Culture Clash

In college I attended a leadership retreat as part of a program put on by the Greek Panhellenic Council at various schools in Southern California.  Four representatives from each sorority and fraternity were sent to the University of Santa Barbara for a weekend of learning how to be a good leader.  I figured it was just going to be a really fun weekend partying with some really cool people, but what I learned at this leadership retreat has stayed with me for years.

My twin sister was one of the representatives and so, coincidentally, was my boyfriend at the time who was president of his fraternity.  We drove up to Santa Barbara together and were looking forward to spending some quality time together.

On Saturday morning more than 100 of us gathered in a meeting room where we met our leadership facilitators.  We were split randomly into groups of 25-30 or so.  My boyfriend, Steve (no relation to my current husband), and I ended up in the same group and my sister in another.  All groups were isolated so we could not see what was happening in any other group.  Our facilitator told us we were a culture called the Bobians.  We were all given a sheet of paper describing our cultural attributes and traits.  Here were some of ours.

  • Egalitarian society: Men and women treated equally.
  • Commerce-oriented: Trading and making money were very high on our list of things to do on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
  • Language: We had an unusual language which we had to spend 30 minutes learning and practicing.  If you didn’t know the key to the language you would never understand what we were talking about.  But we all finally understood how it worked and were able to communicate quite easily with each other.
  • Competition:  Whoever had the most paper money at the end of the exercise would win a huge prize.  We were given play money.
  • No grouping: We were encouraged to spend time as an entire group instead of breaking off into cliques.
  • No touching: We were told that as a culture we didn’t touch each other.  It was considered very rude to shake hands or have other physical contact.

We spent 30 minutes interacting with each other as a culture to get used to who we were supposed to be.  We mingled, got money from each other, laughed at our silly language, and it was fun.  I wasn’t very good at the commerce part, so I didn’t have a whole lot of money at the end, but I didn’t care.

Next we were told that 2 ambassadors from another culture were going to come to our fair city and that we needed to send 2 ambassadors to their culture as part of an exchange program.  I volunteered to go and teach this other culture how we worked.  I knew the language barrier might be tough, but I was still game.

Steve and I were selected to go to the other culture.  My sister, part of this culture, was selected to go to our culture.  This is where it got interesting.

As we approached the new culture I saw that there seemed to be small groups of them.  I immediately approached a group of three women and started speaking in my native tongue and waving money at them, hoping I could con them somehow into giving me some of their money.  As I approached I saw that they were very friendly, and all of them reached out and touched me on the arm in greeting.  I recoiled since touching was not part of our culture.  They began asking me about my family (they spoke English) and wanted to know about my female ancestors, and I was totally bored.  I tried to get them to talk about money but they didn’t understand a word I was saying.  So I put some money out and made gestures for trading and they handed me a bunch of tootsie rolls!  Ack!  Not what I wanted. 

I looked over at my boyfriend to see how he was doing.  He was in a group of men who were all surrounding him and everyone was trying to shake his hand.  He looked uncomfortable.  He was trying to get money out of them and was succeeding!  They had money, not Tootsie Rolls!  I waved my partner over and as he approached I saw all the women in my group retreat and fall to their knees, bowing to him.  He smiled wide.  He liked that.  Didn’t understand it, but he liked it.  I was confused too.  But these women were totally admiring him and worshipping him (and throwing Tootsie Rolls at him too!).  I didn’t get that kind of treatment!

I decided to go over to the men since they had all the money apparently.  As I approached, all the men closed ranks when they saw me coming and stopped speaking.  They moved away from me.  I pursued, asking in my language for them to trade me some money.  They started looking at me oddly and with a little hostility.  I started becoming very uncomfortable.  In another area, I saw 5 really big fraternity boys and I went over there and got pretty pushy in my request for money.  After all, I had to win the game and go back to my tribe with some of their money.  I heard the women near me freaking out and telling me to come back to them and tell them about my female ancestors.  Bah!  I had no time for that sort of nonsense.  I continued yapping at these huge guys in my language.  They told me to go back to the women and remember my place!  But I didn’t want to be with the women, I wanted money so I kept yapping.  Suddenly, one of them roared at me (yes, roared) and charged me!  I’ve never played football but I suddenly felt like a quarterback about to be sacked!  He grabbed me bodily, hoisted me into the air, and threw me on the ground where I rolled and hit a wall.  All of my money (and Tootsie Rolls) flew out of my hands.  I threw my hands up to protect myself from further attack as I saw all of these guys bearing down on me.  I had no earthly idea what just happened but I knew I didn’t like it.  My boyfriend saw what happened to me and went crazy.  He jumped on the guy that threw me to the ground and they started physically fighting, all thoughts of our leadership training weekend were completely forgotten. 

The facilitators saw this guy assault me and raced over to try to calm things down.  I was shaking and upset because I really had no idea why this guy threw me down.  What the hell was he thinking!?  It was just a game!  Members of my boyfriend’s fraternity jumped into the fray because my boyfriend was getting his ass kicked (hey, I always went for the geeks, not the jocks).  So the other fraternity boys jumped in too and before long we had a complete brawl going on.

They had to call security in to break everyone up.  I had minor injuries, mainly bumps and bruises from being thrown to the ground and rolling into the wall, but I was otherwise undamaged.  My boyfriend’s face wasn’t looking too good though.  It was an insane and scary experience.

Finally, when things calmed down enough, our facilitators explained what the deal was.  Apparently, this other tribe/culture had very different social norms than we did (you can say that again!).  Here is what their culture was like:

  • Male dominated society: Women were never allowed to stand in the presence of men and had to bow down before them or risk exile from the tribe.
  • Family ancestors were very important: Women could only discuss female relatives, but men were encouraged to discuss their male relatives and their accomplishments. 
  • Money was only for men: The women had Tootsie Rolls and the men carried all the money, and never the twain should meet.
  • Group clustering: A man could enter a female group, but a female was never allowed to approach a group of males, ever!

Okay, that explained a LOT!  That’s why the guys were so upset that I approached them waving money around and didn’t bow.  But he didn’t have to throw me down!  He apologized to me later and said he was so into the game that he didn’t really think about what he was doing.  He kept expecting me to bow to him, and when I wouldn’t, it made him really angry and he wanted to put me in my place.

We found out that when the male and female of this tribe came to our tribe they were eventually completely ignored since the female (my sister) only tried discussing her female relatives with the women of my tribe and, seeing she didn’t have money (and thus no value), was completely shunned.  The male didn’t fare much better because he kept trying to touch people and was eventually shunned too.

So what did we learn from this?  I learned a lot, actually.  I learned that when you don’t fully understand someone else’s culture that it’s really easy for misunderstandings to occur.  I learned that different cultures value different things and neither one is necessarily right or wrong.  I learned that before you go into a culture it would be wise to find out what they consider proper and improper behavior, or it could start a war!  And I learned that even if people have differences in beliefs and culture that we should still all try to get along and learn from each other.

I also learned that it’s wise to watch for subtle (and not so subtle) cues from other people.  There were many signs that these men were becoming agitated but I didn’t heed the signs and ended up starting a brawl.

I see a lot of culture clash going on in the world today.  We seem to fight over money, religion, and resources.  Is it because we have different values and different cultures?  Do we have the right to attack another culture simply because they are different? I wonder what would happen if we spent more time learning and understanding people of other cultures instead of judging and killing them. 

The goal of that leadership retreat was to teach us how to communicate with people who weren’t necessarily just like us.  But, as in life, our differences were more obvious than our similarities, and it literally led to war, albeit on a small scale.  I’ll never forget my experience at that retreat.  I wonder how many others who were there that day even think about it anymore.  I wonder what they took from the experience.

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