How well do you know another culture?

I am not very far into Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, but I am taking a lot of notes. This is not what I expected when I picked up the 20-year-old book on developing critical thinking using lessons from classical philosophers. 

Early on, she tells the story of Anna, a young political science major from a large state university in the Midwest, who, after graduation, took a job in a large firm. After 12 years at the firm, she was sent to the Beijing. Nussbaum uses the example to investigate how Anna’s undergraduate did and did not prepare her for this experience. 

Nussbaum’s laundry list of what Anna needed is long, and I’ll only quote a little right here: 

In a middle-management position, Anna is working with both Chinese and American employees, both male and female. She needs to know ho Chinese people think about work (and not to assume there is just one way); she needs to know how cooperative networks are formed, and what misunderstandings might arise in interactions between Chinese and American workers. Knowledge of recent Chinese history is important…Anna also needs to consider her response to the recent policy of urging women to return to the home, and to associated practices of laying off women first. This means she should know something about Chinese gender relations, both in the Confucian tradition and more recently. 

Anna’s undergraduate education did not prepare her for this, Nussbaum said. Her curiosity and persistence did. What Nussbaum is also arguing in the book (although I am not yet finished) that no undergraduate education can prepare anyone for all of these issues. What it can do is prepare you to understand that these issues exist. 

Even if Anna had taken many courses in Indian culture, she would know some of the flash points between the US and India: gender issues, worker issues, different cultural traditions and how they work in the real world, etc. 

These flash points (my word, not hers) exist between and among every culture. It’s where expectations and reality is different and where the people having intercultural dialogue must navigate. Education in any other culture (say, India) will give people the understanding that these flash points exist, which makes you more likely to look for them when dealing with a second different culture (say, China). 

It’s not a perfect solution, of course. Instead of trying to know every culture — which is 1) impossible and 2) foolish — understanding at least one other culture somewhat well will help you understand your limitations. And that’s the key to cultural understanding.