Cultures must be seen in their wider context

A great introduction to my Spring 2009 cross-cultural communication class from UNFPA‘s State of world population 2008:

Culture – inherited patterns of shared meanings and common understandings – influences how people manage their lives, and provides the lens through which they interpret their society. Cultures affect how people think and act; but they do not produce uniformity of thought or behaviour. 

Cultures must be seen in their wider context: They influence and are influenced by external circumstances and change in response. They are not static; people are continuously involved in reshaping them, although some aspects of culture continue to influence choices and lifestyles for very long periods. 

Cultural customs, norms, behaviours and attitudes are as varied as they are elusive and dynamic. It is risky to generalize, and it is particularly dangerous to judge one culture by the norms and values of another. Such over-simplification can lead to the assumption that every member of a culture thinks the same way. This is not only a mistaken perception but ignores one of the drivers of cultural change, which is multiple expressions of internal resistance, out of which transitions emerge. The movement towards gender equality is a good example of this process at work. 

Appeals for cultural sensitivity and engagement are sometimes wrongly interpreted as acceptance of harmful traditional practices, or a way of making excuses for non-compliance with universal human rights. This is far from the case – such relativism provides no basis for action and produces only stalemate and frustration. Values and practices that infringe upon human rights can be found in all cultures. Culturally sensitive approaches determine what makes sense to people and work with that knowledge. Embracing cultural realities can reveal the most effective ways to challenge harmful cultural practices and strengthen positive ones.