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Culture War: Managing the internal conflict
posted: Apr. 26, 2021.
Acculturation is the degree someone feels connected to the culture at large. They may feel an identification with, a belonging to, or an agreement with the values, customs, beliefs, social practices, etc. of the geographical region they live in. Some would argue that we don’t develop apart from the cultural influences that permeate all aspects of life.
Culture determines the language we use, non-verbal communication, social mores, family structures, relationship patterns, developmental progress, etc. It’s so subtle, you might not even realize how you’ve been shaped by your culture until you visit another region. For 2nd generation Americans, they straddle 2 different cultures: the one they live in and the one their parents grew up in. Therein lies the culture war 2nd-geners face.
My parents emigrated from Greece to the east coast of the US less than 2 months before I was born. They both hailed from the same small village in northern Greece and were immersed in their cultural norms. Little did they appreciate the issues they’d face trying to raise 2 kids in America. They spoke little English when they arrived and suffered a myriad of challenges, but they had high hopes for a new life in the US.
In my early years, I was unaware of the cultural differences because my interactions were limited to a Greek bubble of relatives, community, and family life. Greek was my first language, we attended a Greek-speaking church and all of our social activity was centered around our relatives who all came from the same hometown.
The trouble came when we left that community and moved to the west coast. California did not offer the same social support system we had previously, so the contrast of cultures surfaced quickly. All of a sudden, I realized my parents dressed, spoke, and behaved very differently than my playmates. And I didn’t like that they were different. I also didn’t like that we spoke Greek at home. It wasn’t a “cool” language like Spanish or French which were offered in school.
For immigrant kids, cultural identity complicates the typical identity formation of adolescence
Needless to say, my teen years were fraught with identity issues and poor coping skills. My parents were unprepared for things like teenage rebellion and the psychological process of differentiation. In their upbringing of a post-WWII, war-torn country, family was all about survival and everyone pulled together to help out. There were prescribed roles and each one knew what his/her job was to help the family unit. They were unaware of the individualistic leanings of the American culture at large or that their kids might form opinions and preferences that differed from what was expected of them.
You could almost hear the sparks fly as parents and children clashed over any number of issues ranging from what language they spoke to how much time was spent in the family business to what constituted appropriate clothing styles to choice of friends. The arguments seemed endless during my teen years. Looking back, it’s a wonder we made it through that season without killing each other or ourselves.
Eventually, things settled down and I learned some valuable lessons as a result of working out my own cultural identity. In this next part, I’m going to highlight some ideas for both parents and kids to use to call a truce in the culture war and practice diplomacy that preserves relationship.
Navigating the acculturation maze
Those who migrate to a new country and intend to raise children there have their work cut out for them. Immigrants themselves have their set of challenges, but their children are faced with some daunting developmental tasks as well. Living with your cultural heritage can be a rich, rewarding experience even as you adopt new values from the host culture. Although the transition can be bumpy, it doesn’t have to be all out war. Below I’ll outline some key areas to be aware of that will help smooth out the challenges both immigrants and their children face as they acclimate to their environment.
Type of Societies: Collectivist vs. Individualist
This is a standard polarizing value that translates into relationships. In some cultures, the collective (typically the family unit) is seen as dominant. The individuals are there to keep the collective healthy and working to benefit all the members. Therefore, individual preferences defer to group goals. In this system, the individual may have a prescribed role and deviation from the role is strongly discouraged.
By contrast, the individualistic culture sees the importance of the individual above the collective. The primary goal is to keep the individual functioning and thriving. Therefore, the needs/wants of the collective defer to the individual’s needs/wants. In this system, the collective could be viewed as a hindrance of the individual’s pursuits.
Be aware of what type of society you grew up in and how that’s infiltrated your ideas on relationships. Are the children being exposed to a society that is opposite of what the parents grew up in? This can spark conversation on the benefits and challenges of each type of society. This might also offer an opportunity for the family to create its own set of rules that blends the best of both worlds. Family members can come to a consensus of how to interact in a way that maximizes connection and minimizes conflicts.
Communication Styles: Direct, Progressive, Indirect
I wrote an extensive blog on communication styles you can read here, but I summarize a few for the purposes of this blog.
Direct communication states the obvious. You get to the point quickly and leave no room for misunderstanding. The benefit of this style is clarity in message. The downside is that it can come across as abrupt, insensitive, or even disrespectful.
Progressive communication gets to the point in stages. The idea is for the speaker to bring the listener on a brief journey so they buy into the point. The benefits of this style are collaboration and a spirit of cooperation. The downside is that it can take more time and effort with no guarantee of agreement.
Indirect communication talks around the point with the intent that the point is assumed by all parties. The benefits of this style are to approach sensitive subjects with tact, preserve dignity, and soften criticism. The downside is that this leaves room for misunderstanding, and having to revisit the subject multiple times before getting resolution.
While we tend to use all of these styles based on the circumstance, we typically have a dominant way of communicating. Be aware of both your own communication style and the others in the family unit. How can each person make adjustments so that communication is more effective? Develop an understanding of how each style affects your ability to hear the other person. For example, those who tend to favor an indirect style may find the direct style to be rude and this can affect their ability to listen objectively. Or those who favor the direct style quickly lose patience with those who speak indirectly and can’t keep track what’s being said.
We think, perceive, and judge based on our cultural identity. This happens automatically and doesn’t necessarily present a problem. However, when we suddenly find ourselves in an environment different than the cultural standards we’re used to, we struggle to interpret behavior. Worse yet, others may misunderstand us because of how our actions are interpreted by their cultural standards.
When immigrants join a new host culture, they bring a snap-shot of their home culture with them. These are the standards they use to evaluate the most appropriate course of action for a given scenario. Culture also includes expectations for family roles, eating habits, communication modes, clothing styles, mannerisms, expressions, etc. If the host culture has a significantly different way of handling all of these things, immigrants and their kids often face awkward situations where they are left feeling out of place, misunderstood, or even humiliated.
One way to deal with transitioning into a new host culture is to take the position of investigator. Sociologists study groups of people and learn how those groups operate by observing behavior. Immigrants and their children can learn from what they see others doing. Of course, it’s also a good idea to develop friendships with a native to help navigate the difference between a good example to follow and one that is best ignored.
Another important trait to develop is patience. Transition takes time and the longer you were exposed to another culture, the more difficult it is to acclimate to the new host culture. Set expectations accordingly and keep the lines of communication open to help each family member process their experiences meaningfully. Finding a support group of other immigrants is another benefit.
In some cultures, there is a definite hierarchy where one person is the “driver of the ship” or the ultimate authority. Usually this person is one of the adults – it could be the father, the mother, a grandfather, or grandmother. Order and stability rest on this hierarchy, so it might be seen as disrespectful of both the authority and structure to go against the directives of the driver.
Other cultures have a family dynamic that is more like a democracy. Each member gets a say in how things work. Although the children in these family structures tend to have a greater voice, adults are still ultimately in charge. However, in some cases, even the adults defer to the children for some things.
Be aware of the family dynamic that you’re used to and how the other families in the host culture operate. You may find it hard to relate to how the family members interact with each other because it’s so different than what you’re used to. For immigrant kids, being exposed to other family dynamics may cause them to question the structure they have at home. This isn’t a call to shield kids from other families, but this could be an opportunity to discuss differences in a way to develop an appreciation for your own family dynamic.
Navigating the culture war
Types of societies, communication styles, cultural identity and family dynamics are all areas of adjustment for immigrants and their children. When moving to a new culture, immigrants may have to be prepared to explain things they might not have had to if they hadn’t moved. The idea of even having to defend cultural values seems foreign because immigrants grew up in an environment that supported at least some of the values in the home.
In truth, all families are challenged when cultural values don’t align with their own and this happens even when you are born and raised in the same place. As times change, attitudes shift and public discourse ushers in new values and ideas that might not be compatible with former values. If you feel challenged in your ability to navigate the culture wars, please contact me and we can discuss specific strategies to help you succeed.