On Cultural Signing
I noticed a 20-something guy walking down Karl Marx Street today in a torn and studded leather jacket, a long braid, and combats, and felt a smile turn the corner of my mouth. Conventionalism in Russia is much more en vogue than America, and so when you see a man who is not clean shaven, crew cut, and in sharp leather shoes along with his straight-leg jeans and short-sleeve button-down, or a woman who just walked out of a Chanel catalogue, it draws attention and distinguishes the person from the average Russian. More importantly than the smile, I realized that every time I see a person defying convention in Russia, I feel an automatically greater sense of trust than I do for the average passerby; this is not at all the case when I’m in America.
In a society where diversity is as highly touted and displayed as ours, the fact that someone looks different simply isn’t notable. But in a society where the convention is comparatively conservative, the fact that the girl standing at the bus stop in front of me is wearing dread locks, red jeans, and Timberlands bolsters my feeling that ‘this is someone who may think more like I do”; that is, not like a stereotypical Russian. The fact is, of course, that I have no idea what she thinks about, for example, gay marriage, rock music, or America. But we signify our cultural allegiance by our dress and demeanor; and in my experience, those who reject whatever appears to be the mainstream culture are more likely to win my trust, even if I’m basing my judgments on superficialities.
The same thing applies to groups within a single culture, of course, with everything from the news to judgments of family and friends. How many of us can think of a news source we instantly disbelieve after a label has been affixed? Fox’s news-ticker says “Will Obamacare ruin your business?”, and all at once, I’m both sure that Fox News thinks that it will, that in fact in won’t, and that the channel likely has some insidious motive for asking. I see a Facebook picture of a few old high school acquaintance at Hooters, and I presume that we’re not likely to have much in common; thank god I don’t have to see these people everyday. Psychologists working with the minimum group paradigm have shown that subjects show preferences to people identified as a member of their group, even when the groups were formed on the basis of something as trivial as a coin toss in the subjects’ presence before being asked to make their judgments. Keeping this in mind, how could I ever expect to convince a Russian friend to change their views on any point of cultural contention? How could they change mine?
And what about the guy in the street dressed like a punk? To me, it means he thinks differently – that he’s more likely and more willing to disagree with the majority opinion in his culture on any number of issues. This is the kind of person I trust, and it has been for a long time. It dawned on me for the first time last year that one of the primary factors in determining whether or not I trust someone is hearing them disagree with the relevant majority will. It may have started with the Iraq War, being personally convinced that the government was feeding us a crock and realizing that everyone around me believed it; hence today, my hearing someone profess opinions about foreign policy that imply trust in a government calls up only incredulity at their naiveté. But then, on the other hand, the shallowness of cultural signs removed from their original context would seem to imply that they should be meaningless.
Arguments aside, what is it that we really understand when we look at each other and each others’ behavior? I look at a coworker and see a fashionable, if somewhat fabulous, twenty-something. Can I draw any conclusions from the fact that he loves Lady Gaga and choreography? Hardly, if at all: heuristics are a hairsbreadth from stereotypes to begin with; trying to apply them outside of the context in which you learned them is like trying to measure the volume of a lake with a yardstick.
Where does this leave us in regard to intercultural communication? Is it possible to flag every expression fraught with potential for misunderstanding? Or is it the amalgamation of tens and hundreds of small differences in meaning that lead us astray?