Some reflection on “culture”

When I first heard Guðrún, my landlady and flatmate, talking about her giving anti-discrimination and anti-racism trainings in whole Iceland I caught myself thinking: „Iceland? Do you even need this?” Well, after a brief while I figured myself how naïve that was. Why should Icelanders not have discriminative or racist attitudes and ideas? I guess I finally settled in reality here, realizing that this country is just as any other – there are absolutely great people, trying to push for their ideas and values and to make this world a bit better. But then there are also people who abuse power, who tend to take the easy way out in their thinking and get themselves lost in stereotypes.

After a lot of very interesting talks with Guðrún about her work as well as any other topic I figured that I really wanted to learn more about her work, her institute ICI (InterCultural Ísland) and write an article about it. She was so kind to invite me along on a course she gave in Borgarnes, a little town close to Reykjavík. The course is called “Sensitization training about migration, racism, discrimination, culture and diversity“ and is targeted towards teachers and every educator who wants to offer a sensitization training themselves, in continuing education institutions, youth centers, migrant organizations, in public institutions or in their schools or classrooms. And they came from all Europe, 22 participants, from Greece, Poland, Turkey, Portugal, Germany, Sweden, Finland… The course takes a whole week, but unfortunately due to university responsibilities I could only take part Tuesday and Wednesday. My plan was to go there as an observer, the uninvolved journalist. But this didn’t quite work out… one thing was, that Guðrún actually had anyways already planned me into the groups, but it was also simply so interesting and so much fun that I couldn’t have just stayed outside and observe.

“Culture is everything that matters to people”

Let me describe you just one out of all the rewarding activities we did that left me thinking. Imagine five people from different countries sitting around a table on which lies a big piece of paper. They are supposed to write down there what “culture” is. They start throwing words on the sheet, and soon they get more and more. “Literature” someone says and adds it to all the other words like “sport”, “art”, “music”, “food”, “fashion”. “What about communication?” the other says and writes it on the sheet, where there are already things like “language” and “social interaction”. Then they come to the more abstract things “way of thinking”, “values”, “ethics” and “morals”. “Aren’t political systems and laws also part of our culture?” and so those words get added. “Science!” – everyone agrees on that one. And then they sit there, around this piece of paper which hardly was big enough to fit all those words that to them represent at least some part of culture. The next task was to define it, define culture. Seeing all those words that basically include anything you can think of that has anything to do with the human being, one participant starts thinking of what culture is NOT. Is there anything inside an individual which can’t be put into this huge conglomerate of “culture”? “Personality”? “Character”? But, the others say, you are influenced by all those things from your earliest state of being so it’s not even clear if there is anything beyond culture. If there is anything beyond culture that matters. What about the sky? The sky is there, with all its stars and infinity. But if we do not put it into some sort of relation to ourselves, if we do not wonder about it, or find it beautiful or be scared by it, it doesn’t matter. And doesn’t the sky then, with all its stars and infinity, and added with the meaning we give it become culture? There is not enough time to think this through completely but the group agrees on the definition being “Culture is everything that matters to people.”

Is having sex in the missionary postion German culture?

But why even bother about doing all that fuzz about this word? Well, because there are plenty of people who talk about national culture. About German culture or Spanish culture or Icelandic culture. And what is this supposed to be? What is Icelandic culture? I’m supposed to learn this in a course at University with the very creative name “Icelandic culture”. Is it cooked sheep head and fermented shark? Is it sagas and literature? Is it the language? Does that mean every Icelander only eats cooked sheep head, fermented shark, reads the old sagas and talks Icelandic? Isn’t that, what we call a national culture in fact nothing else but a stereotype? And why, for god’s sake does that matter now? Because we use the term “national culture” in order to separate, to discriminate against and to point out “us” against “the others”. Immigrants need to adopt, to integrate to the national culture. But if we define culture as above, then in fact every single person has his or her very own culture. He or she has an individual style of dressing, has personal values and ideas, likes or dislikes some types of music, literature or he or she doesn’t give a damn about them. Or is it then, as some might say, a question of minority and majority? Does the majority define the culture? And what is it then – 51%? Then you would say “If 51% of the Germans like having sex in the missionary position then this is German culture” – which is kinda absurd. Or does it have to be ¾ of the population? But then you are reducing culture to a play with numbers, to statistics and we all know, latest since Churchill, what the problem is with statistics. And then most probably it would turn out that Goethe is anything but German culture, because I for sure do not think that over 50%, let alone 3/4, of the Germans have ever read Goethe. And now tell anyone that Goethe is not German culture….!

One thing, for instance, you read in the tourist guides about Iceland is that “Icelandic culture is amongst others to take off your shoes when you enter an apartment. Anything else is rude.” And then I saw how Stefán entered his apartment without taking off his shoes. I was in shock. I asked him, isn’t it Icelandic culture to take off your shoes? “Well, I mean, we usually do it when it rains.” He answered. “You don’t want to mess up your apartment. And as is it almost always rains here we almost always do it… but seriously, otherwise we can’t be bothered.” Mh, I thought, that makes sense.

But…but… there must be something!?

Guðrún told me people usually get quite angry when she tries to tell them that there is no such thing as a “national culture”. And it happened to me, too. What do you mean, there is no German culture? Of course there is… (I must admit I had to google “German culture” in order to come up with some things…) being Christian, liking football and eating Weißwurst-Breakfast (a special white sausage served with sweet mustard, pretzels and wheat bear) and being punctual and organized. Most of those things do not appear to me (you can guess yourself, which). Does that kick me out of German culture? But I LOVE Goethe! I swear! Well, yes, I think to myself, I’m a kid of immigrants. Maybe that’s why. Maybe I’m more Polish or some freak case where everything mingles together. And then I think of some of my friends, who are THAT German, it’s difficult to imagine (regarding their ancestors: generation after generation of pure Germanness). I must admit, some like football, some do not give a damn. Some are Christian and punctual and organized – but most are not. Some eat Weißwurst-Breakfast (not to mention that there are probably only few people in northern Germany considering this dish to be “German” – it is typically served in Bavaria). Most do not. So what is that thing, this German culture?

Well, after thinking all this through, after dealing with my own anger and opposition and all the desperate inner “but…”’s I must admit that I agree with what Guðrún says and I also agree that the idea of a national culture might have replaced other nationalistic concepts like racism. And this in order to keep up well known concepts like dividing people into “We” and “Them”.


That being said this was just a tiny part of the input I got during those two days. I want to thank Guðrún and everyone who was around for this great experience. I hope I was able to get anything of it across and potentially trigger some thinking on the other side of the screen. And I also hope to get this comment-function in the blog fixed soon so you can share your ideas and reaction on my writing with me and other readers…

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