Traditions in any culture provide a rules starter kit. No one needs to start from scratch.
As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Written by Jerry Bock.
Each race, ethnicity and nationality has been fed and formed by traditions. These are like a playbook – a script – guiding how we act with one another.
Rituals & Ceremonies
Rituals and ceremonies bring generations together and are seen as vital to living a good, connected community life. These events are the heartbeat of groups – coming together intermittently to celebrate what is important. Time to bring out the African fabrics, or the lederhosen – or ….
Marriages – Each culture builds layers of symbolism into wedding processes and ceremonies – symbolism that reinforces cultural history and values. Communities gather to celebrate the promise of another generation. Happy couples ensure long-term survival of the culture. Handfasting. Jumping the broom. Breaking of the glass. Just a few of the deeply significant – and ubiquitous – cultural traditions. Details matter to us.
Birthdays are celebrated in groups so the individuals can feel community connection and support. There is nothing quite so special as the warm attention of your group celebrating you on your birthday. These traditions are important to community members too – sharing music and moments make us all happier – and healthier.
Sometimes the rituals associated with ethnicities relate to a country’s geography and physical environment as much as to their culture or language. All traffic stops when the sheep march through the town. Harvests – whether for food or wine – bring neighbors together. These cycles and events put us all into the space and time continuum. We know where we are.
How We Act
When we are in our home culture, we relax with one another and develop shorthand and rhythms. A visitor would be well aware that they are out of their own element. We don’t need to go out of our home country, or even the neighborhood, to experience a different culture.
When we are members of a minority group, we are often on high alert to the broader cultural norms. Of course, we all align much of our daily behavior to fit within the dominant culture. It just makes things easier. We adjust how we act. Sometimes called code-switching, it can provide a level of efficiency and ease. But it can also be exhausting, especially if this is being done out of fear of ridicule or being ostracized.
Those who make these kinds of adjustments in how they act can sometimes face consternation from the elders in their family, fearing they are abandoning their own heritage. “Who do you think you are?” Living in multicultural environments isn’t always easy.
Etiquette & Social Protocol
When someone is in their home culture, they know what to do. There’s no need to wonder. Handshakes and greetings – robust or quiet? Slight bow or head nod? When to hug – or not. When do you hold the door for someone else? How much eye contact?
There are many, sometimes subtle, differences across cultures. When a child grows up somewhat insulated, they can experience alternative approaches as wrong – or rude. But if they are helped to understand the purpose and values behind each gesture, they can more easily explore the messages behind them.
Holidays provide racial and ethnic communities with many opportunities to celebrate specific heroes or values. With weeks of anticipation and preparation, children are bathed in the community’s language, music, dance, colors, history, food and theater. Parades can be such an exciting way to bring communities together to celebrate – while also showing the rest of the world why the group is so special. Chinese New Year. Greek Heritage Day. Mardi Gras.
Display of Emotions
Often ethnicities develop norms related to the expression of emotions. Some cultures are demonstrative and robust in their expressions – others more consistently subdued. These expectations tend to align with gender, as well. When there is a “violation,” the group sometimes steps in to model the more appropriate approach. Someone who appeared to get a chilly (quiet) welcome, may get heartier hugs from others. Or, when there is too much drama in the room, the group may quietly divert attention – the voices extra hushed. Balance is restored. A lesson has been given.
People within each ethnic group often carry themselves in a similar way. The stride, posture, eye contact, smiling impulse and personal space expectations come together, creating a shared climate or mood. Some cultures are more demonstrative; others are more reserved. Some say Americans smile too much – that it feels inauthentic. But, because the United States has more diversity than many other countries, smiling has developed as an impulse to show good intentions. Norms are just how we do things around here.
Cross-Cultural Business Protocol
Although most business practices have become universal, there are still significant differences with each border you cross. Negotiating styles, greetings, giving and receiving business cards and levels of directness all vary. Protocol generally recommends that the visitor operate in accordance with local customs – or at least make a respectful effort to comply. Ignorance of local norms can be experienced as insensitive and rude. Not a good way to begin a relationship.
These norms are often linked directly to gender roles. Women from the western traditions occasionally face experiences in other cultures that feel limiting or even disrespectful. Finding the balance – finding a respectful and accommodating path – can be a challenge. An American woman executive was ‘awarded’ a customized apron at a business event in Japan. What to do? At the end of the day, these bumps simply highlight the importance of cultures. Good intentions come through.
Although most religions are global, there are significant regional or ethnic differences. A Christian service in Denver will differ from a Christian service in Atlanta or Madrid or South Korea. Each region or ethnicity weaves its own traditions, aesthetics and values into the celebrations. Although the service itself remains recognizable, you will definitely know where you are and will feel the culture. Group gatherings bring the differences into high definition.
Ethnic and racial groups often articulate clear expectations of behavior for men and women. These can include who initiates or leads activities, how to show respect and deference and appropriate greetings.
Sometimes these role differences are profound – such as who bears responsibility for different aspects of life or who can marry whom. Others can be so subtle that outsiders may not even recognize that something has just transpired.
Because we are bathed in these cultural expectations from infancy, they reside deep within us. Moving across the globe doesn’t erase them. We can choose to live by a different code of behavior but we carry the impulses for the rest of our lives, feeling just a little bit guilty with each breach.
Often members of a racial or ethnic community choose names for their children that reflect the culture and history. Aponi or Cheyenne. Kofi or Moesha. Alfredo or Bella. This can serve as a proud and early identifier for the rest of the world to see.