Culture: It's Personal

Reviewed Aug 13, 2015

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Summary

Your identity is shaped partly by the culture of the groups to which you belong. No one else has exactly your mix of cultures and experiences.

Think about your life:  where you come from, your ancestry, the beliefs and stories gathered from childhood on. You may come up with two very different pictures. One is how others see you. The other is how you see yourself.

Both can be equally true. On the one hand you are your own person. No one is just like you. You’re also part of groups. These can be based on any number of things, like race, religion, your country, language, social class and job. Each of these groups has a culture, made up of certain values, beliefs and customs. These cultures affect how you think and act. Along with your unique personality, they help define who you are.

A source of strength

Those cultures can be a source of strength. They can give you knowledge accumulated over many generations. Or they can be sources of past faith and spirituality that still have power to soothe emotional pain. They can link you with communities of people who, because they share your culture, really know who you are.

But even a culture with great strengths can be a problem. It could lead people to assume things about you that aren’t true. It could make you feel that you should be different from the way you are, that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t fit your culture’s idea of “normal.” And a culture can have a bad side. If the history of your people is marked by oppression and loss, connecting emotionally to that side of your culture can lead to anger or a loss of self-esteem. In all these cases, you may feel like crying out, “That’s not me; that’s not my story.” But how do you know this is true? And how do you convince others?

The good news, from experts on the subject of culture and personality, is that people really do have minds of their own. “People are not their cultures,” says social scientist Michael Ungar. “They adhere to certain practices, but they can resist … cultural norms.” And sharing a culture does not mean that everyone thinks and acts the same. “There is probably more within-group variation than between groups,” Ungar says.

Use what you can

What does this mean for you? First of all, it means you are free to choose which aspects of your culture to use. You don’t have to take the bad with the good. Second, it means that you are not fated to act out the bad aspects of your culture. This is very true if you nurture the good ones. Native Americans have a high teen suicide rate but also a rich spiritual heritage. A person in that culture can look at those facts and see tragedy. But it’s really a choice. The good in the heritage can be embraced as a way to stop the tragedy from repeating itself.

Finally, you can gain a fuller sense of your own uniqueness by studying both your cultural heritage and your background. Think of all the things you might tell about your background and values if you were answering the question “Who am I?” Think about personal traits that others might not expect you to have. Who are your role models? What experiences have made the greatest impression on you? Where (and with which people) do you feel most like your true self and most at home? Answering questions like these may help you find your own mix of culture and personality. You may really like what you see.

By Tom Gray
Source: Kate Murray, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Comprehensive SDSU/UCSD Cancer Center Partnership, San Diego State University; Michael Ungar, PhD, Killam Professor of Social Work, Dalhousie University Halifax, Canada.

Summary

Your identity is shaped partly by the culture of the groups to which you belong. No one else has exactly your mix of cultures and experiences.

Think about your life:  where you come from, your ancestry, the beliefs and stories gathered from childhood on. You may come up with two very different pictures. One is how others see you. The other is how you see yourself.

Both can be equally true. On the one hand you are your own person. No one is just like you. You’re also part of groups. These can be based on any number of things, like race, religion, your country, language, social class and job. Each of these groups has a culture, made up of certain values, beliefs and customs. These cultures affect how you think and act. Along with your unique personality, they help define who you are.

A source of strength

Those cultures can be a source of strength. They can give you knowledge accumulated over many generations. Or they can be sources of past faith and spirituality that still have power to soothe emotional pain. They can link you with communities of people who, because they share your culture, really know who you are.

But even a culture with great strengths can be a problem. It could lead people to assume things about you that aren’t true. It could make you feel that you should be different from the way you are, that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t fit your culture’s idea of “normal.” And a culture can have a bad side. If the history of your people is marked by oppression and loss, connecting emotionally to that side of your culture can lead to anger or a loss of self-esteem. In all these cases, you may feel like crying out, “That’s not me; that’s not my story.” But how do you know this is true? And how do you convince others?

The good news, from experts on the subject of culture and personality, is that people really do have minds of their own. “People are not their cultures,” says social scientist Michael Ungar. “They adhere to certain practices, but they can resist … cultural norms.” And sharing a culture does not mean that everyone thinks and acts the same. “There is probably more within-group variation than between groups,” Ungar says.

Use what you can

What does this mean for you? First of all, it means you are free to choose which aspects of your culture to use. You don’t have to take the bad with the good. Second, it means that you are not fated to act out the bad aspects of your culture. This is very true if you nurture the good ones. Native Americans have a high teen suicide rate but also a rich spiritual heritage. A person in that culture can look at those facts and see tragedy. But it’s really a choice. The good in the heritage can be embraced as a way to stop the tragedy from repeating itself.

Finally, you can gain a fuller sense of your own uniqueness by studying both your cultural heritage and your background. Think of all the things you might tell about your background and values if you were answering the question “Who am I?” Think about personal traits that others might not expect you to have. Who are your role models? What experiences have made the greatest impression on you? Where (and with which people) do you feel most like your true self and most at home? Answering questions like these may help you find your own mix of culture and personality. You may really like what you see.

By Tom Gray
Source: Kate Murray, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Comprehensive SDSU/UCSD Cancer Center Partnership, San Diego State University; Michael Ungar, PhD, Killam Professor of Social Work, Dalhousie University Halifax, Canada.

Summary

Your identity is shaped partly by the culture of the groups to which you belong. No one else has exactly your mix of cultures and experiences.

Think about your life:  where you come from, your ancestry, the beliefs and stories gathered from childhood on. You may come up with two very different pictures. One is how others see you. The other is how you see yourself.

Both can be equally true. On the one hand you are your own person. No one is just like you. You’re also part of groups. These can be based on any number of things, like race, religion, your country, language, social class and job. Each of these groups has a culture, made up of certain values, beliefs and customs. These cultures affect how you think and act. Along with your unique personality, they help define who you are.

A source of strength

Those cultures can be a source of strength. They can give you knowledge accumulated over many generations. Or they can be sources of past faith and spirituality that still have power to soothe emotional pain. They can link you with communities of people who, because they share your culture, really know who you are.

But even a culture with great strengths can be a problem. It could lead people to assume things about you that aren’t true. It could make you feel that you should be different from the way you are, that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t fit your culture’s idea of “normal.” And a culture can have a bad side. If the history of your people is marked by oppression and loss, connecting emotionally to that side of your culture can lead to anger or a loss of self-esteem. In all these cases, you may feel like crying out, “That’s not me; that’s not my story.” But how do you know this is true? And how do you convince others?

The good news, from experts on the subject of culture and personality, is that people really do have minds of their own. “People are not their cultures,” says social scientist Michael Ungar. “They adhere to certain practices, but they can resist … cultural norms.” And sharing a culture does not mean that everyone thinks and acts the same. “There is probably more within-group variation than between groups,” Ungar says.

Use what you can

What does this mean for you? First of all, it means you are free to choose which aspects of your culture to use. You don’t have to take the bad with the good. Second, it means that you are not fated to act out the bad aspects of your culture. This is very true if you nurture the good ones. Native Americans have a high teen suicide rate but also a rich spiritual heritage. A person in that culture can look at those facts and see tragedy. But it’s really a choice. The good in the heritage can be embraced as a way to stop the tragedy from repeating itself.

Finally, you can gain a fuller sense of your own uniqueness by studying both your cultural heritage and your background. Think of all the things you might tell about your background and values if you were answering the question “Who am I?” Think about personal traits that others might not expect you to have. Who are your role models? What experiences have made the greatest impression on you? Where (and with which people) do you feel most like your true self and most at home? Answering questions like these may help you find your own mix of culture and personality. You may really like what you see.

By Tom Gray
Source: Kate Murray, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Comprehensive SDSU/UCSD Cancer Center Partnership, San Diego State University; Michael Ungar, PhD, Killam Professor of Social Work, Dalhousie University Halifax, Canada.

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