Cultural Experts – An Endangered Species?

I grew up in a country, which is a melting pot of many racial groups. Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasians all live together in close proximity. Cultural diversity was nothing special in my childhood. It was normal for me that my best friend next door was called Li Ling. As a child I learned about the different cultural and religious beliefs both at school and through exposure in my everyday life. There were times I was not happy that my friends could do something that I was not allowed and often got to hear, “It is because we are Indians. Good Indian girls do not do such things”.Just as cultural values are useful in creating a sense of belonging to a specific group, these values can be constraining at a personal level as well.

Then I moved to Germany and learned about the German culture. For the first time, I felt free to be the real me. I no longer had societal expectations and rules of behaviour constraining me because I one of a kind in my new micro world. That could be a reason, why it was easy for me to adapt myself in the German way of life. I was neither pressurised into acting German nor did I have to behave like a good Indian girl. But I still carry with me the values that have been impregnated in me from birth. It is just that I have abandoned those inhibiting me and added new ones I have picked up during my stay in Germany.

As a result of work and travel experience I have been exposed to the American, Latin American, European, Australian and Pacific cultures. Therefore I feel justified in highlighting my multi-cultural expertise in the cover letters I write, when applying for a job. Recently I was thinking of applying as a freelance cultural consultant for SE Asia at a private institute in my hometown. I was researching this topic online when I read in an article stating that in Singapore men do not shake hands with women as a form of greeting. I wondered how long ago it was that the author had gathered this piece of information. It did not describe the Singapore I knew. That was when I had the following thought. Does globalisation result in a modification of existing cultural values? People are learning about other cultures before doing business with them. Could it be that these lessons eventually cause the culture of a society to evolve? Are cultural experts digging their own graves?

Through cultural training people do not only learn how the other group ticks, they also learn to modify their own behaviour in a way that is beneficial to their business relationships. Due to globalisation, it is no longer a one-way traffic from the investor, richer or developed country to the poorer or lesser developed countries being invested in. This status is no longer clear cut. China is as much an investor in other parts of the world, as a country where others invest in. I think it is still expected that the foreigner makes the effort to adapt and fit with the local culture. But when the roles keep changing between being a local and being a foreigner, it would cause a change in cultural norms so that individuals do not have to adapt so much when switching locations. The result is a global culture in the very far future.

This process has already started in small ways. The handshake has become an accepted form of greeting in many countries. Apple is creating cultural homogeneity just as much as Levis has by introducing jeans to mankind. Jeans has become part of a global uniform for informal attire. In 1998 I had an interesting conversation with a Swiss lady I was visiting in Switzerland. She saw me wearing jeans and asked if I had bought it there. I told her no, it was an old pair from Singapore. Before she probably could think the better of it, she blurted out, “You wear jeans there too?” Where did she think I came from? But can material things influence culture? Isn’t culture a social phenomenon that distinguishes one group from another through values? That would make it something intangible, right? Yes and No. I do not think that the things themselves have an influence on culture. However I do believe that those using these things could be indirectly influenced to act in a certain way and thus change their perspective of life. They gradually modify the social rules accepted by their group and eventually this would lead to a global. For example many people in the S-Bahn in Germany and the MRT in Singapore behave pretty similar. Most of them wear earphones and kill time by playing with their iPhones. It is an accepted behaviour in public areas, which cannot be attributed to a specific society, organisation, country, etc.

This change might take a long time to happen. But in future when we live on a diet of pills and teleport ourselves from one location to another, we would most probably have one global culture. But till then I guess the cultural experts are safe from becoming extinct.

9 thoughts on “Cultural Experts – An Endangered Species?

  1. Michael says:

    Nice post Irene. Looks like we share the same root – ASEAN. For you, it must be either Singapore or Malaysia. For me it is the latter. I have been to Frankfurt a few times on some business trips. Regards.

  2. Justin Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on Beautiful Elsewhere. and commented:
    I found this really great post about something I am always thinking of…our rapidly changing world. Every year it seems more and more spider-webs are linking the countries & it’s peoples. What will become the norm? Time might tell….

    • Thanks Katya. You are too kind. Bayer Leverkusen is my husband’s favourite football team. 🙂 Aren’t we an international lot! I would love to visit Brazil some time in the future. Wish you a wonderful day.

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