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To See a HUMAN

Microcultures, macro cultures, dead cultures, ancient-but-alive cultures. It can be easy to forget that all of these cultures are not merely compilations of customs and artifacts.

Cultures are inseparable from human beings. Some cultures live down the street. Some live on the other side of the planet. Some don’t want to be studied. Some have a hard time fitting into your culture. And all cultures want to be respected and understood on their own terms.

In my studies and travels, I’ve discovered that the key to engaging respectfully with the people and cultures around us is to remember that we’re all human. Here are a few fundamental principles that can help us do just that.

  • Look for the invisible choices and frameworks behind what you can see.
  • Be vulnerable; be curious.
  • Watch for what unifies and distinguishes the individual from the group.

Choice Makers in Context

There is a difference between choices and actions. Choices are specific but invisible; actions can be photographed.

While preparing for a group camping trip, I saw a leader struggling to cut a circle out of a thick foam pad. Trying to help, I knelt down and cut the foam she was working at away from the rest of the pad. The leader told me she appreciated the gesture, but I had made her job harder; the weight of the pad had been giving her knife enough friction to cut.

In this story, both of us made the same choice—to offer love. Yet, the action she took by thanking and teaching me happened to be more effective than my action of cutting off the extra material. I am still grateful that she correctly identified the choice behind my behavior, even though my action had been counterproductive.

Perhaps the defining trait of any culture is its patterns of choices and behavior—choices first, then behavior. David Livermore, a thought leader on cultural intelligence, states that we over focus on tangible behaviors and artifacts. Cultures come from broader systems—like history, beliefs, and values—that define collective choices. According to Livermore, we need to understand these invisible systems and choices first. Then, we will be prepared to properly contextualize and read the behaviors we come across, in both study and travel.

Vulnerable and Curious

When I left the United States for the first time, I was paired with a local Mexican for three weeks of training before our volunteer service. Without much of a language barrier between us, I was both confused and hurt when my companion became progressively more aloof. Finally, she opened up about how mean she thought I was being. As I tried to understand, apologized to her and others, and corrected my behavior, my companion and I became friendly again.

Looking back, I can better identify what happened. Differences in culture played a role, but trust was the fundamental issue. Both of us had a tendency to stay quiet instead of reach out, and those tendencies had simply escalated. Since then, I’ve realized that vulnerability is a definingly positive characteristic of what it means to be human.

I found it fitting that Livermore says curiosity is the first choice we should make to understand a foreign culture. Curiosity requires vulnerability, since it means choosing to leave yourself open to new experiences and foreign ideas.

Ironically, I’ve found that the choice to not be vulnerable—often, the choice to not listen or try to understand—causes more harm, directly or indirectly, than any other choice. At the same time, the choice to be appropriately vulnerable is perhaps the greatest doorway possible to hope, healing, and human connection.

Vulnerability, or the lack thereof, is powerful. This power applies between two people, and it certainly applies between two cultures. So be open, and be curious.

Unified and Changeable

I’ve worked in sports broadcasting at my university for nearly four years. It has given me an admiration for how athletes need to be simultaneously unified and open to change.

A team that is not unified about its goals and gameplans will not do well, and a team that can-not adapt—to new teammates, new opponents, new injuries—will also suffer. Additionally, a team that fails to practice together or adapt their practice regimen to their needs will have a hard time improving. Unity and change sim-ply can’t be separated.

After learning this, I realized how that inseparability applies to all human beings and cultures.

For example, unified does not mean homogenous. Livermore takes care to point out the dangers of stereotyping or assuming—the patterns that make up a culture are just that, patterns, not the all-encompassing rule.

I would add that being unified, within or across cultures, requires being open to difference and change. Unity means that we use what we have to work together. It does not mean that we all have the same things to offer, or even that the same things will always be needed.

Beyond that, every culture has a system of beliefs and values that defines its goals; these goals are core to the culture’s group identity. Progress towards a goal is change.


Humans make choices. We have beliefs. We have goals. We succeed and fail at being vulnerable. This is the way of humanity, at all times and in all cultures.

We do best when we learn from each other, allow each other to step in where we fall short, and generally adapt to our constantly changing circumstances. Whether we encounter a culture in print or in person, this applies to any culture we rub shoulders with—because we’re all human.

By Erika Stauffer