Culture is a powerful word. However, we often think of it as a foreign thing – something that only other countries or ethnicities are subject to. The truth is that culture exists all around us. It lives in our families, our communities, our churches, and our lifestyles and opinions. It is influenced by biases, trends, opinions, and both positive and negative ideologies. And it is not uncommon that negative culture can cause a lot of people a lot of pain.
People make very rash and unfair judgments either because they are looking into the culture of another person and do not understand what they are seeing (mainly because it does not line up with how they would act in that situation), or someone living within a given culture may judge another person for not behaving the way the culture might expect. Either way, cultural misunderstandings about, and there is more than enough offense to go around if we let it.
Years ago, while serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Guatemala, I regularly fell victim to this problem until I learned to accept people where they were and how they saw things, rather than try to pull them over to how I saw things. I soon discovered that I was much happier when I sought to understand cultural norms that existed, rather than trying to force “Americanisms” onto other people.
So what can be done about these kinds of negative trends? First and foremost is to be aware of cultural norms that exist immediately around us. These are definitely hard to spot because we are engulfed within our own culture and don’t typically think of it as offensive or problematic or judgmental to anyone simply because it is what we see and live and breathe every day. But just because it is common does not mean it doesn’t hurt or confuse others.
I have had young men and women in my office who came home early from missions (typically for physical or mental health issues) who felt that they were being pressured to get right back out there on their missions fast, when they are home because they are very sick and maybe should NOT go back out at all. They have reported feeling judged and frowned on if they didn’t go back out. The cultural ideology is that one can only “complete” a mission if the full 18 or 24 months is finished. That is not true, but that is the assumption. These individuals were honorably released so that they could get home and address their health or mental health challenges. According to the church, they have fulfilled their responsibilities. But cultural expectations provide real or perceived pressure for these young people that can so often be suffocating to them.
At other times I have had clients come in who are single, widowed, or divorced, who report that they feel like they now don’t fit in in their community because our community is very marriage oriented. Of course, marriage is a fantastic and worthy goal, and my point is not to say otherwise. My point is that some feel they are second-class citizens if they are single (often, by the way, through no fault of their own) and they are sometimes excluded, or self-exclude, because of these cultural patterns. For example, where they used to go out as couples with friends, now that they are single they feel like a “third wheel” and turn down invitations due to just feeling uncomfortable, or, on the flip side, they just don’t get invitations to go anymore.
These are cultural perceptions, both of the individual living in that situation, but also (and often unwittingly) of other people who are on the other end (e.g., the family or neighbors of the early-returned missionary who means well by asking when he’s going back out). We all can do better at simply reaching out to others in simple kindness. And if we find ourselves on the other side of a cultural norm, we can do better at kindly and patiently educating people about it a little better, rather than getting offended.