What role does culture play in cultural exchange?

By Davey Young at A.C.E.–The question may seem silly and the answer self-evident, but try answering it. Is it enough to say “A big one”? The issue at the heart of the question is what constitutes culture. The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota provides an excellent compilation of scholarly definitions of culture. Before proceeding, you are encouraged to skim the list here.

Some reoccurring concepts in this list are intangible constructs and symbols, a shared perception of artifacts, and a shared behavior towards reality. These elements serve to delineate a civilization or society from others. Maybe it’s just me, but this summation seems a bit broad as definitions go. Furthermore, it seems as though the longer a list of definitions we compile, the harder it is to find a common thread. For our purposes, though, we can say that culture is defined as a body of intangible constructs and symbols as well as a shared perception of said constructs among a unified group or groups to create a shared perception of and behavior towards reality. Whew!

Now that that is out of the way we can turn to the titular question in earnest. What role does culture play in cultural exchange? It can be argued that experiencing a culture through immersion is a catchall strategy to avoid a more detailed answer. This approach is perfectly acceptable and should be encouraged. A person would have a harder time learning a culture by pouring through books on specific topics related to a particular culture and then trying to assemble the information into a larger network. We do this, however, as anyone who is particularly interested in a certain culture knows from experience. Without being able to help it we read books, watch movies, and eat the food from the target culture. From these smaller components, we hope to limn a clear understanding of a specific worldview.

Doing this from afar, however, can be dangerous. We may miss vital information that has been lost in translation. Worse still, we may misinterpret the “intangible constructs and symbols” or the motivations behind the “shared behavior towards reality”. These errors can, in a worst-case scenario, defeat the entire purpose of cultural exchange, which is to both share and preserve culture. As long as we are attentive and critical of the means by which information regarding another culture reaches us, we can glean the authentic.

The individual constituents of a culture (the artifacts and intangible symbols) are certainly necessary to cultural exchange, but perhaps more importantly is the context in which they appear. This is why immersion into a culture is the best way to understand and appreciate it. One must be able to see how the smaller pieces fit into the framework. It’s a great idea to experience some so-called high culture like an art museum or a play, but also to reflect on why any of these artifacts are valued, how they are regarding and by whom. Exposing someone to American culture through Andy Warhol and Thornton Wilder may seem sound because their work is distinctly American, but they represent only a small piece of the pie and not everyone is a fan. To mix metaphors: understanding a culture is like a very complicated and amorphous version of connect-the-dots. Once all the lines are drawn, an amazing picture inevitably presents itself, though that picture is not static.

So far we have only been addressing one side of exchange through immersion. We also have to wonder what the host culture can gain from those being hosted, or rather, what a visiting culture can offer its host. This aspect of the exchange is interesting because immersed visitors become de facto representatives of their culture. One way in which the host culture can learn from such guests is being attentive to how guests interact with the host culture. We have defined culture, in part, as a “shared perception of and behavior towards reality”. Guests to a foreign culture can’t bring their entire culture part and parcel, but what they do bring is a unique worldview, a particular method of approaching reality. By engaging this worldview through dialogue and observation, a host culture can enhance understanding of the guest culture and create reciprocity in cultural exchange.

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