The Conflicted Anthropologist

Recently, Gustavo and I started watching (or re-watching, in my case) Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” I was in Brazil, actually, when the news broke that Bourdain had died. I’d always admired him, partly because of my eternal and undying love for anyone else from New Jersey and also because I appreciated his open-hearted, non-judgmental approach to exploring other cultures. He was always curious in a way that made everything seem normal, no matter where in the world he was.

At the same time, I’ve also been revisiting my college years in the past few weeks. I completed an Introduction to Programming course and, having found myself enjoying development for the first time in years, I started thinking about the other areas in which I’d like to focus. Gustavo, knowing me as well as he does, suggested that I might want to look into computational linguistics.

Since then, I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole of learning more about it. I studied cultural anthropology as an undergrad with such dedication that you would’ve thought I was en route for my Ph.D. I wrote an undergraduate thesis with over 40 interviews and 130 pages. It was entirely unnecessary, but I loved it.

I stumbled into Anthropology after being entirely unconvinced that I even wanted to be in school. Then I wanted to study philosophy. Later, history – with a special focus on Soviet History. (I’m still extremely intrigued by the subject.) Finally, not being able to pick one thing, I decided to go for the most generic and, somehow, most fitting option there was: the study of people.

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While I did spend a few years in the pretty typical, post-Anth field of non-profit work, moving into the tech industry wasn’t totally related to my studies. Nevertheless, the concept of cultural relativity is one that has remained, well, relevant, throughout every phase of my life.

In Anthropology, cultural relativity is the concept that beliefs, values, and practices are not universal – they are relative to your culture. What is considered good in one culture might be neutral in another. What’s considered bad in one, might be good elsewhere. There is no universal definition of what “good” or “bad” values are. (And, one could argue, the emphasis on the dichotomy between good and bad is probably a pretty Western-focused one for this example.)

As a result, I approach pretty much everything as a culture. Moving from non-profit to tech was a cultural shift for me. Things that are highly valued in a tech company – development skills, flexibility, desire to pick up and explore new technologies – differ from those in non-profits – empathy, an emphasis on people vs. technology, stability.

I can’t think of a time in my life when I wasn’t interested in these differences.  While I do believe that, deep down, people are all the same, we’re the same in so many very different ways. Learning those differences always felt like an opportunity for me to grow and question things that I had taken as a given in my life.

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With all of this floating around in my head lately, I keep coming back to my thoughts on my feelings about and interactions with Brazilian culture. I’ve been able to approach everything else with a lens of cultural relativity in my life.

Yet with Brazil, there are so many things that I get angry about. “Why do you do things that way?” “Why isn’t it different?” “Why don’t people do [X, Y, or Z]?” I shout – usually in Gustavo’s direction, but sometimes into the void as well.

Arguably, Brazilian culture is one that I’ve been closer to than all others. But I’ve also spent time living in France and Italy, both of which are pretty different. While I had plenty of frustrations with French culture, there’s nothing that comes to mind that I feel particularly confounded by – except maybe an involuntary desire to correct mispronunciations in any language. (Sorry to anyone I’ve ever done that to.)

Brazil is a very social culture. It’s also a culture into which not very many people immigrate. For a lot of people, because of the emphasis on inter-personal connection, they require personal experience with a foreign concept – whether that’s direct, or through a friend with a similar worldview – to relate and empathize. It’s less common to see foreigners maintaining their own culture in Brazil, as opposed to assimilating to the dominant culture.

For me, as someone who felt I could so often insert myself as a “participant observer,” I didn’t see any space for myself in Brazilian culture – and still don’t. If the cultural expectation, even when observing, is to assimilate, how can you continue to observe? As a result, I found myself flipping on my own values, wanting the culture to bend around me.

Logically, I knew it was impossible – and ridiculous. Here’s this whole city, in a foreign country, and I’m one little individual with my big, multi-cultural-but-still-American worldview railing against the cultural expectations of 200 million people. “It’s so rude to do that!” “Why do they stay over so late?” “Why won’t they let me just talk to you?”

The more I pushed against the cultural expectations, the more I started to get angry. In my mind, if you know I’m foreign, you should know that I will act differently from you. And yet, that itself was a foreign value and belief.

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Maybe some people and some cultures just don’t mesh well. Not because one is more valid than the other, but because they’re just too different. Because neither of them has a way to validate one another without denying their own personal beliefs, value systems, and practices.

Maybe cultural relativity is itself a cultural concept. One that doesn’t fit into other cultures. Or one that does, but in a way that my cultural lens doesn’t allow me to see clearly.

And maybe, sometimes, we’re just a little too close and a little too human. No logic can account for human nature when it comes to taking things personally, even when it’s not personal. I really don’t know the difference. I just know that the more I think about it, the more I remember just how much I love learning about cultural differences – except for the case in which I didn’t.

In other words, perhaps I put my cultural relativity to the test and maybe – just maybe – I feel like I failed, which may be the most human thing of all 🙂

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