For the month that I’ve been in Spain, I’ve been focused on learning more about my host culture and assimilating into the Spanish way of life. But sometimes, teaching someone about your own culture can be just as difficult.
At dinner with our host brother, Pablo, my roommates and I found ourselves struggling to explain the concept of a sorority (hermandad de mujeres was the closest translation we found). I only wanted to tell him that one of their previous exchange students from last year is one of my sorority sisters!
Some concepts just don’t exist in other countries, though. At first, we approached it from a literal perspective. “It’s an organization of men or women at universities.” “It’s expensive.” “They have secret hand signals and passwords.” “They have a selective recruitment process.” “They like to party.” But Pablo still shrugged, confused.
Then we tried appealing to his knowledge of American pop culture. “Have you ever seen Legally Blonde? No? Animal House?” Nothing clicked: “Like High School Musical?” Uh, not exactly.
That’s when we reached for extreme examples out of desperation. (Although, to be fair, only two of us are sorority members, so my other roommates may have some anti-Greek bias.) “It’s almost like a cult!” “Like when people have to pay for their friends?” Still nothing.
Eventually, we had to give up. Explaining a concept like Greek life to a teenager who lives in a country where the majority of college students commute to school, instead of living on campus, is near impossible. The sororities and fraternities we have in the U.S. (and Canada) are a unique social institution that people from other countries struggle to conceptualize outside of the silver screen. Heck, many Americans view Greek organizations as mysterious, bacchanalian cults (not without reason, unfortunately).
In fact, before I joined a sorority my freshman year of college, I had the same negative view of sororities as most of my friends. Before I became a founding member of Alpha Omicron Pi at TCU, I couldn’t ever have imagined going Greek. However, once I met actual sorority women and understood the meaning the organization held for them, I began to understand why someone would want to join. Young women join sororities for more than just parties; they crave companionship, community, and a shared sense of purpose. I realized that I wanted those same things, too.
The same concept applies to another culture; as an outsider to Spanish culture, at first I didn’t understand the laid-back Spanish lifestyle. But just as with my sorority (perhaps a subculture?), after meeting actual Spaniards and living in their culture, I began to understand the value of taking things slow. The same goes for the custom of kissing cheeks in greeting, which to be honest I’m still getting used to.
Regardless of how difficult some cultural concepts are to explain, it’s important to remember that the reverse applies. I’m sure if I were to ask Pablo why Spanish university students don’t live on campus, he would struggle to explain–not because he doesn’t know why, but because it’s such an accepted part of his culture that he doesn’t usually question it. Like all of us, he would be operating on “cultural cruise control,” or letting his life be completely guided by built-in cultural assumptions (Thomas & Inkson 46).
One thing I’ve noticed in my travels is disregarding tired stereotypes (lazy Spaniards, loud Americans, rude Frenchmen) is the first step to improving one’s cultural intelligence. Paying attention to the cultural context and disregarding the “mental programming” instilled from birth can help us be mindful of our cultural surroundings (Thomas & Inkson 54). Through mindfulness, we can recognize our cultural differences while still making an effort to compromise and assimilate.
For me, the hardest thing about turning off my “cultural cruise control” is simply paying attention and practicing curiosity. I often find myself instinctively “categorizing, judging, [and] reacting” instead of simply letting new experiences unfold and enjoying them (Kashdan 89). I want to keep better records of my daily experiences in Spain, so that when something truly extraordinary happens, I will notice.
One of my favorite mantras to remember as I encounter new cultures is: “I will assume or presume nothing except that novelty exists everywhere” (89). Life is exciting, whether you’re in another country or your suburban hometown; if you don’t pay attention, you may let it pass you by.