What makes up our identity? Is it our innate character traits? Our attitudes? Personality? Opinions? Habits of thought? Values? Beliefs? Ideas? Skills?
My answer is: all of these. In fact, there are probably some more factors that I have forgotten to list up here. The important point to make here is that in the end, our identity is a mixture between our characteristics that were inherited through our genes, as well as aspects of our self that were nurtured through our environment.
We take on these environmental aspects through a process of cultural transmission, whereby through imitation of those around us, as well as their conscious teachings to us, we learn to adopt a certain behavioural pattern, or a certain belief system. Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd in their book “Not by Genes Alone” describe this process by saying that “culture is mostly information stored in human brains, and gets transmitted from brain to brain by way of a variety of social learning processes”.
Today I’ve looked at this, and again this idea of ‘loosing your roots’ came to mind. It is something that I have been writing about a lot these days, but the reason for that is simple: many people I know are struggling with it. So I assume that you might be, too.
So when I looked at this from a purely philosophical standpoint, I realized that it is basically nonsensical to say that you are not true to yourself after moving to a new cultural environment and adapting to the local way of doing things. The purpose of culture is to increase the chances of survival of the human race by enhancing our capability of learning. Since we can now pass on the ideas, beliefs and values we acquired to the next generation, they do not have to start from zero in their learning process.
Having in mind that culture is information that is passed on between human beings, and that our beliefs are essentially an expression of our culture, whenever we acquire new beliefs, essentially what we are doing is to improve our chances of succeeding in life. From an evolutionary standpoint, this would mean living a longer life, having more children, as well as improving our social standing in the society. From today’s standpoint, maybe our main goals would be slightly different. The essence, however, remains the same:
Adopting new beliefs and values, so long as they are better suited to our life in the new environment, is an important factor in being successful
What this does not mean is that we should move overseas and suddenly shift our behaviour to act exactly like the locals do. There certainly are values and beliefs which form the core of our identity. If we were to completely abolish these beliefs, then indeed we would feel a sense of being untruthful to ourselves.
Rik Schnabel says we should distinguish between convenient and inconvenient beliefs. Convenient beliefs are those that have a positive effect on our lives, inconvenient beliefs are those that hold us back. He refers to this more in terms of general beliefs that either support, or hinder us on our path to success such as “I don’t have enough talent to succeed in this domain” rather than culture-specific beliefs such as “everybody is equal” versus “there is a social hierarchy that is important to maintain”.
In the end, however, I believe that this separation in convenient and inconvenient beliefs works just as well for culture-specific beliefs. I would go one step further though and say that you should distinguish between your core beliefs, beliefs that are more peripheral to your identity but that have a positive effect on your life, as well as beliefs that are detrimental to life.
Core beliefs: once you’ve identified these, make sure that you always act according to them. They make up an important part of your identity, and if you disregard them, you will suffer emotionally. For instance, if you believe in equality and you are moving to a country that has a high gap between the upper- and the lower classes, then you will have to find a way to maintain your belief, while at the same time adjusting your behaviour in a way that is still acceptable in the new environment.
Positive, but peripheral beliefs: keep them as long as they serve you well. When you move into a new environment where they are perceived negatively, and you think that it would make life easier for you if you adopt the local way of thinking, then do change.
Inconvenient beliefs: Often what happens is that when we move into another environment, we become aware of our inconvenient beliefs. If that happens, its time to change them. For example, one thing I have observed among Western managers is the belief that their colleagues from developing countries are likely to be “less educated and therefore should be given less responsibility”. If they are approaching the situation with an open mind, they will often realize that this is complete nonsense, especially for those people from developing countries who have studied abroad. Often then they are more positively equipped to lead the other employees than their western counterparts. After all, they are then able to adopt a western perspective, as well as the perspective from their own country at the same time.
I encourage you to take this as an exercise: list up all your values and beliefs that you can think of, and then put them into the three categories of core beliefs, positive but peripheral beliefs, and inconvenient beliefs. Then, do take your time to reflect on whether there are some changes you can make in your life. And, if you feel like it, share your results with us! 🙂