You Are Not Your Behaviour

When I was on my way to my office this morning, I caught myself thinking: “I am lazy”, as a response to me getting out of bed at 9am (on a Sunday, to my defense).

Luckily I realized my negative way of thinking and immediately corrected it to: “your behaviour this morning was lazy”. Sure, I could have also told myself that getting out of bed at 9am in the morning on a Sunday isn’t necessarily lazy. But with that, I would’ve missed a point. The negative voice in my head told me that I was lazy. If I had told myself that “well, it’s a Sunday, so its alright for the day”, then I would’ve only given myself an excuse to keep on behaving this way. On the other hand, by clearly saying that “my behaviour was lazy”, I give myself the chance to correct my behaviour for the next time.

When we think to ourselves that “wer are lazy”, we are describing a permanent characteristic of our personality. So once we start believing that this is who we are, then our behaviour will reflect that belief for as long as we are holding onto it.

On the other hand, if we say to ourselves that “my behaviour this morning was lazy”, then we are describing a one-time event. We are effectively saying: “sure, what I did this morning was lazy. But that behaviour is not part of my identity, it was only an exception”.

Are cultural scripts part of our identity?

Anna Wierzbicka wrote that cultural scripts are a “naive set of assumptions about what is good and bad to do – and what one can or cannot do”. These assumptions are called scripts, because they are essentially ingrained into us as part of our cultural conditioning. When we in a specific situation, these cultural scripts then tell us how we should behave, and what we can or can not do.

To take a very simple example: in the Anglo-Saxon culture, people will never say to each other something like: “you have to help me to do this”. Instead, what people are more likely to do is to frame it as a question: “Would you mind helping me with this”?

Behaviours like these are so ingrained into our minds by our cultural conditioning that they are, more or less, invisible to us. To say to someone outright “you have to help me to do this and that’s it”, is something that would probably not even come to our minds. To people from Anglo-Saxon cultures, to push someone to do something in this way is considered impolite and thus contradicts with the value of politeness.

While in the scientific literature, cultural scripts often refer to things we say, I believe they can refer just as well to things we do.

Take the example of someone coming one hour too late to an appointment. If that happens in Indonesia, it is often considered as ‘normal’, therefore the person who has been waiting would probably just greet the other person as usual. If the same thing were to happen in Anglo-Saxon countries, or in Germany for instance, then the other person would most likely felt like he or she was being ‘direspected’, and would use certain behavioural scripts that show his or her unhappiness with the situation (albeit probably still in a way that is considered ‘polite’).

Cultural scripts are just like any other form of behaviour

Since cultural scripts are just like any other form of behaviour, they do not necessarily behave to be part of our identity. They are nothing more than a set of behavioural patterns that we acquired by imitating the people from the environment in which we grew up.

Let’s come back to our example of coming an hour after the appointed time. For many of my Indonesian friends who moved to Australia, this behavioural pattern is still so ingrained into their minds, that they are regularly coming late to appointments. While to them this is not considered late, it frequently upsets many of the people around them.

If you are not from a country that has a similar cultural script, then it is easy for you to say that: “well, then they should just stop coming late! It is disrespectful”. Well, yes, but in their country its not considered disrespectful.

For them, to move to another country and to come late to their appointments, is the same like if I as a German move to Indonesia, and keep giving them very direct, honest, and negative feedback, which is considered extremely impolite in most Asian countries and can easily lead to the end of the relationship.

Can we stop acting on the behavioural scripts that we have learned in the past?

Yes it is possible, but it is a very difficult process. Remember, we have grown up with these behaviours since the time we were children. They have become such a natural part of our behavioural repertoire, that most of the time we are not even consciously aware of what we are doing.

Step one: build conscious awareness. Pay attention to these behaviours, and try to notice whenever you are acting upon them.

Step two: identify the values and beliefs that are underlying these behavioural patterns. Why are you acting this particular way? Why did your culture encourage you to act this particular way?

Step three: analyse in which ways the behavioural patterns of your old culture, and the culture to which you are moving are different. Try to find any commonalities, as well as any differences in the two different belief systems. Although the two belief systems may be very different on first look, they should also have some overlap. Find this overlap.

Step Four: make a decision whether some of your behavioural patterns, as well as your values and beliefs need to be changed in order to work effectively in the new cultural environment.

Step Five: Whenever you notice your old behavioural scripts to come through, say to yourself: “I notice that I am behaving the way I used to do. How can I behave differently now in order to be more effective in this situation?”. Notice that here I am not using any critical language. It doesn’t make sense to criticize ourselves for the behaviour that we are showing – rather, we should acknowledge the behaviour and then look for alternative ways to act.

Have you noticed any cultural scripts within yourself that have proven to make your life hard in the new cultural environment you moved to? If yes, what have you done to overcome them? Have you been successful? I would be keen to hear from you.





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