Thursday, March 1, 2018

Cultural Ambassadors of Weirdness

One of the coolest parts about being far from home is the impact you can have on people just by being yourself. I don't think this is as true everywhere in the world - for example, I don't think many Londonites are that impressed by meeting an American. Living in Kenya, though, and especially traveling outside of major cities for cultural outreach, I often get to be the first American a Kenyan has met. Sometimes, I am aware, I may be the only American that person ever meets.

That prospect is both exciting and very serious. As a diplomat, I'm aware I represent my country and my people everywhere I go in a formal way. What I think most Americans don't realize when they embark on personal, non-U.S. government travel, is that - to at least some of the people they meet - they might as well be official diplomats. They are representing their homeland in their own, informal but no less impactful way.

What I mean by that is, when you're the only American someone ever has an extended conversation with or meets, it leaves an impression on that person of not just your character and behavior as an individual. Often, that person will extrapolate from even the single data point of you to all of the United States. After all, it's just human nature.

One of the quirks of this phenomenon is that it only takes a few Americans, many of whom unwittingly serve as cultural ambassadors in the minds of others, to leave a strong false impression on someone. Sometimes, that false impression is one of weirdness.

Even someone who works at the U.S. Embassy and sees quite a few Americans can be left with a weird perception after coming across enough people behaving strangely. I've heard from a few Kenyans who work at the U.S. Embassy that cultural differences Americans have include: brushing our teeth in the office kitchen sink, taking our lunches into the bathroom, mocking someone for their laugh, and disciplining employees in front of their colleagues. I like to think that most Americans agree with me that these behaviors are not an inherent part of our culture and that many of us would find them equally odd or inappropriate!

I try to keep that in mind whenever I meet someone from another culture who does something I find truly bizarre. Is it possible that the thing I find bizarre is part of that person's culture? Absolutely! Is it also possible that the bizarre thing is entirely unique to that person's personality or some extremely small proportion of that culture? Definitely!

It's hard to know for certain, and no country has a monolithic culture or society. (Although, when you have 100 data points of a certain thing in a certain culture, it's probably safe to say there is a general cultural difference to be understood.) At the end of the day, the safest attitude to take is one of charity, open-mindedness, and constant pursuit of nuance in mutual understanding. Of course, I always hope my Kenyan friends feel they can talk to me about all the American things they find weird (many of which are absolutely true: we like our meat soft, we keep time, and so on...), and I'll return the favor. Somewhere in between, we'll figure each other out a little better every day.

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