Thinking about Culture and Fluency

This past week, in between all the business and parenting to do lists, I was thinking about cultural fluency. I first thought about it weeks ago when a pair of presidential nominees both decided to write Op-Ed columns aimed at Utah and Mormons in particular. As a Utah-based Mormon person, they were both attempting to speak to me. One definitely came across as an outsider, not quite comprehending what is important to this demographic and why it matters to us. The other had a piece that sounded as if it had been written by someone who was raised as a Mormon. It not only hit the exact emotional notes that would appeal, it also used all the jargon words correctly. After reading the piece I had to stop and think about whether I was impressed that the candidate took the time to hire someone who was completely culturally fluent, or if I felt it was a little disingenuous for the candidate to pretend to a fluency they do not actually have. I still haven’t decided.

Reading the pieces brought to my attention, in a way I hadn’t seen before, that culture is subtle and extremely nuanced. My sister once commented that sometimes she is instantly comfortable with a person she just met. Usually she discovers that this person spent childhood or early adult years in California, Utah, Idaho, or Arizona. As a person who has lived abroad, she found that fascinating. She eventually decided that the difference is in the small things, the turn of phrase, how close the person stands, the way they accept or decline an offer, all the tiny social contracts that vary from region to region even when all the regions speak the same language. It is strange for me to realize that as I move through the world I am automatically behaving in ways that will make some people more comfortable with me and others less so.

I thought about this again when I watched the first episode of a show called Quantico. It was about new recruits in the FBI training program. I was surprised to see one of the recruits being a Mormon, returned missionary from Salt Lake City, Utah. It makes sense I guess. The FBI does heavy recruiting in Utah because the clean living which Mormons impose on themselves make them less susceptible to certain methods of corruption. This was even mentioned in the show. Once I got over my surprise, I was quite curious to see how the show would handle this Mormon character. Would they do enough research? Would this character be written with cultural fluency or would I be left thinking “No Mormon would do that.” I didn’t get a chance to see. The Mormon character died before the end of the first episode in a very abrupt way. It was like the show writers wanted to acknowledge the Mormon/FBI thing, but they didn’t want to actually have to deal with getting a Mormon character right.

We learn so much about how the world works from social context. It is the kids around us in school that teach us what is acceptable and what is not. Often these lessons are unpleasant because humans can be cruel to those who make them uncomfortable by being different. Social context is in our entertainment as well, which is why it is unfortunate that so much of it is generic culture. So much entertainment assumes that most audiences will identify with characters who are white, medium to college educated, not particularly religious, and middle class. The thing is, that person isn’t actually neutral. The culture we see on TV is a fiction that is lacking specific cultural fluency. In some ways this is the creators of shows playing it safe. If they have their characters inhabit a generic American culture, then they won’t get angry emails from people telling them what cultural mistakes they made. I know that any time I see a Mormon character on the screen, I pay close attention to see if that character is mis-representing my people. I don’t get to pay that attention very often.

I was also thinking about how social culture is created. I used an example of the things school kids teach to each other. There are so many cultural things which schools and educators assume their students will learn at home or pick up automatically. Social skills and life skills aren’t explicitly taught. We’re expected to learn them by observing and living around other people. Except this leaves every single one of us with gaps in our knowledge. I see this with my kids all the time. School teaches them how to take turns on the playground and expects them to extrapolate that into adults who know how to take turns in a conversation. Except being socially fluent is so much more nuanced than taking turns for a slide. I wonder how a focus on social education would change the incidences of bullying inside a school.

I don’t really have any conclusion for all these loose thoughts other than to say that how people interact with their cultures is fascinating. There is so much nuance and I’m really glad that I live in a world where nuances and differences exist.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about Culture and Fluency”

  1. “… hire someone who was completely culturally fluent, or if I felt it was a little disingenuous for the candidate … ”

    And the key question is probably
    “How many people will actually notice rather than simply feel ‘right’ about the candidate?”

    Me for instance, I wouldn’t notice, I probably wouldn’t notice even if I was specifically looking for it, and I would never even think to look if someone external (you in this case) hadn’t mentioned it.

    And now I find it fascinating and will be stuck with applying it to everything for a week or two 🙂

    Side note: The fields for the comments seem to add an ever increasing number of tabs/spaces to the front of my (defaulting in) name/email every time I post.

  2. It is fascinating to think about. I’m reminded of an experience I had recently: I met a 20-something year-old young woman through church and we had a long conversation. It came up in the conversation that she had been homeschooled. As soon as she said it, I realized that, yeah, it made sense – just small, tiny social cues that I couldn’t put my finger on – something about the way she spoke reminded me so much of my college roommate, who had also been homeschooled. We definitely learn unwritten lessons from our peers in school – in both positive and negative ways.

  3. Hannah Bartholomew

    Oh, and in teaching my autism spectrum 9yr old social expectations I am slowly realizing that I’m not actually sure I an aware of all the rules. I uncover remnants of the construction process I went through to figure out why people kept giving me those blank disparaging looks, and they doing always look like I figured it out.

    Though, of course I was willing to change to try to avoid those blank looks you get when you miss a que. For my child we often have to have reward/consequence system following explanations of the norms. I had to actually declare lost computer time for every time he touches someone’s bottom today. Which sounds awful and creepy and ludicrous. But seriously, so much kid humor is potty and butt and stink humor. How in the world does anyone figure out which words and actions are funny and which are creepy?

    Well, I guess in this instance I communicate that to him by applying a cost that he cares about to the things I think will be most damaging to him in the long run. Sigh… Maybe he’ll learn quickly. He really hates losing computer time.

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