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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

National Identity vs Cultural Differences

Reader twicerandomly asked me to write about national identities, and I’m happy to oblige because I love this topic.

National identities do not exist. Nations are artificial constructs invested with manufactured meaning that doesn’t have any real content except the one we force ourselves to believe in.

Whenever Spanish speakers from different countries get together, they immediately plunge into reciting endless lists of minuscule differences between them. This is the process of manufacturing national identity from nothing, and I always die of boredom the moment this activity begins because it is beyond obvious to me that if there were any real differences, narrating them would not be necessary. I mean, just think about it. In all of these conversations, I’m standing right there, as foreign as they get, and nobody feels it necessary to discuss my difference. Yes, in Argentina and Mexico you use a different word for “skirt.” Big whoop. And I use a different word for everything, yet nobody finds that super exciting.

Real difference doesn’t need to be named, constantly and obsessively, because it doesn’t need to be made more real through the act of naming. (Now apply this idea to the folks who have an overpowering need to repeat, “Men and women are different!” and you’ll see how this very need proves them wrong.)

What does exist is cultural difference. To a limited extent, cultural differences can be traced through language. As much as this will bug 90% of my readers, Americans, Canadians, Australians and the British have enormously more in common to an outsider than they have in terms of difference. And as much as it bugs me, I am part of the Russian-speaking culture and the differences between me and Russians somewhere in Saratov are pretty cosmetic.

I don’t like my culture, as I’ve said many times. And my culture doesn’t like me back, so it’s all good. If I were to write a blog in Russian, I’d have trouble finding even just half a dozen readers. In terms of interpersonal communications, I like Hispanics the most. They are so good at this stuff (cultural difference!) that you can just float right along, no effort required.

For instance, I’m looking for a cleaning lady right now, and I really want a Hispanic woman for the job. As much as I love English-speakers (the culture is the best ever for me to live in), I might not always have the energy to carry them through a conversation. English-speakers are very class-conscious and I know enough already to realize that it’s up to the person with the higher social standing to carry everybody else in a conversation. And that tires me out enormously.

There are obvious exceptions to the language rule, of course. Jews of all languages preserve their own unique culture, and I know a lot about a Jewish family two minutes after meeting them irrespective of the language the speak.

There are also post colonial structures where people speak the language of the colonizer but have a very different culture. India is an obvious example. Many Indians speak English as their native language, but culturally they have their own, very complex and unique thing going on.

The most obvious sign that people belong to the same culture is that they feel the need to reiterate their differences. Have you ever observed an American from Seattle and an American from Atlanta? There can be crowds of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants surrounding them at a party, yet they will plunge into an endless discussion of how one’s coffee is better than the other one’s ice tea while the immigrants stand there, forlorn and excluded. This is an actual experience I’ve had and I’m aware enough to know this show was inspired, to a huge degree, by the presence of actual difference.

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26 thoughts on “National Identity vs Cultural Differences

  1. These (and all) identities are just as manufactured as national or gendered identities, in the sense that they are performed in particular contexts rather than a result of biology or fixed socialization. Being manufactured does not mean that a particular identity is without real world consequences or that you cannot point to differences in a particular context.

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    • Yes, the national identity, the most recent and tenuous of all leads people to kill and die like none other. So there are definitely consequences, you are right.

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      • It’s also provided for the highest living standards in human existence so it’s not like there are no up sides.

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        • The high living standards are not directly caused by the nation-state. They are a result of capitalism. If course, capitalism thrives in the nation-state more than in any other system of government, so on a larger scale you’re right.

          Pickety says that the high living standard of the developed countries since the 1940s owes to the two world wars. And the scope of the wars – albeit not the cause – is a result of nationalism. So this bears out your idea, too.

          I’m just thinking aloud here.

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  2. b g on said:

    Sorry to step in , but as a mere biologist, does it ever enter your fevered brains that nature may just play a small piece in this ;-D

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    • The concept of a nation was invented in the 18th century. The concept of culture was invented even later. Prehistoric humans didn’t run around, waving national flags , singing national anthems, and exploring their cultural differences.

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    • Cats and dogs are very, very different. I insist. I mean, LOOK at them. Why does it take someone who is so down to Earth to keep pointing this out. It should be self-evident, but now I have to have a mantra and repeat it very often, all because of idiots who want to say cats and dogs are the same. By the way, cats love cheese, very very much, whereas dogs are much more confortable with dog food. And cats are emotional, but dogs are very serious creatures, without emotion. And cats are hairy, but dogs are very smooth. I don’t know why we have to argue these obvious points.

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  3. Where most people get it wrong is in confusing groups and individuals. As I always like to say, across groups there are clear differences that can be expressed as percentages of people responding in different ways to particular stimuli. But within any group that’s large enough you’ll find the entire range of human behavior and each particular individual will deviate from the stereotypical norm in particular ways.

    There’s an example in social science research where business students from different countries (in Europe, we’ll limit it to French, German and British) are given the same scenario (a business functioning badly) and asked to diagnose the problem and how to solve it.

    While within each language/culture group the same range of analyses were produced, across groups the differences in percentages were striking.

    About 2/3 of the French thought the problem was a lack of decisive leadership that could be resolved by supervisor bringing subordinates to heel.
    About 2/3 of the Germans thought the problem was a lack of clear procedural guidelines that could be resolved by working out more thorough guidelines.
    About 2/3 of the British thought the problem was a personality conflict that could/should be resolved by improving the people skills of those involved.

    Knowing what groups an individual belongs to can give you good hypotheses on how to begin dealing with that person, but as an individual they’re liable to surprise you and should be able to put away any particular stereotype (while dealing with that individual).

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  4. There’s definitely such a thing as an organic culture, but it doesn’t necessary have the boundaries one would expect or propose, for instance along ethnic lines, or even socioeconomic. There can be a shared culture that crosses these lines. For instance, when I was doing my thesis, it became evident to me how some interpretations of Marechera that came from the industrialized world were simply wrong. For instance, it was suggested that Marechera’s anger at his publishers was related to his low return in royalties, However, that seems like a much too narrow interpretation of the author, suggesting he was motivated mostly by financial issues. In fact, his demeanor was, in many respects, that of an Old Testament prophet, using his body and wild actions to demonstrate his sense of frustration with the overall direction of the societies he entered. He really didn’t care so much about money since he prefered to live under a bush or on a park bench, rather than in a hotel suite, if he felt he was compromising his artistic integrity by going along with a producer’s vision.

    Even though I am not black and not similar in other ways to Marechera, I could still see and simply understand that his roots were in an organic, African sense of Christianity, rather than in market economics. We had enough of the same background for me to make these observations, whereas those from other cultures have tended to make altogether different assumptions.

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  5. eli on said:

    if you increase the contrast in a photograph, you also emphasize the areas that are similar.

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  6. Shakti on said:

    When you immigrate or travel, the difference between subgroups in your native country get flattened out because it doesn’t matter as much, practically speaking. Put those same Americans in an expat community and I doubt people will endlessly discuss the difference between Seattle and Atlanta.

    So do you believe there’s no significant difference between people who never immigrate, 1st generation, and 2nd generation immigrants between the same two countries? Because there’s constant discussion of the differences between the two, and yet I feel those differences are real. But the differences I feel that are significant (different outlooks on life) are not the ones that are endlessly discussed (hygiene, fluency in English).

    I think once you get past the 3rd generation, claims to immigrant status are generally bullshit posturing.

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    • “When you immigrate or travel, the difference between subgroups in your native country get flattened out because it doesn’t matter as much, practically speaking. Put those same Americans in an expat community and I doubt people will endlessly discuss the difference between Seattle and Atlanta.”

      – Exactly!! Because there is a more significant difference everywhere around them.

      “So do you believe there’s no significant difference between people who never immigrate, 1st generation, and 2nd generation immigrants between the same two countries?”

      – I think the differences between an immigrant and non-immigrant are huge. And I only consider immigrants those who actually immigrated. Children of immigrants have their own issues but it’s simply a different experience.

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  7. When I first went to the UK from South Africa at the age of 24, I didn’t expect culture shock, and so it came as even more of a shock because it was unexpected. I thought that because they spoke the same language there’d be no problems. I thought that, having grown up reading books published in the UK, I knew something about the culture. I was wrong.

    I got a job driving buses in London, and when my fellow workers were in the canteen, their gathered in different groups — the English, the Irish, and the West Indian. They all spoke English, but when they were talking among themselves I couldn’t understand a word they said.

    A South African friend came to the UK a few months after I did. His cultural background was Xhosa, not English, though he spoke English as a second language,. And when we met for coffee we discovered that we had experienced very similar culture shock. It was not speaking the same language that united us, because we didn’t. It was growing up under the same sky.

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    • Totally agree and have had similar experiences.

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    • “It was not speaking the same language that united us, because we didn’t. It was growing up under the same sky.”

      – This is a beautiful story. I truly wish I could experience something like this. Instead, every time I meet people from my culture, it’s like, “Who are these scary creatures and what the hell are they talking about?”

      “They all spoke English, but when they were talking among themselves I couldn’t understand a word they said.”

      – That’s how I felt my entire life among my people! It is very disturbing when everybody laughs at the same joke and you just sit there, completely confused.

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  8. Jones on said:

    “Have you ever observed an American from Seattle and an American from Atlanta? There can be crowds of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants surrounding them at a party, yet they will plunge into an endless discussion of how one’s coffee is better than the other one’s ice tea …”

    The Seattle person is correct about the coffee, while the Atlanta person is correct about the tea. There are sufficiently simple and obvious reasons for this that do not, in fact, require extensive semiotic decoding. 🙂

    The coffee in Seattle is better because they made the attempt in a specific way, and for that place, it works.

    The tea in Atlanta is better because they made the attempt in another specific way, and for that place, it also works.

    The Seattle people borrowed Italian roasting techniques for their coffee, while the Atlanta people made the default for tea an iced drink with sufficiently large amounts of sugar in it, which of course are choices that individually suit both regions.

    The conversation goes on because both parties are in effect asking why the attempt wasn’t made for the other alternatives. You can have the same conversation about barbecue, based on the kind of meat involved (or lack of it), the smoke used, the cooking techniques, and so forth.

    As for class consciousness, you could instead have an over-reliance on place consciousness — rather than someone knowing his class, and thereby not overstepping reasonable bounds when it comes to interrogating others on their everyday life details, you could be left with having to know someone’s place, as in where they were born, what family they were born into, and so on.

    Generally I find Americans are too inquisitive about details that could best be solved by travelling more and seeing more things, although I find that’s also true of any group of people who are effectively stuck in one place without immediately obvious avenues for change.

    Wherever you go, there’s a local variation of saying, “Yuh shore do tawlk funny, yuh ain’t frum ’round heah boah, are yuh?” 🙂

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  9. \\ – I think the differences between an immigrant and non-immigrant are huge. And I only consider immigrants those who actually immigrated. Children of immigrants have their own issues but it’s simply a different experience.

    By “actually immigrated”, do you consider only the parents who decided to immigrate, or their early-teen children too?

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  10. \\ There are obvious exceptions to the language rule, of course. Jews of all languages preserve their own unique culture, and I know a lot about a Jewish family two minutes after meeting them irrespective of the language the speak.

    Could you clarify what that unique culture is?
    My family was so assimilated that I don’t think we had it.

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