When I (Ann) wrote about family culture in 2008, I offered a few simple thoughts and personal examples on the topic. Curious to learn more about the concept of family culture, I interviewed Dr. Helen Fagan, leadership and diversity scholar and practitioner, to understand the topic better and offer readers a solid resource. The following are Dr. Fagan’s thoughts on understanding and navigating family culture.
What Is Family Culture – Interview with Dr. Helen Fagan
Dr. Fagan: Culture is complex and multifaceted. A lot of times what we don’t necessarily recognize about culture is that the very first culture we get exposed to is our family culture.
It is the foundation for our values, our beliefs, our perceptions, our attitudes, and our expectations. It is so much a part of us that we don’t recognize it and set it apart as a family culture.
We choose the type of entertainment, we choose the type of people we hang out with. Every part of our family is part of the culture around us. If you Google the word culture, you’d get lots of definitions, but if you boil it down to a few things, culture is the norms, the attitudes, the values, the beliefs, the customs of a group that is passed down from one generation to another. If you think about it in that broad sense, you can see where as a family we teach those things to our kids, to our grandkids, to our nieces and nephews. We tell our kids, “Well, other families might do that but our family doesn’t do that or talk like that.” That’s cultural training, but we’re not recognizing it. Culture has multiple levels.
Multiple layers between familial culture and societal culture
Between familial and societal culture, a whole lot of layers fall in. Whatever area or facet that makes you unique and stand apart from society as a whole, that becomes part of your culture, whether it’s religion or socioeconomic status. If you are a religious family, you have a religious culture you ascribe to. If your family is in a higher socioeconomic level, you travel and spend money on certain things; if your family is of a lower socioeconomic level and you’re having to scrape money to make ends meet, all of that becomes ingrained in you and part of your culture.
Culture is the fish in water that doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out of the water, and then it senses something is wrong, something is different. When it gets exposed to something new, it knows something’s wrong but doesn’t know what it is. Our physical being is connected to our cognitive and emotional being. We have emotional reactions when our culture’s values are either violated or ignored, and we first begin to recognize those cultural differences when we come in contact with other people who are different than us, whether it’s our neighbor, all the way to our spouse’s family, to our classmates and their families.
From societal we move to national culture. There’s a fine line between those two but the thing that is different is what part of the nation you are in. In a vast country like the United States, the culture is different among, say, the northeastern United States, southwest United States, and Central United States. National culture is its own layer but it has differences.
Then between the national and societal cultures, you have things like organizational culture, education environment, the type of work you do. Again, it goes back to the language people use in that environment, what are the norms and customs in that environment, and where did we learn that. Being a writer, you [Ann] learned about being a writer from other writers [in the family, both parents were journalists], and it was passed down from one generation to the next. Those generalizations are where we create ideas of what a culture looks like.
Families Bridging—or Not Bridging—the Culture Gaps
What happens is we have to navigate the differences. We get exposed to differences and have emotional reactions: Why are you doing that? or Why are you saying that? or Why do you believe that? That’s a couple trying to navigate it and build bridges. If they do it successfully, they create a new family culture that is unique and different, that they then teach their children.
The bigger the cultural difference, the harder you have to work to bridge that gap.
If you’re successful at doing that, chances are you are going to be successful creating the subculture. If people aren’t able to navigate those differences, if you’re unsuccessful for whatever reason, chances are you walk away thinking that there’s something wrong with that person, or that way of doing it, or seeing the world, or being.
Navigating Differences in Family Culture
My husband was raised in a family where his mother was married and divorced five times by the time I met him. His idea of marriage looked different than my idea of marriage, where my parents lived together but ended up living in different countries for the sake of sacrificing for their children. That became really difficult to navigate when my husband and I decided what our family would look like, how would we solve problems, how would we communicate with each other. We had help from friends and other family members, but a lot of it we had to navigate on our own because we didn’t know a lot of couples who had similar family experiences to help us navigate. For example, how do you discipline your children? The concept in an Iranian family is so different in an American culture like my husband grew up in. My ideas were very different from his.
Figuring out how were going to do all this was a process of communicating, and trial and error. How we spend money—what is our idea of saving versus spending versus giving—we had to talk about all those things. What one person considers to be luxury versus the other person. I came from a higher socioeconomic background, and for me, to have a maid is not a luxury—it’s a necessity. My husband came from a working class family where they were barely making ends meet. Having a maid? That would never happen. That was not even on his radar. We had to navigate those kinds of things.
I was raised Muslim, he was raised as what we called Chreasters—his family would attend church twice a year, on Easter and Christmas. We found faith together. Finding faith and growing in our faith together set us apart from both of our families and their backgrounds.
The interesting thing for our family culture: To raise our children to be globally minded—to think beyond the boundaries of the United States, or Iran, to be a global citizen—takes intentional work. With everything we had going on day to day, we wouldn’t have time for it, but if it’s necessity of life, your children are naturally engrained in that without you recognizing it.
Understanding Family Culture in the Context of Culture as a Whole
Navigating family culture is one of the most misunderstood areas of family dynamics. I would say that people—even in the world of professional counseling, psychologists, therapists, and life coaches—have not been trained to think of culture beyond race, ethnicity, nationality, religion. So when we come across the idea that all human beings are cultural beings, that seems like a foreign concept. When you take that and put it together for families, it seems there aren’t many resources available in that area.
And yet, whether people are trying to blend a family culture, or students are looking for resources on the topic of family culture, or business people are dealing with issues and trying to understand culture, or psychologists and therapists are trying to find resources to help family dynamics, understanding family culture in the context of culture as a whole is vital.
While I don’t conduct research of families crossing cultures and blending family cultures, nor do I teach in that, I do work with individuals in the area of cultural diversity, and my work with them has enhanced their ability to make those bridges with family members. One student was from Haiti getting his bachelors in nursing. He met his wife in the program, and they got married. On the last day of my class [on cross-cultural issues and cultural diversity], he said, “I just want to thank you. I believe this class has helped save my marriage. The cross-cultural differences I’ve been able to apply with my wife.”
People’s actions and decisions make sense to them. They may not make sense to me, but they make sense to them. Human beings do things for multiple reasons, so when I have a challenge with someone in my family, whether it’s my spouse, my mother, my children—whoever it is—if I’m challenged in my interaction with a family member, instead of assuming I know what they are doing or saying, I may want to pause and really reflect on the fact that what they’re doing and saying makes sense to them. It would help our relationship if I would pause long enough to try to understand things from their perspective instead of forcing my own ideas onto them.
We never know what’s going on for another person emotionally or cognitively. We assume we do because we’ve known them for a while. But we don’t. Human beings are constantly in a state of change and growth and development, from the point where someone treated me at the last light, or the grocery store, or how a family member talks to me at the house is affecting me emotionally and cognitively, but I’m not paying attention to that and I walk around wanting people to understand me when I’m not taking the time to understand them.
I think it really helps people to navigate relationship challenges to just pause long enough to take a deep breath and realize I’m seeing things through the lense of my own experience. I wonder what’s going on with this person? That would really enhance relationships.
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Though not much scholarly research exists specifically on the topic of family culture, Dr. Fagan recommends the following for further reading:
- “The Challenge of Cross-Cultural Family–School Communication” – Article by Elise Trumbull, EdD, an Independent Educational Consultant and co-creator of the Bridging Cultures Project
- “Cultural Sensitivity and Diversity Awareness: Bridging the Gap Between Families and Providers,” an article in a 1996 publication from the University of California, Berkeley.
- Explore books on cross-cultural issues from Nicholas Brealey Publishing and Intercultural Press
- Learn more from Dr. Fagan about developing cultural sensitivity and competence
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