“Different strokes for different folks,” so the line goes. But precisely how different? And which folks? Having come across the book American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective by Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett, this line and these questions have taken on a richer meaning for this student from Indonesia. I realized that differences are meaningful and could be the basis for better relations. Culture, after all, may really be seen as humanity’s “different strokes” towards the common goal of living in a global community.
My country of origin, Indonesia, could be characterized as being a world apart from the United States, which is the main subject of this classic work by Stewart and Bennett. By reading this work, an Indonesian may take better note the differences between American and “Indonesian” (or South East Asian/Maly) cultures. In noting some of these differences in the following sections, key concepts in the book are elaborated on. First of all, to tackle the notion of culture.
Culture, (from Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate”) which is seen by this student as, generally, a people’s way of doing things (our “different strokes”), is proposed in the book as having two aspects: subjective culture and objective culture. Subjective culture is essentially the pattern of meanings that a person holds in his mind. It is a person’s mental or psychological make up. On the other hand, objective culture may be seen as the external expression — what is “out there” — of this psychological or subjective reality.
Hence, values, assumptions or patterns of thinking, e. . , belief in a non-material, divine entity like God, or a value orientation towards money and material things, are seen as elements of subjective culture. On the other hand, the development and use of money, i. e. , crafting and using paper bills or coins in particular, like the economic system itself that it props up, are part of the objective culture of a people. As a further example, for Indonesians, especially Muslims, there is this view that the political and cultural (or religious) systems are so closely intertwined as all things flow from the Q’uran (the Muslim Holy Book).
As an objectification of such belief, we find that many “Muslim states” designed or institutionalized following provisions from the Q’uran. In the particular case of Indonesia, one sees the modern development of the government sponsored ideology knowns as the Pancasila. The Pancasila informs all official development acts in the country. In fact, all those who intend to pursue higher education are required to learn the Pancasila. Here we see clearly how even higher education is directly influenced by government’s ideology unlike in the secular and liberal United States system.
To go further, with an understanding of the basic propositions on culture (subjective and objective), plus apprecaition of the contrasting ideas of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, the book’s authors declared that their work is inspired by the approach developed by Florence and Clyde Kluckhohn. They offer a specific approach towards comparing cultures. Let us note here, as the book did, Kluckhohn’s view that cross-cultural understanding and communication could be done by analyzing a people’ orientation to five key aspects of human life: Human Nature; Man-Nature Relationship; Time; Activity; and, Social Relations.
From this approach, we choose here two aspects to further highlight differences with the American cultural pattern: Man-Nature Relationship — i. e. , the view that humans should be subordinate to, dominant over, or live in harmony with nature; and, Social Relations — i. e. , perspectives as to patterns of relations, whether hierarchical, collateral, collective, egalitarian, or individualistic relations are acceptable. On the Man-Nature Relationship orientation, one can note that most Asian nations traditionally saw nature as a caring entity, or a part of “creation” — something that is prior to and bigger that Man.
This can still be seen in Indonesian culture especially in certain indigenous peoples traditions and in the general orientation of the major religions. It is ironic however that like in the case of other societies, this importance that is supposedly given to nature is not well reflected in actual programs of action. In higher education, such tension is seen as well. As to orientations on social relations, here we see the particular relevance of the notions of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft.
Indonesians in general appear to possess a strong value orientation towards community and family. This is complemented in the official ideology that is the Pancasila which was mentioned earlier and which is formally taught to schoolgoers. The Pancasila, five principles which capture the ideology of the independent Indonesian state, affirms that “The state shall be based on the belief in the one and only God. ” With this “official” recognition of a God-centered view too, the idea that the nation is in fact one people or just one big, happy family is affirmed and seen as desirable.
Indeed, it could be argued that relative to Americans, Indonesians appear to be the peoples of a gemeinschaft society. An Indonesian, therefore, living in the United States for the first time, could experience cultural ambiguity. This is the sense that one’s cultural markers or references appear misplaced or lost. For example, this is the feeling that an Indonesian may get when she hears an American child talking “disrespectfully” to her parents. An Indonesian may want to remind the child that she should be more respectful to her elders, especially her parents.
However, one cannot just intrude in a private or family matter (another cultural assumption or orientation). Furthermore, American children are seen as having their rights and are thus seen as “equal” with their older family members — a notion that may imply disrespect from an Asian perspective. All things considered, this child is just a case of “different strokes. ” Right? We can find unity in diversity, can’t we? Let us note well the lessons of this great book.