14 Sep 2023, 11:43

Culture is about the small things

I have lived outside the country I was born in for more than 17 years now.

When I lived in France, I eventually had a pretty good grasp of the language. I could give tech talks, write reports, talk to my coworkers, neighbours and friends — including casual banter and that sort of thing. I like to think that I actually fit in pretty well.

However, one evening I watched Qui veut gagner des millons? on TV, the French edition of Who wants to be a Millionaire. And I realized that I would not even be able to get through the initial round of quick-fire questions. Most of the time, I did not know the answer to the 500 euro question! The reason for that is that these questions rely on shared cultural understandings, such as that TV series everyone watched when they were a kid, popular books and snacks and the like. I grew up with different series. I have not watched many of the movies that “everyone” remembers from way back when, such as La cité de la peur or Le Père-Noël est une ordure. La classe Américaine was excellent though :)

Don’t assume cultural context when communicating

It is easy to take your own cultural context for granted. I see this all the time on the Internet, or at work. Yet, in a globalized world, this creates an exclusionary atmosphere, particularly together with a “What, you don’t know that? Come on!” reaction when this gets pointed out.

In my opinion, this is especially true for US culture. People keep showing me pictures of outrageously bad pop tarts, and I don’t know what a normal one is supposed to look like. People assume that I know who the cartoon character in their avatar is. And so on. Europeans generally don’t know these things, as they are not available in their country. I assume it’s the same for Asian people.

This goes in the other direction too, of course. There was a recent controversy on social media because an American influencer in Paris apparently discovered that French people put butter on their sandwiches. There was a lot of snark from other Europeans about how everyone knows this already and that this person was stupid, etc.

So, my tip for communicating (and writing docs or blog posts is certainly a form of communication too): Try to be mindful of your own cultural context that might not be shared by your readers or listeners. Don’t rely on it. And when you are called out for it, don’t double down and give a snarky answer. Be kind.