Understanding Foreign Cultures: Why it’s impossible

As the headline suggests, I don’t believe it’s possible to ever get to completely understand a foreign culture with all its social norms, beliefs and behavioural patterns. There are several reasons for this belief. However, they are all based on the fact that we grow up in one culture – our ’mother culture,’ if you will. Of course, some people grow up in two or maybe several cultures due to parents from different backgrounds or immigration but that’s an entire different aspect that doesn’t have anything to do with my point exactly because they grow up with more than one culture – grow up… As in, they learn and grow up with an understanding for more than one culture. Back to the point: It is from this (or these) culture(s) with its social norms, beliefs and behavioural patterns that we perceive the world. As such, depending on your ’mother culture’ and her social norms, beliefs and behavioural patterns, it is from this culture that you perceive other cultures. My point: Everything we explore and discover, we decode through our own cultural codes.

Cultural understanding

Even though some cultures may be similar in certain aspects, they vary nonetheless. This isn’t something new: It has been researched over decades by various scholars within the field of cultural studies. Metaphorically speaking, every culture is like a puzzle: Each culture consists of various subjects (pieces) that through social norms, beliefs and behavioural patterns fit – they are interrelated. Although, cultures further develop, they develop step-by-step, remaining a puzzle. Implicit, a culture (the puzzle) is made up of distinct subjects (pieces) and both the overall puzzle as well as the multitude of pieces are simultaneously distinguishable. In this sense, when you, then, try to understand a foreign culture, you have to understand an entire new and different puzzle with all its various and simultaneously distinguishable pieces. Here, you have to not only understand, however, also perceive each piece in accordance with the overall puzzle – and that’s the challenge. This is also why I believe it’s impossible to completely understand a foreign culture: Because you’re not brought up with all the pieces of another culture, it’s ultimately impossible to completely understand a foreign culture with all its subjects in the form of social norms, beliefs and behavioural patterns. What you can, though, is acquire an understanding – a cultural awareness – for a foreign culture. As a result, you can learn cultural rules that enlighten your understanding for the foreign culture and its norms, beliefs and behavioural patterns – rules that you can abide to when interacting in this culture. It is these rules that I try to learn on my travels – acquiring cultural awareness and understanding. However, to think that you can ever completely understand a foreign culture having grown up in your own ’mother culture’ is unrealistic – it won’t keep you from creating perspective, though, and become culturally aware of differences.

Please, feel free to express your thoughts on this subject in the comment field. Do you agree? Or not? And why?

xo P!


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28 thoughts on “Understanding Foreign Cultures: Why it’s impossible

  1. Great post! Though we will add that for a lot of people, it’s their biases their prevent them from understanding foreign cultures. If you are open-minded and willing to learn about other cultures, there’s nothing that should stop you from understanding cultures and customs even completely alien to your own.

    Liked by 3 people

    • There are no doubt that you will gain most by being open-minded and welcoming. However, talking from experience, this is not enough and it won’t leave you knowing a culture 100 percent.
      As I write in the post, I strongly believe – or know (from own experience) – that you can acquire insight, awareness and understanding into foreign cultures. In more than one way. However, certain cultural things will always be foreign to you, as you understand a foreign culture from your own cultural point on view.


  2. Good post, I 100% agree. I see this most obviously through my daily interactions with multiple languages. Even speaking English with native English speakers (from different countries) I am reminded that I, in fact, speak “American”. This is even more pronounced when conversing with others who learned English as a second language and my own attempts to learn Mandarin. We start learning using our personal understanding of speech pattern and structure, but ultimately we still end up learning from our own perspective. It is not natural for us to think the exact same way native speakers would because of how we were brought up, so I’ve had my fair share of mix-ups trying to communicate thus far. I think it’s still worthwhile to try to learn and experience different cultures though, however uncomfortable it might be at times. I think it’s a fascinating subject.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A subject I am very close to, as I conduct cross-cultural sessions for our customers here. Basically demystify Indian cultural traits but also do a deep-dive on cultural differences between two countries or cultures. It’s a fascinating never-ending subject mainly because culture has been often compared to an ice-berg, what you see is only the tip of it, you don’t realise the underlying aspects of values and beliefs that govern the behaviour on top. Anyway can go on and on. Thanks for bringing this up, it displays your sensitivity.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. There are two things that come to mind. The first is that it is amazing the number oif similarities there are between cultures – they all have a religion, flags, anthems, folk songs, oral traditions, genesis stories. The second is that the cultures pervades the pysche of the person to such an extent that they can rarely escape it. Bring up a child as a Muslim, Christian, Hindu and they are stuck for life. Our brains are plastic and are moulded into shape.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Given the sheer variety of culture present on the planet Earth, which is humongous…it’s almost impossible to understand all the cultures! What is normal practice is one culture is unacceptable in another! It’s a huge challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I completely agree. Working for a Swedish company for two and a half years, it seems sometimes that we live in two different worlds. There are somethings that I can never understand about them and vice versa.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow. This is really nice, Pernnille, and very true. You may be able to observe, experience, and accept another culture for its ways. However, I think it would be near impossible to truly understand another culture, which comes from our ‘mother culture’, as you stated. To understand another culture in a way that a native of that culture understands it, we would need to reinvent ourselves, reorganize our brains to think in the way they do. It could be possible if you spent the rest of your life in one place. However, the memories and experiences that make us who we are will always have an impact on how we think and interact with our surroundings, which defines which culture we belong to.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I disagree but I do think that this is a very thoughtful and well written post and I see where you’re coming from! I don’t know if you’re familiar with the theory of Cultural Relativism but basically in modern ethics and philosophy, James Rachels’ (philosopher) studies on cultural relativism have made it a sort of an outdated way of understanding cultural differences. From an ethics point of view, (James Rachels and Martha Nussbaum are the leading philosophers who have most recently studied the topic) basically because we’re all human beings we all have the exact same values; it just so happens that we express these values differently and that’s what makes our cultures only appear different. Like, we all understand life or death and because we share the commonality of the same human experience, we are all pretty much the same–we just explain our shared human experience differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your insight.
      Yes, I am aware of their studies, however, from personal experience, I must stress that even though we have common grounds in certain aspects, we still perceive (code and decode) things differently. That’s why I find it impossible to completely understand ansouther culture. With that said, you, of course, come a long way with accept and respect.

      Thanks for taking the time to read my post – it’s very appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your kind words!
        That’s true. And it’s so nice when people strikes up a discussion. I find it important to talk about subjects like this – even if you don’t agree. I mean, you don’t always have to agree – people come from different places, right!?


  9. I think at a certain point of living in a foreign culture- perhaps one that is relatively similar to your own, eg an American in France- you begin to dissociate from your native culture, and aspects of yourself that were not able to fully develop in your native culture are able to become stronger and grow. many people who speak more than one language report having a sense of multiple selves. for me, I feel that my true self is somewhere between the two, and I most identify with a third culture, the type of people who willingly leave home to experience another world, particularly for existential reasons. of course you can never know anything about a foreign culture, but you are probably more aware of it and more aware of your own as a result of coming into contact with it. I think when you remain both thoughtful and open, you can merge your two cultures, even if you left your home culture as an adult.
    This is what my experience seems to be in any case.
    Human beings are remarkably adaptable and can change a lot.
    People do change their religions, can learn new languages, etc.
    You can become “bicultural” in about three years of living abroad, and at that point, the new culture will a part of you for the rest of your life- even if you go back home, you will not be 100% of whatever you started out as.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post. It got me thinking that it’s the middle layers we can never fully register as our own. The surface stuff we can come to understand and appreciate as well as the natives. But, as you say, there are deeper nuances that you can only register as “your own” if you grew up with them. But it’s interesting to think that there may be an even deeper layer – Carl Jung’s collective unconscious – that we share will all people – that weird realm of universal archetypes “in the subjective inner world … in the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness” (Jung, Psyche and Symbol).

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Is it impossible really? I love languages and when learning them, I have got valuable information about cultures and habits. I speak English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. In addition, I understand German and Swedish, but not enough to make my blogs in these languages. My mother language is Finnish.

    When knowing these languages, it is natural to travel to those countries where those languages are spoken. 🙂

    Have a nice day!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I was just finding articles about traveling Rome and somehow followed your article now. Oh, googling.
    Anyway, I usually write a comment a thanking note but I just want to share something today 😉
    And yes, I agree with you too but I also think not only because of the cultural differences, but maybe, people just cannot understand others as we believe too. I mean, you know, each human being is designed with one brain and one body with one soul, (and don’t tell me conjoined twins or dissociative identity disorder, and English is not my first language and I don’t want to understand the whole world too deeply), so technically nobody can see inside of others’ head. But through our previous experiences and sharing, ‘understanding’ seems possible and well grownups show their understanding through consideration to others. Language and cultural things could be the problem of course. I am not even that good at my mother tongue, so I just keep the ideas in my head as images. So, yes, every culture is like a puzzle and the people in the puzzle have so many things in their head and we are just learning through the people. Wish I could be more considering person. lol. Want to say more but I am not good at writing so anyway, thanks for the article. It was interesting. Have a good one.

    Liked by 1 person

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