Here Be Dragons: How Culture Affects More Than You Think

There is a persistent myth that map makers used to write Hic Sunt Dracones -- "here be dragons" on the parts of the world they knew nothing about. This is actually not true since there are no authentic old maps marked in this way and hic sunt dracones appears just once, on the Lennox Globe made at the beginning of the 1500s. [Update 23 August 2013: a second globe marked Hic Sunt Dracones has now been discovered. New Scientist Article.]

Yet the idea of territory so unexplored that it might as well be populated with dragons describes very well our understanding of other cultures. Most people are aware that people in other places are different -- even if it is only from TV comedy and cartoons like Disney-Pixar's Cars franchise. Very often, though, this understanding does not go much beyond surface differences like the way people greet each other -- visible signs that are almost immediately recognizable. Most people also focus on the unusual and the bizarre in other cultures, especially those things that are visually appealing. This is the view of cultures you learn from National Geographic.

Superficial cultural differences are, in fact, rarely a problem because you see them and because you can ask people what to do. Most intercultural conflicts are caused by deeper differences that are not visible to outsiders. People within a culture are also not aware of their on hidden culture until they go somewhere else or read about it in a book. Though I was born and raised in England and absorbed all the cultural rules I never thought about the taboo on sitting in your front garden until I read about it in Kate Fox's must-read book Watching the English.

Anyone who has attended a culture course or workshop is probably aware that there are models of deeper culture developed by Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Michael Minkov and others. These models help to understand hidden differences, connecting visible signs with the underlying cultural drivers. Some cultures, for example, prioritize relationships so that if you meet an old friend it would be immensely rude to say that you have no time to talk because you are on the way to a meeting.Others prioritize rules so they would consider it more rude to be late for a meeting than to miss a chance to talk to a friend.

There are many cultural dimensions like this. Some are easy to grasp, like the difference between people who believe it is good to show emotion and those who think it is better to conceal them, maintaining what the British call a "stiff upper lip". Some are harder to grasp for beginners because our experience is usually strongly anchored in one pole of the dimension. In Fons Trompenaar's model of culture there is a dimension rconcerning our relationship with the world around us. Some cultures believe that people control their destiny while others are more inclined to think that things will just happen. Initially I thought I was totally on the "in control" side until I read about scientists studying how to stop hurricanes. Then I realized that there is a point where even I just accept fate -- it had never occurred to me to try to stop them. Many Americans -- the furthest towards the "in control" pole -- evidently are more confident than me. This subtle difference actually goes a long way to explaining some of the most misunderstood aspects of American culture.

But even if you study the cultural models, you are still a long way from understanding how deep the influence of culture can go, probably because scientists are still digging in the deeper parts of this mine, exploring new veins and discovering new surprises every year.  One of the reasons for this delayed discovery is that most psychology research is conducted on a very uniform population. The other is the egocentric habit we have of not testing things that we incorrectly assume are the same everywhere.

One of these faulty assumptions is that visual illusions are the same for everyone. Take the classical Müller-Lyer illusion where two lines are compared, each having arrowheads at the ends of the lines, but in one case pointing inward and in another case pointing outward. Common sense will tell you that everyone perceives the inward-ended line as longer. Well common sense is wrong. This is the way US undergraduates see it, but people in many cultures see it differently and the San people of the Kalahari desert barely see the effect at all. (How Weird are you?, New Scientist, 13 November 2010, page 142).

Over the last two or three years scientists have reported many other cases like this, the latest being the way people perceive the flow of time.If you are like me you probably imagine time past as being behind you and time future in front of you. The Aymara people of The Andes see it the other way around: with the unknown future behind their back and the known past in front of them. The Yupno people of Papua New Guinea would disagree with both. Recent research shows that they see time flowing uphill, so that the past is below them and the future is above them. (Time flows uphill for the YupnoNew Scientist, 12 June 2012, page 14).

No matter how much you learn about culture there will always be more differences and more misunderstandings that are simply not on our radar today. It is only in the last few years that science has begun to explore in depth unsuspected differences that for years have been hidden because of the observation bias in most research. But now we are starting to explore this unknown territory. We probably won't find any dragons, but I am sure we will find things that are much more interesting.

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Kristen Sukalac said…
There's at least one culture that sees time as flowing from east to west (or is it the other way around?), which makes sense because of the relationship to the sun's movement.
Andrew Hennigan said…
That makes sense. There are also some riverside communities that use upstream, downstream. But even wierder are the people who use north-south instead of left-right -- directions are always absolute not relative.

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