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Cultural Training Wheels

After our Pre-Service Training, the director of programming sent the Peace Corps Volunteers off to their new sites with three small gifts. One, an article written in 2013 titled, “We Aren’t the World” by Ethan Watters about social scientist Joe Henrich’s work regarding psychological traits of social groups and their world view. The second, a list: “The Values Americans Live” by Robert Kohls, which is painfully spot on. The third, an excerpt from Dr Milton Bennet’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), which sums up how we are culturally wired to interpret our view of reality. For me it was like being given Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet for a graduation present. I return to these three Xeroxed articles religiously to reread and remind myself that whatever it is, it’s not personal—it’s cultural. (I also return to them because I run out of novels and there are no cereal boxes to read.)

Bennet says we all begin with an ethnocentric view—the assumption that our familiar world orientation is the measure for all world views. He calls the ethnorelative view “a fundamental mindset shift” to recognize that “behavior can only be understood within a cultural context.”

This came up for me with an interaction with the Metfone guy who recharges my cell phone. The cashier shorted me 500 riel. I pointed it out, and he just laughed and paid up. I tried to keep the feeling of indignation from showing on my face. I wanted to say, hey, I’m teaching your kids English, I got American artists to donate materials for a free art club, I buy phone time from you every month—and you try to cheat me out of 12 cents? Of course that was my inside voice. Later I thought how that dialog could have played out; he could have responded, “Well, it’s only 12 cents.” Cultural context.

Joe Henrich’s research reveals that cultural differences go way beyond customs, language, and food. Our ideas about nearly everything from spatial reasoning to moral values are categorically different around the world. For example a health care worker in Togo shows up with charts and diagrams to scientifically explain to the rural population how malaria is contracted. The locals may look at the explanation as just another theory equally as plausible as their chieftain’s idea that malaria is caused by eating mangoes too early in the season. To a scientist verifiable data is proof. To the unconvinced, meh, it’s just another possibility.

Among Kohl’s list of American Values is directness, openness, and honesty. Asian society values are indirect, soft-spoken, and concerned with saving face. Even open secrets, like alcoholism, domestic abuse, or addictions are not met with intervention or ultimatums. After the drunken ruckus the night before, it’s business as usual in the morning.

It isn’t that the Metfone guy went out of his way to cheat me. It’s like driving on the national highway in Cambodia—you see an opening, you take it. He saw an opening. So did I. We each have our own world view of what that means. I’m riding on the national highway, but I’ve still got my cultural training wheels on.

“We Aren’t the World” by Ethan Watters:


“The Values Americans Live” by Robert Kohls:

“Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)” by Dr Milton Bennet:

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