Aging Four Months With One Phone Call

The way that we understand the world is based, in part, on cultural norms. These norms are often so deeply ingrained that we don’t stop to think that they might be arbitrary – they just feel objectively right. In fact, they are so obviously right that we tend to assume everyone else, if they are reasonable and rational, must understand things the same way. But what happens when they don’t?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Did anyone else grow up thinking that Do-Re-Mi was something invented for The Sound of Music? That was what I had always assumed until we moved to Ireland and I happened to be chatting with my Italian friend while waiting to pick up the kids at school. Our conversation veered toward music lessons and went something like this:

Roberta: “The way they teach music in Ireland is so confusing. I don’t know why they use letters for the notes instead of teaching it the normal way.”

Me: “Umm, what do you mean?”

Roberta: “You know, how they use letters like A-B-C instead of the actual names of the notes, like Do-Re-Mi.”

Me: “A-B-C are the actual names of the notes. It’s the system of semibreves and crotchets instead of whole notes and quarter notes that I find weird.”

Roberta: “What’s a quarter note?”

Me: Sound of brain exploding.

It turns out that what I’d always thought was the way to communicate about mainstream western music is just one way.

The difficulty with communicating across cultures was apparent again this week when I found out that my medical claim for an eye problem that was treated while vacationing in the US could not be processed by the US-affiliate of my Spanish health insurance. The problem was a discrepancy in my birthdate. But the real problem is that Europeans write dates as day-month-year while Americans write dates as month-day-year. You can probably guess what happened.

Remember how your science and math teachers were always reminding you to include the units with your answers? It turns out there was good reason. To anyone in the US, 6/10 is clearly June 10th, but to anyone in Spain, it is just as clearly October 6th. My insurance problem still has not been resolved, but it’s looking like the easiest thing to do is ask the clinic to age me four months so that everyone’s numbers match even if the actual dates the numbers represent do not.

The problems that arise from different systems of describing music and dates can make for cute stories partly because they are relatively easy to see and remedy (fingers crossed). But a lack of shared understanding often flies under the radar, causing problems and prejudices that are hard to pinpoint and remedy. When someone doesn’t behave in what is (for us) an acceptable way, or understand what is (for us) obvious, or do things in a way that is (for us) logical it’s very easy to blame the person – they are unreasonable or rude or just plain stupid. It’s much harder to accept that “right” and “obvious” are sometimes arbitrary.

It took me almost six months of living in Ireland before I realized that stopping the car to let pedestrians cross the street was not the cultural norm. In fact, people I knew would regularly wave at me while driving right in front of me as I waited with one foot in the road. It finally dawned on me that what I had assumed was rude behavior was actually the “right” way to drive according to Dublin cultural norms and I had to try and revise my assumptions about people who routinely failed to stop for me and the kids as I walked them to school. This was no easy feat – the speed with which we tend to form opinions and the strength with which we hold on to them can make them very resistant to change.

Even harder was accepting that my own behavior of stopping for pedestrians was probably confusing everyone and was likely more dangerous than kind. My small-town Idaho upbringing still forced me to stop during a driving lesson in order to let an elderly man cross at a minor intersection, but my brief moment of feeling virtuous was squashed when my driving instructor yelled, “What are you doing?! Just don’t do that during your driving exam!”

Since that driving incident, I’ve become ever more aware of cross-cultural differences in how people understand the world. And I’ve experienced how these differences can cause all sorts of problems, from failed communication attempts, to being unable to navigate a country’s system for getting things done, to ingrained negative perceptions of people who you don’t understand.

Looking at my own country with my expat eyes has also made me aware that a lack of shared understanding isn’t just a problem between people from different countries, it can be a problem between people period. There has been a lot of talk lately in the US about “American culture” – and, even more dangerously, about “real American culture.” But the reality is that the US is a country of layered sub-cultures tied to age, religion, race, gender-identity, geography, workplace, family, and more. You can’t assume that the people in your office or at the town park understand the world the way you do any more than I can assume that my Catalan neighbors in Barcelona share my understanding.

I’m not suggesting that problems with communication can all be attributed to culture or even to individual differences in understanding. This is especially true when people have differing opinions that are based, not on a deep understanding, but on something at once more superficial and harder to change. We might have differing opinions on vaccines, for example. If those opinions are based on how we interpret the evidence, or how we understand public health, or the experience of our culture with vaccines in general, then we could likely have a productive discussion. If they are based on anger or political ideology, then we probably cannot. Not every disagreement can have a happy ending.

But there are many times when misunderstandings, miscommunication, and disagreements over the best way to do something are caused – or at least made worse – by the assumption that everyone understands the issue or problem the way that we do.

What would happen if we stopped to consider that what is obvious to us might not be obvious to someone else? That behaviors that we think are normal might be perceived by someone else as rude? That what feels so strongly like the way to do something might just be one way? We might just end up making the world – or at least our small part of it – a better place.

In the meantime, I’m off to unwind by listening to Bach’s Chaconne in, as my friend Roberta would say, Re-menore. I just love Bach’s prolific use of demisemiquavers.


Connection to the Supportive Environments for Effectiveness (SEE) Model: Model Building and Being Capable. People build and rely on mental models that encode their understanding of how the world works. Culture, with its system of cultural norms, is one way to fast track model building and ensure that a particular group has a shared understanding. Although sometimes cultural norms are arbitrary, they can feel logical, obvious and universal – until you discover that they are not. Problems can arise when our models don’t match the reality of another culture or country, making it difficult for us to feel capable and get things done. Even within our own culture, problems with communication and collaboration can arise when our models are not shared by others with whom we interact.

Anne Kearney is an artist and writer living in Barcelona, Spain. Her writing and artwork are inspired by her decades of experience as an environmental psychologist working for universities, non-profits and NASA. She has a B.A. in Cognitive Science from Stanford University, and a M.S. in Resource Policy and Behavior and Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology from the University of Michigan.