so quick to do everything. You speak too fast, but you’re very friendly! I guess it’s a tradeoff.”

Components of Communication

Components of Communication

Having just learned about the components of communication in class this past week, I realized that when we were ordering our food, our message was being distorted by an extraneous noise—us talking too fast. It was also encoded in a way (English) that made it hard for her to receive, decode, and understand. While language may have been the most obvious barrier to her understanding us, I think it goes deeper. Our American culture served as an additional barrier because it caused us to talk too fast.

This incident highlighted linked nature of culture and communication because Americans are typically quick-paced people, who rarely take the time to relax and slow-down. This uniquely American trait was exemplified in our interaction with the waitress and shed light on the reality that cultural misunderstandings are bound to happen when you have two clashing cultures and there are external barriers.

Grant McGovern – My Roots & Origin

Me in front of a 1989 SAAB 900 Turbo. My favorite car.

Me in front of a 1989 SAAB 900 Turbo. My favorite car.

Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Grant McGovern and I am currently an American student from Washington, D.C. studying in London, U.K. for the next three months. My home institution is Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. and I am currently pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Science with a minor in Entrepreneurship.

While this blog has been started mainly as an exercise for my Intercultural Communication & Social Media class, I hope that it will grow into something more and ultimately spawn my interest in other cultures and how they affect me and shape my time in London. Although my major may not be the most “culturally immersive” topic, I chose to go abroad because living elsewhere and experiencing new cultures has been something instilled in me since a young age. I grew up fortunate enough to have parents who saw the importance of traveling and by the age of 14, I had visited 5 of the 7 world’s continents.

However, when I chose to study in London, I inevitably was challenged with the question, “Why do you want to go to London? It’s practically America just the people have funny accents.” While I understand this naive vantage point, after having been here for nearly two weeks, it is completely different. Even the language, which is “technically” the same, is wildly different—filled with uniquely British jargon.

The purpose of this blog post is to expose my cultural layers as we discussed in class last week. For my cultural layers I chose national (American), national (Scottish heritage), functional (Technical), and regional (Washington, D.C.).

First and foremost, I am an American citizen. I have been blessed with given liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I have grown up in the backdrop of the red, white, and blue, and I have grown to love family barbeques and July 4th fireworks. However, while this all seems perfect, seeing other parts of the world has enlightened me and made me realize there are parts of America that are not perfect. We have an absurdly high homeless rate, a fleeting focus on the math and sciences, and a seemingly unanimous cultural ignorance. This has made me careful to announce my American nationality and hesitant to be that loud and rowdy American.

In addition to American nationality, I come from a Scottish background. My grandmother and her extended ancestors were all devout Scots and she assures me this is the reason why I am so stubborn and pessimistic. Although these are not the best qualities to have, they are inevitably part of who I am, and it puts a smile on my face to know that perhaps it comes from my Scottish heritage.

Another cultural layer that has affected me is my Washington, D.C. upbringing. Living in the nation’s capital has made me incredibly competitive and fast-paced. I always feel like I am in a rush and I feel as though I must compete with my peers. I believe this is why I tried so hard in high-school and continue to take my academics seriously in college. Living in Washington, D.C. has also exposed me to new foods and has seasoned my love for foreign dishes. This is because D.C. is home to so many embassies, diplomats, and foreigners, and as such, there is a wide range of cultural foods.Lastly, I am by nature a computer nerd. I always have been and there is not much I can do to change that. I believe I inherited this trait from my father who was also a technologist. Although I try not to, I fall into the computer nerd stereotype fairly well. I am by no means a misanthrope or anti-social, rather, it takes some time for me to warm up to someone new. I will always be friendly to other people, however, I find comfort in working with computers—they make sense to me in a way that humans never will. In short, they are binary. This functional cultural layer has perhaps the greatest influence on me, as it is something I want to pursue with my life. I hope to be a software engineer one day, however, I would like to acquire skills beyond coding to perhaps start my own business or develop my own product some day.

There are many cultural layers that have influenced my identity. Some confound each other such as my Scottish and American heritage, others are very distinct, such as my passion for technology and my love for computers. However, when combined, these layers mold me into the person I am and truly define my own culture, which I know and love.