Personal Narrative in Cultural Context essay

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The wait person brought me a fresh pot of hot water and teabags, and I opened a small journal I had brought with me, pretending to read it and not be put off by Sergio's rambling, animated conversation across the table. Actually I had taken notes from a cultural reading I had been assigned, and Pinto's "Three Steps" were entered. Everyone sees, "perceives, and interprets everything around him from the limited perspective of his own norms and values," Pinto explains (172). That is not groundbreaking information, but he is right. Hence, each person "tends to regard his own norms and values as universal," Pinto continued, on the first step. Persons should try to "separate events from opinions," Pinto continued, and that was helpful to me in that moment.

Sergio at this point got up and walked away from the table, continuing his conversation and apparently not wanting me to hear his end of it. It was a relief to me, actually. I needed some intellectual perspective. Before I mention Pinto's second step, I do feel that I my values are universal, since I have traveled a great deal, every school I have attended except for my present college experience has been an international-American school. That doesn't make me any better than Sergio, but from what I know of him and his family, he likely has a limited view of the world, save for what he apparently witnesses in media (TV, the Web, magazines).

Pinto's second step -- getting to know the "…norms, values and behavioral codes of the other party" (176) -- hit me right where I needed to be hit. I really knew very little about Sergio's values and his lifestyle, and I had a previously established bias against Russian men, so that was an unfair way to approach a cultural interrelationship. "What is the meaning behind the 'unusual' behavior of the other party?" Pinto asks in step two. By knowing more about Sergio's life and times, I might be able to discern where he is really coming from.

The third step in Pinto's model suggests that a person suddenly thrust into a new and different culture should try to determine what the behavioral codes are, the norms and values are, and "establish the extent to which he is willing to adjust…" to the actions of the other party (197-180). Frankly I was not willing to adjust to the crude level of dialogue that Sergio offered, but I did need to know more about his life and culture before ultimate passing judgment, albeit I was greatly offended by his remarks. Still, Pinto is correct, I should let the other party know "in a timely fashion" what limits I intend to place on his behavior.

When Sergio finally got off the phone and sat down, I launched into a discussion about the climate in the Moscow area, how does it compare to where Sergio lives, I wondered. He was vaguely interested in that topic but he returned to his summation of my looks, my future, and me. Before he could go very far, I implemented Pinto's step three. "Sergio, I really don't wish to be involved in a personal discussion at this point about me or my future, but I am interested in you. We haven't talked about you and I really know nothing whatsoever about your life and your dreams for the future," I explained. He picked up the drift of my remarks (I chose Russian expressions that I could articulate competently), and he spent some time explaining his childhood, his education, his job as a night clerk in a hotel, and while it was bland, I smiled while listening because I realized I had failed to be interested in him previous to his rude remarks to me.

On page 178 of his book Pinto writes (some of the quote is his use of italics for emphasis): "When a problem arises in an intercultural situation, it is essential that a person should not react too hastily and should not ignore those aspects that are unclear. Explicitly looking for puzzling behaviour is precisely what is important." I was reacting hastily, and by querying Sergio about his life, I was looking for clues as to his puzzling behaviour.

Deeper Analysis

Geert Hofstede's essay in the book Intercultural Communication: A Reader, references Edward T. Hall's approach to understanding various cultural approaches to communication. The high-context approach (where a great deal of the information communicated is "implicit") and the low-context approach ("nearly everything is explicit") (Hofstede, 2011, p. 20). Clearly Sergio was not holding back and expecting me to pick up suggestions and hints about his attitude. He was brutally blunt. He likely figured this would be his only alone time with an friendly and attractive European woman relative, and he wouldn't want to waste the opportunity.

In his essay, Hofstede goes on to reference U.S. sociologists Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils; they suggested that "all human action is determined by five pattern variables" -- choices between pairs of alternatives. Those five, as they relate to my intercultural incident, have substance and help me understand the situation I was thrust into vis-a-vis my walk with a distant cousin.

The first of the Parsons / Shils contrasting alternatives: Affectivity (someone needs gratification) versus affective neutrality (restraining one's impulse). In my mind Sergio, a man living in a very rural environment, needed the gratification of speaking his mind in this case, and he certainly wasn't restraining his impulse to be candid (albeit rude) with me. However, I was obviously restraining my impulse to call him out, so we were truly dueling cultural antagonists (without loud or mean-spirited rancor) (Hofstede, 20).

The second set of alternatives posed by the duo: Self-orientation vs. collectivity-orientation. Clearly Sergio's orientation was based on self-orientation, and actually so was mine in that context. The third set of alternatives includes: Universalism (applying general standards) versus particularism (taking particular relationships into account). I would say that my approach to Sergio (and my approach to culture) is an example of universalism -- and I did strive to take this particular relationship, however brief and vacuous, into account as I tried to be patient and understanding of cultural differences. I'm not sure Sergio enters into this third set at all. The fourth set -- ascription (judging others by who they are) versus achievement (judging them by what they do) -- fits into this cultural conundrum neatly. Sergio judged me by whom he believed me to be -- not who I am, though he couldn't really know that -- and I judged him by what he did (Hofstede, 21). Finally, within the fifth pair by Parsons / Shils -- specificity (putting relations with others into specific spheres) versus diffuseness (no prior limitations to the nature of relations) -- I put Sergio into a specific sphere (redneck from rural Russia), unfairly; he poured forth with no reservations or limitations on what came out of his mouth (Hofstede, 21).

In researching the basic difference between men's values and women's values, Hofstede points out based on his IBM studies that men's values -- from one country to another -- contain an "assertive and competitive" characteristic, quite the opposite of women's values" (Hofstede, 2009, p. 1). Of course there are men who are, Hofstede also points out, "modest and caring," more in tune with women's values. But Sergio was not modest and caring, yet it was my duty as an educated, worldly person from a different culture to listen to Sergio rather than only judge.

Visual Approach and Conclusion

The faculty at Georgetown University explain on their Web site that people learn codes for every form of media, whether culturally relevant or not. There is constant "code-switching" or "hacking the visual codes around us" in order that we can "navigate and negotiate meaning" from it all. I wondered what codes Sergio's visual cultural experiences have led him to believe; so I asked him what media he enjoys, and sure enough, he watches American style TV, including reality shows, the dancing and singing contests, the Kardashians, and he "surfs the Web" and watches sports (soccer, boxing, and American football).

One of the Georgetown bullet points on Visual Culture asks: "How do these categories operate when applied to, or projected on, non-Western cultures and global cultures?" Sergio may be a case in point, and I wish now I had more time with him. The visual culture, according to Nicholas Mirzoeff, is understood as "…a tactic for studying the functions of a world addressed through pictures, images, and visualizations, rather than through texts and words" (Georgetown, p. 3). That has application to Sergio, as he admitted he doesn't read much, but enjoys media.

In conclusion, the Mission Statement presented by Vesalius College asserts that the purpose of the school is to prepare students for success "…in an increasingly diverse and international world."…[continue]


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