Four Ways of Learning About Cultures

“Today many people talk about the wisdom of the ancients, but few people know how to practice it. People want the wisdom but do not want the discipline required by the practices. They imitate the rituals, but their actions have no substance” – From Being Taoist by Eva Wong

In the ancient Chinese culture, there was (and still is) a very strong emphasis on learning through the wisdom of teachers. And yet, as Eva Wong points out in her book, the simple transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the pupil isn’t enough to achieve a process of real learning.

Imitating the behaviour of a wise man doesn’t make you wise. Remembering the wisdom taught by a wise man neither gives you real comprehension of it, nor does it make you practice this wisdom in your daily life.

The same goes for cultural learning. Simply because we imitate the behaviour of those around us doesn’t mean that we have a real understanding of the belief system that is underlying these behaviours. Simply because somebody tells us that in Indonesia respecting one’s seniors is of crucial importance doesn’t mean that we know how to behave on a case by case basis when we are in a situation where this knowledge is required. Simply because we have read even hundreds of books about the Chinese culture doesn’t mean that we have come a single step closer towards adjusting our behaviour and making the Chinese values and beliefs our own.

Cultural learning depends on four distinct, but equally important ways:

  1. Learning through experiences: Probably the most important of all ways of learning about cultures is learning through experiences. For instance, I have personally always been fascinated by the Chinese culture and I certainly did read a lot of content about it throughout my lifetime. When I recently joined Kung Fu lessons under a Chinese grandmaster however, was the first time that I really experienced some of these lessons in the context of an organization, where I was personally bound by the rules of the organization and held accountable for acting according to its standards.
  2. Learning through books: The exact opposite towards experiential learning is learning through books. The knowledge we acquire in this process is abstract and theoretical, and it does not necessarily have any direct impact on our own personal behaviour. However, this type of knowledge can be extremely valuable too, since it allows us to look at the behaviour we are observing of other people through the lens of the abstract theories which we have learned through the books. For instance, I am personally constantly learning about the principles of Taoism and Confucianism, and while I have primarily a purely abstract understanding of them, I do try to adjust some aspects of my life according to the principles of these two philosophies. The day will come when I will actually move to China and get to apply this knowledge in direct encounter with people who are living the practices every single day.
  3. Learning through the wisdom of somebody else: Firstly, this can be a teacher just like in the first example I have given you. Secondly, it can be learning through a cultural mentor – somebody who has an understanding of the culture you are trying to comprehend and who also has an understanding of your culture of origin. Thirdly, it can be learning from the wisdom of somebody from the host culture you are trying to comprehend, whose thoughts and beliefs you will then have to interpret for yourself to make them understandable from your own cultural perspective.
  4. Learning through contemplation: This is the point where both ‘discipline’ as well as ‘patience’ will have to come to play. Learning about a culture can never be a fast process. It requires us to internalize the different behavioural patterns of the people and to understand the system of beliefs that underlies these behaviours. In order to do so, we need to create a connection between the theoretical knowledge we have acquired about the culture and the experiential knowledge we have accumulated over time. Furthermore, this requires us to move from a situation where we have to consciously think about the cultural differences towards a situation in which the new cultural practices become part of our intuition. In order to do so, we need time for ourselves in which we contemplate about the differences between the cultures and try to reconcile the different beliefs and make them part of our own identity.

True cultural learning should always involve all four types of learning. For instance, I have heard people say that they prefer to figure out the differences between the cultures by themselves, so they do not want to gain any knowledge from books or from the wisdom of somebody else.

While there is noble intent behind this, the truth is that it can be potentially dangerous. If you are not gaining more abstract knowledge either by consulting others or by reading books about the topic, then you are coming up with certain assumptions about the behaviour of the people from your host culture without having any means to validate these assumptions. That is akin to a researcher coming up with a theory but without backing up with measurable data.

At the same time, it is impossible to argue that somebody understands a culture without having extensive direct experience of operating within that culture.Even somebody who has spent years researching a culture without having experienced it directly will certainly not be able to adapt successfully to the local cultural practices when he or she is going there for the first time. Cultural practices largely are ingrained, unconscious patterns of behaviour which take direct experience to learn, internalize and comprehend.

Which of these four aspects of cultural learning have you neglected until now? What steps can you take to ensure that you maintain a balance between all four different types of cultural learning? Which of these is your most dominant, natural type of learning?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *