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Update: Cultural Assumptions on Health April 19, 2015

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Uncategorized.
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This update is based on Issue 7, January 18, 2008 of this blog, which I searched for today after reading APRIL 17, 2015 in the New York Times — a gently self-mocking essay about entering a German pharmacy to purchase a product for foot fungus, carrying her cultural baggage of sensibilities formed in the USA. Since I had also written on this topic, in a post that is no longer online, I wanted to bring it back to share again, with a few revisions. 

Cultural Assumptions on Health

Featured imageThinking about the video clips of Jacques Tati and Rowan Atkinson from Issue 6 of this blog reminded me of how much of an intercultural experience involves physical reactions. The research we have done with Mitch Hammer using the Intercultural Development Inventory has brought home the fact that we often tend to minimize cultural differences by focusing largely on how, deep down, all human beings are the same. Yes, we are all physically similar, but how differently do we care for our bodies? I was struck recently at how, in spite of globalization, a pharmacy in another culture, for instance, feels foreign and familiar at the same time. Shelves of products to heal and soothe, to care for our bodies, a pharmacist who knows the drugs and will listen as you describe your symptoms, and yet the packaging is different from place to place. A minor difference or one with more importance?

I seem to always find myself in a pharmacy when traveling, though I don’t always find what I am looking for. A hair brush, in Groningen, for instance. Or nail clippers, in Andalucia. Or perhaps it was deodorant, someplace else. Essential components of U.S. personal hygiene are not always found in pharmacies, though my first instinct is to start there. And should I have a cough or a sore throat or an allergic rash, I will always go the pharmacy and ask to speak with the pharmacist, and typically I come away with an unfamiliar-looking medicine. In January 2014, in Cologne, Germany, my husband and I both came down with colds, and we didn’t want this to spoil our time with friends we were visiting. Instead of the usual pills or capsules we always purchased from New York pharmacies, after talking with the pharmacists here, we came away with a powerful and perhaps dangerous nasal spray. It seemed like a miracle cure. We strictly followed the instructions against using it for more than a week.

Cultural differences in how we care for our bodies and deal with illness are often larger than we might assume, and our attachments to our particular cultural patterns are frequently very strong. My experiences of illness as a child were not extreme, but the special tray by my bedside and the Jell-O, toast, tea, cola or ginger ale I was served when my stomach was upset have become equated with a quiet, comfortable convalescence. Once while in Brazil I became very ill and unable to keep any food in my system. The friends I was staying with lovingly cared for me, but with a very different set of ingredients, all quite unexpected and some, like the boldo tea, were quite horrible, I thought. What I craved so much was a cola or a ginger ale, and only this, it seemed, would cure me. I had to explain my strange medical beliefs to my friends, who chided themselves for not having thought of my customs, and quickly provided the needed beverage. Within a day, I was again able to eat, to take a walk, to go to the beach.

I have been lucky with my health generally, but I have seen enough illness to realize that no culture is entirely successful in its remedies. I have my own faith, somewhat shaky at times, in “western” medicine, but this doesn’t explain the documented power of the placebo against which all new medicine is tested, or my belief that I needed a cola to relieve my stomach distress.

I was recently talking with a colleague from Hong Kong who has lived in the United States for several years. She was fighting a cold and we were discussing the Chinese medicine she uses. She told me that it typically works for her, but never works for her American friends. But this time, the Chinese medicine wasn’t working for her, either. We wondered if there was a relation to the diet and the effectiveness of the medicine. Maybe Chinese medicine needs to work with a Chinese diet. But maybe it’s also the cultural assumptions we carry about what is effective and what we believe will work.

In the meantime, my colleague gave me some of her Chinese cough drops to deal with my cold and sore throat. They worked very well for me.

102. Not every issue needs a battle October 27, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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Like many people living in the USA right now, I can’t wait for the election season to end because at least the volume of political battles decreases. But the battles continue via our elected representatives, who seem to believe that holding an opinion firmly and never letting go is more important than governing wisely.

Politics has perhaps never really been about governing wisely as much as it has been about grappling to be the one with the power to decide. In my first (and only) serious foray into party politics at age 18, I was disillusioned to learn that the party leaders backing my candidate were setting up a slate of delegates that we all needed to vote for. One of my friends who was very interested in being a delegate was only offered the possibility to be an alternate on the slate. The party was managing the votes strategically and didn’t want any deviations from the slate that had been set up in a hotel room (almost certainly smoke-filled in that era) by a few players. We were just the troops brought in to support that strategy. The strategy failed and the party’s candidate lost.

While I understood the strategy and why is was necessary — the other side was doing it, too — this isn’t the way I wanted to believe that representative government worked. I had had the idea that conventions and Congress provided places where people would come together to talk about what would be best for the country, and that those with the best ideas would be heard by all present who would then join forces to implement those ideas. Of course, it’s been years since I had any expectation that legislators would search together for common solutions and policies. Even mission-driven, volunteer boards can be driven apart by political fighting.

When I think about the skills needed for building relationships across cultures, one is certainly the ability to move beyond polarized, defensive postures that draw sharp lines between “us” and “them.” These skills involve listening, suspending judgment, respect for others, and not holding too firmly to your own beliefs. I still hope for a world where leaders have these skills and the desire to work for peace: across nations, across cultures, and across political parties. It’s not about always agreeing, but about always thinking and always engaging others in that journey.

This may not feel like a very strong position from which to campaign in an election, of course. We probably like to support policies that seem simple to understand, and we probably chose candidates for reasons that don’t involve as much study or insight into the issues as we’d hope to do. I always want to select someone for president who seems to be smarter than I am, since I know I couldn’t begin to take on that job…not that I’d want to.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times gave me some insight on why radical political solutions seem insufficient to me: I cannot explain how they work, and the more I study them the less I feel the policy seems to accomplish what it is supposed to. Probably no one political action will produce remarkable changes, but change happens nevertheless, much totally out of the control of the US President or Congress. As one voter interviewed on the television noted, “We will all have to do the best we can.”

101. Not Alone on the Journey September 8, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication, Reflections.
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I am a woman who seldom asks for directions. Mostly I use maps, some of which are stored fairly well in my head. To a large extent I think of where I’m headed in terms of my general sense of its direction from wherever I am at the moment. Part of the great fun of traveling to new places is to test my ability to find them. But sometimes traveling is more than a destination, a map, and a plan. Sometimes it’s a process of sharing the journey.

Recently my husband and I in Brazil. Our trip included a balance of time for ourselves at the beach and time for visiting dear friends whom we hadn’t seen in ages. We arranged our own itinerary including several days with our friends and we reserved a rental car from there to head down to a beach place we’d rented. We’d even downloaded the Google Directions with step by step maps. We felt fully ready to head off alone on this portion of our vacation, and test our ability to find our way there.

We probably would have found our route based on our own prepared plan, but for our friends, it wasn’t good enough to just send us off on our own devices. Rather, the extended family was drafted to research our trip, including our hosts sister who works for a government tourism board and a nephew who regularly takes the route we were to take — a new highway that hadn’t yet made it to Google Maps, but was found on Google Earth. Armed with new maps, new directions including a listing of every small town along the way, and warnings about traffic laws we might not know about and potential labor strikes that could block traffic, we thought we were finally ready to say thank you and good bye to our friends, but other plans were already in place. Our hosts would drive ahead of us and lead us to the new bridge that led to the highway we should take.

We followed them closely for about a half hour, and then they pulled their car over and parked, so we pulled over behind them and got out of the car to thank them again and say good-bye. Then we learned that the nephew was arriving in a few minutes to escort us for the next leg of our trip, leading us down the new highway to a point where we’d only need to go straight south, to a point that completely coincided with our original instructions and where everyone was confident that there was almost no chance to get lost or to run into highways blocked by strikes, or other yet unspoken dangers.

In that final third of the trip, my husband and I talked about how normal it feels for us to make our plans alone and how strange to have an entire committee dropping everything to make our plans with us. Since we both grew up with the strong sense of individualism and independence that marks much of the culture of life in the USA, it is even a bit uncomfortable for us to have so much involvement from friends and their relatives in our journey. And yet it was that very sense of feeling welcomed and taken care of that made me want to visit Brazil again, and visit these friends.

I thought of this experience again when I heard the excerpt from former US President Bill Clinton’s speech at the recent Democratic convention:

You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”

This exactly seems to be the crux of the matter and at the same time the dilemma. Many of us, myself included, are much more attracted to the ideal that we share rather than compete; that the crowd is wiser than the individual; that the more people included, the merrier. We may be generous to others, but we also still may feel more comfortable not asking for help, not depending on others, and taking our own decisions regardless of what others think.

I’m not sure we have to make this stark choice, or rather, we may truly need to be both self-reliant individuals and a people who come together to ensure a better life for all of us.