• Kat Peters

Us/them + I/we = both/and

In a complicated world, we can work to bridge divides, learn from others, and find balance.

The view from my apartment where I lived for the 4 "middle years" of my 9 years in Costa Rica; where I learned a lot about myself, my own culture, and grew into Costa Rican culture.


When I told my Uber driver in Costa Rica that where I grew up people don’t generally go to the grocery store as a family, she was shocked. To be fair, when I moved to Costa Rica and saw entire families make the trip to the grocery store all together, I was shocked, too. Not to see a family at the store, but to see many families, commonly and often going to the store together.

Of course, this surely happens in the US, also, possibly among families who have migrated from places where families go to the store together. But in my family, in my mind, going to the store together would be a colossal waste of time, as one person could go to the store and the other person could be working on something else entirely.

When I first got married, for example, my husband would go to the store, and I would clean the house. It was a nice trade – for one or two hours, we got all of the house things done, and then we could relax or go out or cook or do our homework for our respective graduate programs. I got to listen to my podcast and sweep and mop the floor, hang the laundry on the line (or get it down), and when I was done, poof, the refrigerator would be restocked!

Nowadays, ever since the birth of our first (and then second) son, my husband will take a baby (often not both boys, as one or both now realize it’s fun to run away or try to buy [steal] candy) and I will get a little time to myself while the groceries are being purchased. I might still clean, or… no, yes, I clean. I have two kids under five – the floor is always sticky.

I realize that by splitting the chores this way we perhaps miss out on some time together. It is sort of charming, after all, how the tight-knit family, or the group-oriented nature of the culture in Costa Rica makes collective grocery shopping normal and comforting. It’s one of the examples of something that made obvious the individualistic nature of my upbringing, versus the more collective nature of culture in Costa Rica.

An example of what cleaning house meant in Costa Rica. OK, it only happened the one time.

In a talk I often give study abroad students and other travelers about “cultural adjustment,” I point out that different cultures have different beliefs and behaviors related to a number of categories, such as human nature, sense of time, social relationships, and others. The three different cultural orientations pertaining to social relationships in the “cultural assumptions” slide I show them are: authoritarian, group-oriented, or individualistic. As in, some cultures value authoritarianism (people appreciate when an authority figure takes responsibility for caring for the community), some value the collective (people appreciate being together and don’t seem to mind sacrificing personal comfort for the good of the group), and some value individual rights (where everyone has equal power and some kind of personal “freedom” to do what they want, regardless of the impact on others).

Towards which belief/behavior does your culture lean, in this category of social relationships?

In my presentation I would often point out to my students a few pieces of evidence that indicated to me that in Costa Rica the culture was more group-oriented than the one that I grew up with. One example of the group-oriented culture in Costa Rica that I experienced while living there is the hour-long lunch during the work day. Perhaps in the US one can have an hour for lunch (technically, though I know many people don’t take it because they are so busy doing such important work that, if not done, would lead to the end of the world), but even if one has an hour-long lunch break, it is often used to go to the gym or run some other sort of errand, read a book, work on a personal project, walk the dog, etc etc.

In Costa Rica, meal breaks are for talking with your colleagues around the lunch table. For an hour. I have to say that this is one of the things that I miss most about my life in Costa Rica: lunchtime with my colleagues at ICADS. We would hear about each other’s lives, share jokes, analyze politics, practice a little comic relief about work stressors, and in general enjoy each other’s company. If a student (a paying customer!) would interrupt the lunchtime to ask a question or seek advice, the intrusion would be met by a sort of shock, first, then a request to wait until lunch was over, or perhaps, finally, a reluctant response from the staff person.

A celebratory lunch (of paella) with ICADS colleagues on the occasion of Gaby's successful defense of her master's thesis. It was a pretty good celebration.

OK, perhaps you can sense my take on where US culture leans, and my own personal critique of that. I do confess that I think that the culture I grew up in leans individualistic, and I do also think that there are a lot of drawbacks to this system and a lot to love about Costa Rica’s collective culture. However, I will also confess that I retain something of a deep-seated loyalty to my individualism.

I want my voice to be heard, as in, I want and expect to be able to share my perspectives in political processes, and community and organizational projects. As a woman, I am grateful that I now have the right to vote, drive a car, have a job, hold public office, etc. I know that I can tend to get upset when these (real or perceived) individual rights get impinged upon. I realize that I may be overly committed to individualism, as my college friends will attest - they even wrote a song about how I do homework on Friday nights (rather than hang out).

So, it’s true. I like my individual rights and “freedoms,” but I have also come to truly value the group-oriented values of Costa Rica, where people let the vulnerable have special seats on the bus, where there is a single-payer universal health care system, and where children learn to greet people and offer something to drink as soon as a guest arrives into their home. And where I finally learned to just hang out.

[By the way, get this: psychologists have discovered different cultural child-rearing habits. In one study, researchers identify Costa Rican parenting as promoting interdependence by holding babies facing outward to be able to see family and friends, versus German parenting that promotes independence by doing a lot of face-to-face time with babies to prioritize language an individual agency. The authors of the study show more ways these different cultures raise their children differently, too. Pretty cool.]

My firstborn spending time at abuelita's house in Costa Rica, learning to bridge two cultures.

I started writing this post thinking about all of the “us vs. them” language we hear in our politics these days. I thought that a better dichotomy might be thinking about the “I vs. we” conundrum – what is the role of individualism vs. the collective good, especially in a pandemic and an election year. What would it take for us to give up some of our individualism for the good of the whole society?

But as I continued to reflect, I can see that what I really live, what I really think, is another paradox: “both/and.” The truth is, we are a world of “us-es” and “thems.” We have our individual cultures, our hometowns, our families, our groups that we know and understand intuitively. And there are people who are different from us, whom we have some trouble understanding, or we just cannot intuit what is going on in their lives. That’s not anyone’s fault, really – we can’t be expected to understand something we have never seen or heard about or experienced (it becomes our fault when we do know something about others but just willfully ignore or deny what we have learned).

We can debate the benefits and drawbacks of authoritarian, collective, or individualistic cultures. Because they all have benefits and they all have drawbacks. Perhaps those of us who are more individualistic can try to place a little more value on the group, and those who were brought up in a collective mindset can give a little more attention to the needs and rights of individuals. Both/and.

We can learn from each other, us and them (together, both/and), sharing our growing edges and our hard-learned experiential life lessons. Perhaps some of our learning is about how to balance the “I/we” paradox: how to value ourselves more, or how to value the collective more.

Some friends in Costa Rica are organizing a program through the Extension office of the National University. The program is called Cuidate vos misma (Take Care of Yourself), and it’s directed at women, who are bearing a larger share of the burden of the pandemic switch to homeschooling and otherwise more domestic life. Here is one of the latest videos, and an infographic to go with it.


This project seems to be letting women know that, while they are doing such a great job of contributing to the collective of their families, they need to spend a little more time thinking of and taking care of ourselves (the "I"). The suggestions include:

· Dividing household chores amongst everyone (more) equally

· Making a schedule that includes time for rest

· Exercising, eating well, drinking tea, and mediating

· Asking for help to homeschool children

· Accept that the pandemic has changed domestic life and affects the whole family

· Don’t compare yourself to others – you are doing your best

· Take advantage of institutional support tools, like hotlines and other resources

· Don’t lose your support networks – physical distancing does not mean social distancing

And for those that may be good at focusing on our individual lives (even though right now it is extra difficult), we may need some reminders about how to prioritize the well-being of society as a whole. That’s a journey I’m on, and I’m glad you’re on it with me in this blog. Here are a few ideas for today as we lean towards the “we” of the “I/we – both/and” paradox:

· Join a political cause – organize to help people vote, or make a change in your local school district, or address racism in your community.

· Be in a group related to your hobby.

· Do fewer Zoom calls for work and more for fun. Have lunch with your colleagues for an hour, or just connect with others.

· Consider voting and being active in ways that promote more group-oriented policies and opportunities, such as lobbying for an elected school board, rather than a politically appointed one.

· The next time you plan to buy something to “solve” an issue you have, stop and think about if you can solve it by talking to another person first, and maybe not buying anything at all. Communicate, reach out, lend a helping hand and accept one when you need it.

· Investigate where your food and other consumer goods come from, and see if you can improve your purchases, one at a time, to be more fair to the people who produced them.

What ideas do you have for bridging the divide between “I” and “we?”

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About Me

I'm an intercultural educator, Spanish professor, and former Assistant Director of study abroad in Costa Rica.

 

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