Culture…Shock!

In a week’s time the Chennai Challenge team for 2014 will be in India recovering from jet lag and adjusting to an entirely new culture. I have to admit that I am more than a little excited about this. One of my favourite things about running Chennai Challenge projects is the joy of introducing people to a new culture. Of seeing the way they react to things that are almost normal (but not quite!) to me now.

It is easy to forget how wide reaching the word culture is. I like to start these sort of ponderings by having a look at the dictionary definition of a word, so here goes:

Culture n. 1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. 2. The customs, ideas, and social behaviour of a particular people or group.

Two definitions then, from the Oxford English Dictionary, which cover a huge amount of ground in 2 sentences. Let’s look at them one by one.

1. The arts AND other manifestations… As far as I can tell this covers all sorts. As a trained actor, when someone mentions culture I tend to think immediately of theatre and film. But of course that is the narrowest description of this first definition. Widen just a little and you find Music (from Mozart to Muse to Miley), Dance (from ballet to jazz to street dance) and Art (from classical fine art to abstract art). Widen just a little further and you reach Television, Photography, Performance Art, Circus, Gaming, Architecture, Literature, Fashion, Festivals – the list could go on and on. This definition though, also includes “other manifestations of human intellectual achievement”. How far does that take us? Would it be fair to say that everything created by humans becomes a part of our “culture” then? And regarded collectively? I wonder how many people must regard something as a manifestation of human intelligence for it to be “collectively” regarded as such.

2. The customs, ideas, and social behaviour of a particular group. Well now, this is an interesting one. And something that we discussed in a little more detail at the recent training weekend. When asked what we mean by culture the team came up with a variety of different responses; and they tended to fit more readily into this definition. At first we talked about food. Food defines cultures in so many ways, and India is no different. As you may know we at Chennai Challenge love our Indian food, and of course culture dictates not only the actual food, but how and where you eat it! Then we talked about clothing – affected by the climate, religious sensibilities and materials available in the area. The language – aural and physical. I encouraged the team to think about some of the things we take for granted such as nodding, shaking hands and how we greet people. Instinctively we know the socially appropriate way of greeting a family member, a close friend or a business contact, but this is only because we are a part of the culture. Where it is acceptable for male and female friends to touch, hug and even kiss cheeks in the UK, this would be seen as inappropriate within the setting of conservative Chennai. Time keeping is another of these issues, which we regularly come up against in India. They simply don’t see time in the same way as we do. What is rude in the UK might not be rude in India, and vica versa.

So widespread is this concept of culture that it brings up the question of what we mean as Chennai Challenge, when we ask our Team Members to immerse themselves in a new and different culture. It might seem like something impossible to avoid when travelling to Chennai with one of our teams, but actually when you realise how far reaching the definition of culture is, the challenge of immersing yourself in a new and different culture is a huge one, and one that I will still relish on this, my 10th visit to India.

Image courtesy of Michelle Moss: http://wordsimagined.blogspot.co.uk/

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