Johnny Søraker told me this joke in 2005, in response to a joke I passed on from Minnesota: “Did you hear about the Norwegian man who loved his wife so much he almost told her?” Both jokes trade on the cultural stereotype of Norwegians as very reserved; both are funny, in my view – especially if they are told by Norwegians (or their descendants) as a way of poking fun at their own tendencies and habits.
These jokes help make a larger point: there are behavior patterns (beginning with language), norms and values, preferences, communication styles, and judgments regarding what counts as beauty, good taste, etc., that are characteristic of one group of people in contrast with others. Since the nineteenth century, anthropologists have accustomed us to thinking of these sets in terms of “culture.” So, in the exercise above, we’ve seen associations between specific attitudes and beliefs regarding privacy and larger (primarily national) cultures. “Culture” is a constant thread throughout this volume, but it is critical to make clear from the outset: (a) how far such references are useful; and (b) in what ways these uses of “culture” are limited and, indeed, potentially misleading – even destructive.
To begin with, as I hope these Norwegian jokes suggest, such generalizations about (national) cultures contain at least some grains of truth. In this case, that is, it seems safe to say – as a generalization – that indeed many (if not most) of the people born and raised in Norway are, in comparison with, say, the average Midwestern American, more shy and reserved. Such generalizations are useful, first of all, as starting points for thinking through our differences and similarities. Indeed, for many (most?) people, our culture (however difficult it is to define) usually serves as a core component of our identity, one that demarcates in various ways how we are both alike (in relation to those who share at least many of the elements of the same culture) and different (from those shaped by different cultures).
For example, as a Midwesterner, I know that (most of) my US East Coast friends will speak and walk more quickly than is the norm in Middle America. These sorts of differences are then the occasion for our judging – or, as frequently happens, misjudging – one another on the basis of what is “normal” (in at least a statistical sense) for our own culture. For example, in many US Midwestern small towns, the norm is to be “friendly” with cashiers and sales clerks, so as to spend a little time in conversation during the course of an otherwise commercial exchange. This friendliness is often (mis)interpreted as time-wasting superficiality by some of my US East Coast friends. In turn, their tendency to avoid such small talk often tempts Midwesterners to (mis)judge them as abrupt, unfriendly, aloof, perhaps arrogant.
And, of course, as we move across national cultures, the differences become even more striking. So, as the jokes above suggest, Norwegians tend to be much more reserved, for example, than Southern Europeans. And so on.
These examples illustrate three critical points to be kept in mind whenever “culture” appears in this text. First, up to a point at least, these sorts of generalizations are useful – indeed, at points, essential – if we are to understand and communicate respectfully with one another. Simply, the better we understand such cultural differences, the better we can anticipate how to interpret and communicate appropriately with those who do not share our own cultural values and communicative preferences. For example, I am less likely to misinterpret my East Coast friend’s curt response (curt as compared with the norm for a Midwesterner) as rude or unfriendly, and more likely to understand it as intended – that is, as efficient, to the point, and thereby respectful of our time as a limited and thus valuable commodity.
More broadly, these differences are interesting and enriching, as they make us aware of what deeply shapes our individual identities and group norms, and thereby of the incredible richness and diversity of human societies. In particular, these generalizations should thus be helpful to us in coming to understand both ourselves and the multiple Others around us, as we are both similar and irreducibly different in critical ways. Doing so, finally, is necessary if we are to overcome the twin dangers of ethnocentrism (assuming our own ways of doing things are universal), and then judging Others as inferior because their ways are different from our own. Human history is too full of the sorts of warfare, colonization, enslavement, and imperialism that follow upon such ethnocentrism. As Ames and Rosemont put it: “the only thing more dangerous than making cultural generalizations is the reductionism that results from not doing so”. That is, as risky, difficult, and inevitably incomplete as an attempt to characterize culture may be, it seems a necessary exercise if we are to avoid assuming that all others must be like us, and that they are less than fully human if they are not.
But, second, when we use such generalizations, we obviously risk turning them into simple and unfair stereotypes that can foster unjust prejudices. Please remember: every generalization, most especially the
generalizations that we think may help characterize a given “culture,” by definition entails multiple exceptions to the general rule. In statistical terms, there are always “outliers” – those people who stand outside the statistical norm as defined by the standard bell curve. So: many Midwesterners may seem friendly, open, and extroverted as compared with many Norwegians – but, of course, there are more than a few introverted Midwesterners as well as extroverted Norwegians who simply confound the generalization. In other words, we must never mistake a generalization for anything other than a generalization or heuristic, an initial and provisional guideline for first interpretations – not, for example, some sort of universal category that somehow captures an eternal and immutable essence of Midwestern- ness, Norwegian-ness, etc.