My com­mon sense or your com­mon sense?

You think you are acting according to common sense and therefore have a common basis, only to stumble across cultural differences.

Do you know that? You think you are act­ing accord­ing to com­mon sense and there­fore have a com­mon basis, only to stum­ble across cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences. This can lead to unex­pect­ed com­pli­ca­tions, espe­cial­ly in inter­cul­tur­al coop­er­a­tion. What seems self-evi­dent to us may seem strange or even irri­tat­ing in oth­er cul­tures.

Even a din­ner togeth­er can be excit­ing. If I assume that I get a menu that I can read and choose my meal accord­ing to my crav­ings, this is the case in Ger­many or Aus­tralia, for exam­ple. Every­one places their order direct­ly. In India, I am wrong in this assump­tion. The order­ing process itself is an essen­tial part of the joint din­ner. Every­one is asked what they would like. Even if every­one seems to agree on every­thing, it is a slow process until you real­ly know what every­one wants, who will share which dish­es with whom and how many dish­es will be enough for every­one. Veg­e­tar­i­an or no pork, spicy or very spicy, masala dosa or but­ter chick­en? It is very unusu­al to say direct­ly what you want or to dis­agree with some­one else’s choice. All com­mon sense? Prob­a­bly not. 

Are you aware of the find­ings on par­ent­ing prac­tices and ideas that Sara Hark­ness and Charles M. Super have high­light­ed in their arti­cle “Themes and Vari­a­tions: Parental Eth­nothe­o­ries in West­ern Cul­tures”? And here we don’t even have to go into the East-West dif­fer­ence, but in West­ern coun­tries alone there are seri­ous dif­fer­ences in under­stand­ing. Babies in the Nether­lands sleep two hours more a day than in the USA. That was a sur­prise to me. Accord­ing to Hark­ness and Super, par­ents in the Nether­lands placed great impor­tance on their chil­dren get­ting enough rest or sleep dur­ing the first years of child­hood in order to raise them to be calm, hap­py and self-reg­u­lat­ed chil­dren. The Amer­i­can par­ents, on the oth­er hand, described their child’s sleep behav­iour as innate and devel­op­men­tal. The prac­tices and beliefs observed in each case pre­sent­ed them­selves as part of a cul­tur­al sys­tem and not as a result of the par­ents’ inten­sive study of the lat­est find­ings in child-rear­ing. Com­mon sense is no help in inter­cul­tur­al under­stand­ing here either.    

We are all cul­tur­al beings by nature and are strong­ly influ­enced by the cul­ture in which we grew up. Com­mon sense is there­fore a very local mat­ter. In inter­cul­tur­al coop­er­a­tion, we would do well to reflect on our self-evi­dent assump­tions and not apply them as a gen­er­al­ly valid basis.        

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Ruth Bolter

I share my international experiences with people in very different locations all over the world. Making connections where they are not obvious is what inspires me and what I like to make available to others.