How Do We Perceive People from other Cultures?

“The wise man belongs to all countries, for the home of a great soul is the whole world.”  Democritus

Have you ever wondered how people from other countries view America and the American people?  Do people come to our country with preconceived ideas of our government and our citizens?  When we travel outside of the United States do we have presumptive ideas of what to expect from the people and the culture we are visiting?  How do we learn about today’s world cultures? Can we trust what the media reports about the peoples of another country?

Years ago when I traveled to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, England, Scotland, and Wales, I was looking forward to experiencing different cultures.  I worried that since I don’t speak another language that I would have difficulty understanding the people.  But I did learn that my years of Latin helped me translate menus and signs.  I looked forward to experiencing plays, the symphony, the theatre, beer gardens, intriguing history, and whatever I could learn about the people.  What surprised me most was that people there remarked that they did not perceive me as an American. I heard, “You don’t act like an American!”  Was it because I was not wearing red, white, and blue?  Or what characteristics about me make me different from other Americans who travel abroad? Is it because I am not loud and obnoxious? Is it because various cultures fascinate me and I’m open to learning from others? Or is it simply that I am curious about other people and how they live their everyday lives?

One particular trip, my husband and I traveled to attend a business conference in Gothenburg, Sweden.  People from countries all around the globe came to attend this meeting.  There the conference leaders arranged a variety of games so that we would become better acquainted with one another, and to learn to better communicate with this group of people.  In one particular game, the leaders teamed the women against the men.  They put us in groups of four.  The women had to thread a rope up inside our sleeve, run it up our arm, across our chest, and out the other sleeve into the sleeve of the woman next to us.

The men, on the other hand, were to run the rope up their pant leg, across their crotch, and down the other pant leg to the man next to them.  Most of the men struggled with pushing the rope up their pant legs and on to the next person.  However, one group of men were quite ingenious as they all simply dropped their drawers, whisked the rope through their pants, and out in the snap of their fingers.  Now, here in the states I doubt the men would have come up with such a creative and ingenious solution to their problem.  In Europe these men evidently thought nothing of standing there in their underwear in front of unfamiliar women.

Since I was the only American woman there, I had to make a decision… stand there blushing, shrieking, and closing my eyes or realize that I had at least seen my husband in his underwear and these men were no different.  None of the other women made a disturbance, so why should I?  That evening after we completed the games, and while sampling a delightful Swedish smorgasbord with unique beverages, several people remarked that I seemed more Australian than American.  I never thought to ask why.  Is it because I accepted the people for having a different style of fun without becoming offended?

On another business trip, I accompanied my husband to Barbados, Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas. This was a time before the ports limited the number of cruise ships allowed in port at one time.  My husband and I had flown into St. Thomas. There were eleven cruise ships in port, so when they unloaded their passengers what we saw appeared to be a massive herd of stampeding people descending from the ships overrunning the town. Consequently, we decided to avoid the crowd of tourists. We ventured out of the village, up the hill past the homes to admire the views from the cliffs, and to enjoy the differences in their culture in how they lived versus our way of living at home.

As we strolled along the street in one neighborhood, a group of people came up behind us and threw their ice slushes at our backs. Here we had done nothing to prompt this behavior, except the locals presumed that we had arrived on the cruise ship. What we later learned is that the people from the cruise ships often robbed the villagers and the shops in town.  So because we happened to be in St. Thomas at the same time as the cruise ships with all of the tourists, the locals assumed we were part of the destruction of their town.

Last Fall, an elementary school teacher here had to deal with a slight bullying situation with a group of elementary students.  She sat down to discuss the subject of “being mean” and what they should have considered doing differently.  One of the students was a girl from Russia.  All of the students had to take home a form that explained the situation to their parents, who were to sign and return it.  Eventually, all of the forms were returned in a timely manner except the form from the Russian family.

The teacher in calling the Russian family in regards to the form was told they would not sign it.  The teacher asked the family to come in to discuss the situation, and why they would not sign the form.  After meeting, the mother explained that this form would prevent her daughter from EVER obtaining a good job or career.  She felt her daughter’s life would be permanently destroyed.  The mother did not understand that the form, here in the U.S. was simply a method for explaining to the family the situation and to teach the kids an alternative behavior.  This form was not going to be on the child’s record for life.  The mother’s perceptions were formed by her experiences in Russia, so she had jumped to conclusions.

Then one day the Russian mother came to school with her daughter.  The mother was shocked to learn that the teacher said, “Good Morning” to her students every day.  The mother sternly requested that the teacher refrain from greeting her daughter.  In a quandary the teacher asked why she couldn’t greet the child only to learn that the mother felt the teacher was spying on the little girl.  The teacher was stunned! However, spying must be part of the culture in Russia.  So the mother automatically assumed that children here in the United States are treated the same way as in Russia. Again, her cultural perceptions of how things worked in the United States were colored by her experiences in Russia.  The Russian mother didn’t realize that life could be different here in the states.

Recently, I had an experience that on one hand I thought was hysterical, but on the other hand made me sit down to ponder what images we portray to other people.

My physical therapist has directed me on a relatively flat route to walk along the curvy, Poulsbo waterfront, up a short flight of stairs to town, down through the center of town past all of the shops, and back to the waterfront.  I walk five circles amounting to roughly two and a half miles per day.  Since I’m social, I enjoy talking to people along the way.  I say “hi,” chat, or admire people and their dogs walking down at the park.  Because I walk these five laps people often remark about the number of times they see me walking “all over town.” Also, since Poulsbo is an extremely Norwegian styled community, we have lots of tourists visit to enjoy the shops and bakeries or to check out the wildlife along the waterfront.

One particular warm, sunny day while walking my laps, I was dressed in a red short-sleeved t-shirt, navy jeans, and my white tennis shoes. One Asian couple, I’m guessing who were Chinese tourists in town, were busy taking pictures of the marina, the view of the bay, and the wildlife. In saying “hi” to them, I realized their knowledge of the English language was minimal. During my hour’s walk I saw this couple in several different locations along the waterfront and I said “hi” to them each time I quickly strode by them in passing.

My fourth time around through town and down to the marina, I saw this Asian couple in yet another spot.  Finally, the woman turned to me asking, “C.I.A?” I was stunned! How could anyone imagine that I was spying on them? Who in God’s name would think I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency?  I guess I’m well-disguised.  But, because I’m friendly and say “hi” to people, does that make me seem like I’m “spying” or “checking up” on them?

Here, people from another country had come with a preconceived idea of what Americans are like. Had they read the latest articles about NSA spying on people?

This truly was an eye-opening experience.

“What we perceive and understand depends upon what we are.”   Aldous Huxley


About Gwynn Rogers

After 20 years of sales and marketing experience in the fields of real estate, high tech, and corporate travel, Gwynn has moved on to the career of “Grandma.” When not teaching her granddaughters an extensive vocabulary of “alley-oop-boop, ups-a-daisy, cowabunga or bummer”, Gwynn can be found hunting for mentors for the Kitsap Youth Mentoring Consortium, or chasing her fantasies on her treadmill. Gwynn currently freelances for magazines.
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12 Responses to How Do We Perceive People from other Cultures?

  1. patgarcia says:

    Good morning,
    I don’t know what you did, but now I am able to post. Thank you. You are becoming a computer genie!

    I enjoyed reading this article because of your style and way of telling what you wanted to report. Your perceptions came across very down to earth so that even a person like me who did not come from Washington State understands exactly what you’re talking about.

    I also like the voice of your article. Because I know you as a writer, I see that you have definitely began to dig into your own voice, and that is great. It is so important to know that you have something to say and then know how to say it. That comes across very clear in this article.

    You have touched on many issues in your article that could lead to sprouts for new articles. For example, the one about the Russian mother and her child in school. The mother’s reactions to the teacher sending a note home for her to sign off on shouts to the rooftop about fearing to reach out to others outside of your own small group. There are so many people who react that way today, and it is an issue that I feel is totally overlooked in our society.

    As for your observations about Americans, I can only say that as an American living in Europe, I probably would have stuck to my own nationality of people, if I had not been forced to look outside of the box, because I needed a job. At that time, as a tourist in Europe, I was not allowed to work for the American Military Community, so I had to step outside of the box. Today, I am glad I did, but at that time, I was just as fearful as that Russian woman in your article.

    An excellently written article, Gwynn. You have definitely touched on issues that are relevant today, issues that need to make us think or at least stretch our imagination beyond our own small cluster that we enclose ourselves in.


  2. Gwynn Rogers says:

    Pat, Thanks for your friendship and for posting your comment. You made some excellent points. I truly wish I knew where the Russian woman lived so I could go chat with her. Of course THEN she would be SURE we were spying on her. As far as I know we do not have much of a Russian community around us. Hopefully, as the woman gets to know other parents and as her daughter makes friends she will discover that her worries about us spying on her or her family are unfounded.

    However, having just said that, we are a Navy community with a large Nuclear Sub-Base here. Since I’m not military oriented, maybe the military is watching her, but I seriously doubt it. I had a Russian physical therapist assistant who came to live in the U.S. with her husband. It took her a while to adjust to our way of life and to learn to speak our language… her biggest hurdle, but I think she is happy here other than missing her family at home in Russia. It is too bad I can’t connect these two families to help the other woman adjust to a healthier life-style here in the states.

    The issue of how we “perceive” people, places, cultures, etc. is enormous. Going to a new place with an open mind can be a tough hurdle to climb. However, if we looked outside our boxes, as you did in moving to Germany, I think we could all have wondrous experiences. You are a marvelous example of being open to other people and their styles… and for your friendship.

  3. Gwynn,

    I already commented in an email to you; so just briefly — well written, well-thought out. You are finding your voice. Keep going; keep writing. You are a good writer. I always enjoy reading your stories.

    Really, Patricia says it all. I agree with her.

    Next step, go into your dashboard — under Settings, and then “discussion” or “reading” or “writing” and find the menu choice that allows commenters to check the box requesting email notification of follow-up comments.


    • Gwynn Rogers says:

      Thanks Samantha for your coaching and your friendship. One of my biggest hurdles is to “terminate” the critic in my brain so I can let my imagination and fun flow. It is funny though, as I really was amazed at my C.I.A. experience and hearing about the Russian woman’s perception of how her daughter would be treated here in the U.S. The book I’m reading, “Bend, Not Break” by Ping Fu is another amazing example of perceptions we bring with us when we travel to another country.

      Now, so far I have not seen any boxes to check in regards to email notification of follow-up comments. Darn, I wish you lived closer. Again, Thanks!

  4. And this — there’s another menu choice that allows previously accepted commenters to bypass “awaiting moderation” so their comment is posted immediately.


  5. pat stricklin says:

    Gwen, I love your article for a lot of reasons, some of which you know. It also brings me back 18 years to a time when my husband and I chaperoned our son’s high-school band on a five day trip to Los Angelos and the Fiesta Bowl. At that time, so much of the news about that area focused its unrest and violence, so my husband and I were a little on edge about what to expect. Interestingly, over those five days, with time in a lot of areas of Los Angelos, we never once felt uneasy, nor did we find the energy of the 70 teens we chaperoned in any out of control. We discovered that what the media trains our mind to believe is well outside the realm of reality, and it seems this is a common occurrence in all places around the world, even right here at home.

    • Gwynn Rogers says:

      Thanks for commenting Pat. I lived outside of Los Angeles for 17 years and worked on Wilshire Blvd. which means that I had to get off the Harbor Freeway at the worst end of town. Being white, I was told to keep my car windows rolled up so that no one would hurt me. But I never had a problem. However, years later after I stopped working there, the office moved to Sherman Oaks as the gang violence along Wilshire was becoming a serious problem. It is interesting, especially after the Watts Riots down there what the media leads us to believe.

  6. Susan says:

    I so enjoyed this Gwynn, thank you so much. It’s so important isn’t it to be aware of what we project to the outer world, even if it isn’t so in reality. Or important that we know that people have prejudices, some called for others not. For instance, I know that many think that South Africa has to be the wildest place on earth, with lions and tigers roaming the city streets. This is so not true!!!! We have world class cities, and are up in the top with regard to innovation, the sciences and medicine, engineers etc etc etc and often lead the way or lose our brains to abroad… the US and elsewhere houses many South Africans. Of course much is wrong with our country, we have the highest rape count. Education is not good, though we’re getting there. It was high, but after the end of apartheid it dropped. I am not pointing fingers just stating a fact.
    I am pleased that at last I can comment. This is a very well written and interesting article thank you. Keep ’em coming!

    • Gwynn Rogers says:

      Thanks Susan for your inspiring comment. It truly is amazing to me, as I had never given it deep thought, as to the projections the media gives our country. Heck, we even allow our own country’s politics to color our beliefs about the world. I read of all the brutal killings up in North Africa, so I think of your entire continent that way.

      Years ago, when I lived down in the Los Angeles area of California and was accepted to college back up here in the Northwest where I grew up; I showed my friends my college catalog. They were shocked as they thought the school would look like a fort and I’d have to fight Indians everyday. Their reply was, “Whoa Gwynn, Western looks like UCLA!” My God! I couldn’t believe what people had expected my college to look like.

      Then I’m reading the book, BEND, NOT BREAK, by Ping Fu. Coming from Communist China during the Cultural Revolution really colored her views of the U.S. It is amazing what our beliefs are!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I love hearing your words!

  7. Susan Scott says:

    Great to see the A-Z badge up Gwynn, and to see that you’re no 660!

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