Cultural Difference

August 14, 2014

While it’s normative to note the realities of cultural difference early in a mission experience, whether short or long-term, I find that after nearly 3 years in South America I still think about cultural difference. It’s a reality that’s embedded in our daily lives. From buying groceries to meeting people on the street while walking the dog, I encounter and live cultural difference daily.

I’ve experienced a great deal of cultural difference in the context of having a dog. For example, I use a lead for walking my dog that goes around the snout and connects to a leash under the head. I learned many years ago from a trainer that this type of lead provides greater control, particularly for training, and in the case of Springer Spaniels, notorious for snatching edibles off of the street, it also helps the walker keep them from eating street items that might make them sick. CIMG1838I find I have to explain the lead to someone just about daily. Some people do everything they can to avoid us, because they assume that anything that’s placed near the snout means your dog is vicious. People ask me all the time if my dog is “bravo” (angry), the common term used for an aggressive dog. Still others feel the need to stop and lecture me about how cruel it is to use that kind of lead, saying things like, “Can’t you see he doesn’t like it?” On one occasion, someone stopped me … I thought to pet the dog … and actually pulled the lead off of the dog’s snout!

Another interesting discussion I’ve had with people has to do with neutering. If you’re not planning to breed, most dog owners in the U.S. will have their pet neutered (male or female) at a young age. If you get a pet from a shelter, it’s typically already done or is a requirement for adoption. Advantages of neutering (or what’s referred to these days as de-sexing) include the reduction of behaviors such as mounting, urine spraying, and some forms of male aggression due to the decrease in hormone levels. In addition, it can reduce or eliminate other undesirable behaviors such as separation anxiety and barking, and also pretty much eliminate the chance of ovarian or testicular cancers (there’s always a chance of some form of stump related cancer, though extremely rare). Every time I’ve mentioned neutering Wilson, I’ve had pretty heated discussions. I’m told it’s cruel, he’ll get fat and lazy, he’ll have emotional problems, and any number of other things. On one occasion, as I tried to explain the reasoning behind neutering a dog, including health and security benefits like not running off to mount a neighboring female in heat, the man I was talking with quickly retorted, “If it’s so healthy, then why aren’t you neutered?!” (And, of course, I had the wit to respond, “Because I’m not a dog!”) I’ve discovered that in some instances, resistance to neutering is a convenient cover for not wanting to spend the money for the surgery. In others, it’s plain ignorance about neutering (which, of course, is universal and not unique to Colombia or any other country). But even more culturally relevant is the perspective based in natural law. The Roman Catholic Church holds the view of natural law provided by St. Thomas Aquinas particularly in his Summa Theologia which is that it’s a system of law that is determined by nature. I’ve been told more than once that it’s “natural” for my dog to have testicles and that I’m going against nature, hence the will of God, by neutering him.

On another occasion, I asked a colleague if he could look after my dog for a day. He responded that he “didn’t have a balcony at his apartment.” I had to think about that one for a minute to determine why that had anything to do with what I was asking. I’ve since learned that one way in which people care for their dogs here is to put them CIMG1840“outside” for the day when they go to work … as in on the balcony. Keep in mind that most balconies couldn’t hold more than a chair or two. I guess that might make sense to an apartment dweller here in Bogota, a city of 12 million people with high rise apartments being the norm. It just never crossed my mind that caring for my dog would mean leaving him on the balcony for the day. I suppose it’s doable, just not an idea I’d ever considered. … I guess that is yet another cultural difference. (I would have been happy to have him use my apartment for the day, but it was clear he didn’t consider that an option.)

As I continue to think about cultural difference, I also find it helpful to reflect on it in the context of other activities. In a recent conversation with a friend we were discussing a number of things related to getting work done in Colombia and he used the word “incompetence” in the context of my indicating how a particular task might get accomplished. While that wasn’t the word that came to my mind, and my immediate reaction was that he was speaking from his own (North American) cultural perspective and associated expectations, it got me thinking about how we define those things and what they say about our thinking. Is a particular behavior or action necessarily a sign of “incompetence” or is it a reflection of “cultural difference”? How do we decide? Aren’t those distinctions both culturally defined? If so, in what ways do they reflect culturally defined expectations? Might something I think is a sign of “incompetence” just be a reflection of my own cultural perspective and expectations? At the same time, at what point do “culturally defined” and “cultural difference” simply serve as an excuse and avoidance of the reality that a behavior or action may, in fact, be a reflection of incompetence? Is our unwillingness to name something as “incompetence,” and/or to hold others accountable and to a particular standard, actually our fear that we’re being neo-colonial, culturally hegemonic, paternalistic, and so forth? When do we stop being knee-jerk liberals and begin treating others with dignity and respect, which includes being willing to hold them to similar standards to which we hold ourselves, at some level of expectation that we can mutually define and agree upon?

Is everything challenging just a matter of cultural difference, or are there things on which we can agree are wrong or need to change in some way? For example, if our governments create trade agreements with certain economic behavioral expectations, is it enough for one party to renege on those expectations on the grounds that, “Well, it’s just a matter of cultural difference”? At what point can we justifiably have expectations of one another? How do those expectations get defined? … by whom? … and for whom? At what point do we stop beating ourselves up, or allowing others to beat us up, over our paternalistic, colonial, and imperial pasts? In what ways is it healthy for us to continue to journey in our understanding about these issues, and in what ways is it dysfunctional for everyone involved to allow that journey to dominate our relationships and interactions? In what ways can and should we engage one another regarding issues of expectation and cultural difference?

… and maybe none of this has anything to do with the price of tea in China, and I need to stop being the sociologist and get on with caring for my dog.

One Response to “Cultural Difference”

  1. Dianne Smith Says:

    I’m glad Wilson has a US option. XO, Dianne


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