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Culture Is Like… an Elephant?

November 2, 2019 Hsin-Yu Chen The Pennsylvania State University

Inside, Outside, and In Between:  An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

When I was little, my good friend and her family immigrated to the US. Every time she came back to visit, I was so interested in hearing about her experiences in America.I learned how American students go to school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. They didn’t need to buy their own textbooks because the school provided this resource for them, and they could leave their textbooks at Hsin-yu Chenschool, so they didn’t necessarily need a backpack to carry all their stuff to school every day. They also didn’t need to walk to school because they had a school bus.Their teachers were nicer than ours, and they had no homework—a real paradise for children!

Impressions of American Culture

When we grew older, even if my friend couldn’t visit me as often as when she was little, I learned about American culture from other sources. For my group of friends, impressions of American culture would be a topic in casual conversation. We marveled at how American kids learn to earn money from the time they are little by delivering newspapers, walking dogs, mowing lawns, and so on.

Other impressions we discussed were how they call their parents by their names, wear shoes in the house, eat ice cream when sick, drink Coke and coffee more than hot tea, love parties—and when they eat dinner together as a family—each member has an individual serving, instead of all sharing from dishes placed in the middle of table.


As you, the reader, will probably have realized by now, while some of what I have just mentioned may reflect the majority of American culture and your own experience, some of what I heard was far from the norm, and most of these “facts” are really case-by-case. The main thing, though is that before I came to the US, I did have a lot of “impressions” about life there. Another way of describing these impressions and perceptions could have been as stereotypes: an oversimplified picture that satisfies our need to see the world as more understandable and manageable than it really is.

Later on, however, when I met people when I was traveling abroad and/or was back home visiting and they knew that I had been in the States for a while (i.e., longer than short-term travelers), they often asked me to share about my life in the US. Sometimes, they would ask me to validate their impressions. The more I thought about it, however, the more uncertain my answers became. What I saw, heard, learned, and even personally experienced is only a minuscule part of American culture and can’t necessarily be generalized.

Avoiding Labels

Sharing my own experience could create an incomplete impression in other people’s minds, just like how my friend’s stories created a lot of impressions in mine. And yet, on the other hand, sharing different cultural and life experience with each other is a major part of information transmission. Our experiences and the stories we tell about them are a good way to help others get some basic idea about a culture and about other people’s experiences. Yet this does not change the fact that, the more I share, the more I feel the importance of not creating overly strong impressions that can lead to “labels” being placed on other people.

The Danger of the Single Story

As Chimamanda Adichie’s (2009) TED talk about the danger of the single story reminds us, the problem with stereotypes is not necessarily that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete—with results that can dehumanize a group and its culture. Reflecting on this problem reminds me of the fable of the blindfolded men and an elephant. The fable may have some variations, but, generally, five blindfolded men encounter an elephant and try to figure out what it is like.

The problem, however, is that the elephant is so big, and each individual person can only touch so much of its body. Thus, the blindfolded man who touches the leg of the elephant thinks it looks like a tree branch; the one who feels the tail says it is like a rope; the one who feels the ear compares it to a fan; the one who feels its belly likens it to a wall; while the one who takes hold of the tusk is adamant that the elephant is like a spear. Of course, they are all right at some level, but the key is that they are all correct only partially and incompletely.

Not the Whole Picture

In some ways, the elephant is like our culture, while each of our individual experiences is like that of the individual blindfolded men. Different people may establish different perceptions of a culture because they experience a different part of it. My impressions of American culture are true to my experience, but they are not the whole picture.

Recognizing that we will probably never be able to dispense with stereotypes entirely can help us navigate the inevitable pitfalls that we encounter in our increasingly diverse societies. For example, acquiring some generalized customs and etiquette that distinguish a particular culture may be helpful to outsiders, as these generalizations provide a framework of initial expectations that can help build rapport, show respect, and reduce the uncertainty associated with intercultural communication.

However, at the same time that we acknowledge the usefulness of such stereotypes, we also need to be cautious, always bearing in mind that, even if they are true, they only reveal a small part of the whole culture. When we take stereotypes as simple fact, they may deter our interest in continuing to learn, to experience, and to understand. Forgetting this fact may even lead to misunderstanding and bias. Perhaps worst of all, when we stereotype we take the easy way out, and this deprives us of the opportunity to know the wonder that is humanity in all its different forms.

Sharing Experiences

Merely because sharing our experiences or impressions can never represent the whole culture does not mean we should avoid sharing them. Just like the blindfolded men in the story, we learn about a culture piece by piece. What we need to keep in mind is that the culture we know is only a piece of a bigger picture. As a consequence, we always need to find additional ways (or sources) to collect more pieces of the puzzle.

The more pieces we have, the more likely it will be that the puzzle reflects reality and all its nuances. Above all, we must remember that such learning happens through exchange. We need to provide others with a chance to share who they are around us. And we must also give ourselves—our own impressions and experiences—in order that we can learn.

Knowing how difficult it is to get to know a culture, we also need to be more empathetic and tolerant when people attempt to share what they know about our culture. Their understanding may sound stereotypical and biased, but we also shouldn’t be offended or rush to accuse them of being ignorant. After all, we all are on the way toward knowing each other’s culture—or even our own—and the task of building better cultural competence is never complete.     

References: Adichie, C. N. (2009, July). The danger of the single story [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

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