Thursday, October 25, 2012
When the culture no longer serves you well, change it
One of the workshops at the Conference on Honduras last week was on cultural differences, a subject I have much interest in now that I live here. It gave me lots to think about, including if there are times when a country really ought to consider whether certain aspects of its culture are hindering progress.
That probably sounds like a very colonial thing to say. History is littered with countries scarred by invasive cultures that arrived uninvited and proceeded to try to change everything.
I´m not endorsing that practice. But surely there´s no harm in a population checking in with its culture from time to time to see if it´s still serving the country well.
Understanding the less obvious aspects of Honduras culture is still a work in progress for me. I´ve found the country to be surprisingly welcoming and warm to a foreigner who´s only now getting a grip on the language. But I can´t say as I´ve warmed to everything about life in Honduras.
What I heard at the workshop reinforced some of my personal experiences: That the culture hates conflict to the point that lies are acceptable if they´re done to avoid an unpleasant situation; that nothing is a sure thing even if you´ve got a signed document saying that it is (the woman doing the workshop called that a “high context” versus a “high contract” culture); that hierarchies are to be respected even when the actions of the higher-ups in fact ought to land them a smack upside the head.
Experiencing a different culture is one of the things I like most about travel, especially the . unspoken aspects that aren´t written down anywhere but nonetheless govern the way people in the country live their lives. Travel is an excellent reminder that there are many ways to live a life.
And if people are for the most part healthy, happy, hopeful and productive in a particular country, then clearly the culture is working. There´s no “right” culture in a world where everybody does things a little differently.
But there´s the rub for Honduras. Almost 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and nobody´s happy about that. The rich are stinking rich and reluctant to share. The public school system is plagued by teacher strikes, poorly equipped, and inadequate for preparing young Hondurans for these global times. The public health-care system is a mess, on every front from the quality of medical care to the timely distribution of medicines.
The roads are disastrous. The murder rate is among the highest in the world. The justice system is almost non-existent. The spectre of widespread hunger and death is never far from view, especially now that climate change is threatening the corn and bean crops that sustain so many rural families. The population is deeply unhappy, their discouragement revealed in national polls that routinely find the vast majority have given up on hoping for a better day.
With the exception of Haiti, Honduras is virtually alone in Latin America in its decline on virtually every front that citizens of the world use to gauge a happy, healthy life – income level, employment, overall health, infant mortality, education, stable and democratic governance. So you´d have to say that things aren´t exactly going well here.
Culture can´t be blamed for all of that, of course. But neither can it be dismissed entirely when thinking about how to improve things in Honduras. You could blame all the country´s problems on the government, or drug trafficking, or the CIA. But you still find yourself back at the same root problem - that if there are ever going to be improvements, the people who live here are simply going to have to get past some of their cultural tendencies and do things differently.
If you don’t challenge the hierarchy even when it´s doing stupid stuff, for instance, it continues to do stupid stuff. Simmering resentment of poor decisions from on high also breeds passive-aggressive behavior, in which people agree on the surface but meanwhile register their unhappiness by withdrawing co-operation.
I see that frequently in my workplace. It´s a huge hindrance to productivity, and shuts out the people whose input could have made all the difference in resolving a problem or building a better widget. In the big picture, that cultural quirk also means government institutions aren´t held accountable, even while public disillusion grows.
If contracts are viewed as things to be honoured only when you personally know the people involved (that´s what “high context” means), that´s a significant hindrance to doing business with anyone from outside your personal network. Perhaps there was a time when Hondurans could afford to do business only with the people in their personal network, but it´s long passed at this point.
As for the culture of saying whatever comes to mind in the moment to avoid conflict – well, that has to be revealed as the recipe for conflict that it really is. When I had a conflict with a Copan bank a few months back, my happiness with the cheery bank personnel who assured me that I need only come back tomorrow to have all my problems solved wore thin pretty quickly when I returned the next day to discover that it wasn´t true. I can´t imagine how frustrating that cultural practice must be to people caught up in much grander problems.
There´s much to love about the many cultures of the world. There´s much to love about Honduras, as I´m reminded in this very moment as I hear my neighbours gathering outside for the easy conversations that go on night after night on the street where we live.
But when a country´s culture is hurting its citizens more than it helps, something´s got to give. Sure, the gringos have to adapt, but a country losing ground on all the measures that count needs to consider its own role in perpetuating problems. Some things we call culture are really just bad habits.