Do you carry guilt, shame or embarrassment for things you’ve done (or haven’t done) or for who you are as a person? Do you feel you don’t “measure up” to certain standards or you don’t “fit in”?
If so, John J. Ivers, professor of International Studies at Brigham Young University-Idaho, says it’s likely nothing is really wrong with you, per se — it’s the culture you live in that’s affecting your sense of self-esteem, worth and identity. And you are not alone — individuals in every culture at every time in history have not only felt the same way, but have been programmed to feel that way.
In his eye-opening book, For Deep Thinkers Only: How Culture Manipulates Your Reality (Barnes & Noble Press), Ivers lays out his unique take on the study of cross-cultural differences. These differences, he posits, are not only a cause of international strife — from misunderstandings to prejudices to all-out hate and war — but are also at the root of how we perceive ourselves, others and reality itself, for better or worse.
Ivers explores a bevy of cultural characteristics including degree of hierarchy, distribution of power, balance of collectivistic versus individualistic values, comfort level with ambiguity, and more. He demonstrates how these characteristics shape the realities of individuals who live within these cultures, how they act almost as levers in molding us and our relationships with others over the course of our lives.
“We almost can’t help but think that the sky is teeming with invisible puppet strings and the strings have to be pulled by someone or something,” Ivers writes.
Throughout, he calls upon a host of philosophers, psychologists, historians and social scientists to help explain differences between cultures and the effects of culture on individuals. If all of this sounds rather academic to you, take heart. Ivers includes plentiful, illuminating (and often colorful) examples from history and personal experience that will open your eyes to the vast variety of cultural norms across place and time, challenging your notions of concepts like truth, honesty, status, respect, decency and beauty. As it turns out, these concepts are not as fixed as we may have been brought up to believe; they are relative to the culture you are a part of.
BREAKING FREE OF CULTURAL CONSTRAINTS
Ivers argues for having a rational, conscious and open-minded relationship with our society’s norms and attitudes. He encourages us to put them into a broader perspective, one in which they lose their absolutist status. Doing so leads us toward self-acceptance and self-respect, rather than feelings of inferiority, when considering our own unique behaviors, beliefs, personality traits, identity and even our physical appearance — especially where they deviate from the “norm.”
“Every member of a culture is a special creature, with a genetic code unique in the entire universe,” writes Ivers. “…To suppress in any way such sacred uniqueness can inhibit singular contributions such an exclusive individual could make.”
Once we understand how culture is holding us back as individuals, we can break free of the aforementioned “puppet strings” and create a better life for ourselves. Much of what we are here to do, as free-thinking people, as friends and citizens, is to question and re-imagine our norms in ways that promote a higher quality of life.
“One of the purposes of this book,” explains Ivers, “is that readers cease to be acted upon by the machinations of cultural mechanisms but rather be a little more liberated to think and act for themselves.” And, I would add, be themselves.
For Deep Thinkers Only: How Culture Manipulates Your Reality is available for purchase.