Cloistered on the top floor of the Bay in downtown Calgary with no customers was one of the dullest jobs I’ve ever had. Even being surrounded by fabric for those hours didn’t lift my mood when it actually felt like I was hidden away in some forgotten warehouse, complete with stale smells. There was no way to even know there was an outside world except for the lunch hour rush of sewers coming through. And then I would feel it somewhere inside me – a change in the atmosphere, so fresh, and I just knew that it was going to rain. When finally in contact with the outside world, I discovered that the rain was real.
That same year I took an intercultural class in college where we spent some time talking about how to do a good ethnography. It has got to be one of the most underutilized platforms for understanding people and cultures. The position of knowledge you approach a culture with is one of complete unknowing. Every interpretation of sounds and movement needs to be rediscovered from the perspective of the people you are trying to get to know. We mess it up when we give a meaning to someone’s words or actions based on what it has meant to us.
There are definitely times that I wish that I had paid closer attention to this earlier on, especially in other English speaking cultures. It is so easy to fall into the pattern of assuming we know the meaning when really we don’t. Going from North to South in Ireland is enough to throw someone for a loop with the cultural whiplash at times. Learning to read the cultures we find ourselves in is a bit like learning to pay attention to the rain in the atmosphere. You can’t just categorize it or read the book about it. You need to learn how to feel the difference and interpret it.
Therein lies a problem: cultures are fluid. They don’t stay constant. You can’t know it once and know it forever.
I am sure that when I first arrived in Dublin there were plenty of people shaking their heads thinking, ‘she hasn’t a clue.’ And for a lot of things, I didn’t. The first year was a lot of looking, listening, learning, and experiencing the consequences of my cultural mistakes.
A couple of weeks ago I started taking Tempo with Innovista. I figure that if I am going to start leading it within the year then I should probably feel what it is like to be a participant as well. Within the first module we are given a series of context questions (think: micro-culture and its environment). I had become so familiar with one aspect of the culture here but began to realise how lacking my awareness was of others. I began to text (because who actually calls anyone anymore) a few people who I knew could help me out. Reminding myself of the position of unknowing, I began to pick up on nuances of culture. What it has done is colour in my map of this city and this country. The cultures I have listened to regularly and most recently seem to be coloured in with the brightest colours. The places that I have not listened to at all remain in black and white. The map is becoming increasingly more colourful these days as I ask, “what do you mean when you say/do…”
Becoming a cultural expert is not about what you want to hear, what you read, nor about what you get right once and apply to everyone. It’s about learning to hear over and over again.
If you are considering doing an internship anywhere other than your own back yard or being a career missionary, I would highly recommend asking yourself if you are willing to listen for at least a month before you speak about your own culture and interpretations. Are you up for the challenge of learning from them first and teaching second?