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Understanding Cultural Differences Can Be Key
Friday, April 15, 2022


The city of Aurora, Colo., has a big problem with Spanish-speaking people fleeing traffic stops, according to cultural anthropologist Robert Strauss.

But there’s a reason for that. The people who are fleeing have a different world view, a mistrust of institutions that their Anglo neighbors might not have, he said.

They may have grown up on stories about fellow Guatemalans or Mexicans killed for not paying pesos to local law enforcement officers to have their family protected, he said.

“When a police officer stops them, asks for license and registration, and walks back to his patrol car, they’re thinking: What’s he doing? Who’s he talking to?” said Strauss. “If you live someplace like Buenos Aires, you would not call law enforcement for help.”

Culture matters, Strauss told nearly a hundred law enforcement officers, Labor Department employees and representatives of social service organizations like The Advocates at a Law Enforcement Conference organized by the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs this week.

The conference, held at the Community Campus in Hailey, was designed to help participants see other cultures in new ways in an effort to open lines of dialogue and understanding.

“Cultural differences make a difference,” said Strauss author of “Four Overarching Patterns of Culture: A Look at Common Behavior.”

Deep down, policing is about human relationships, he said. And human relationships are greatly affected by the learned and shared patterns of perception and behavior of groups of people. Don’t believe it? The entire April issue of Police Magazine looks at culture, Strauss said.

Strauss, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, earned a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Biola University’s School of Intercultural Studies in Los Angeles. He’s worked as an intercultural consultant in 20 countries.

There are four overarching patterns of culture, he said.

  • The JUSTICE pattern is the predominant cultural framework of those living in constitutional democracies in the United States, Canada and Europe. Westerners’ sense of morality is rooted in an obligation to the rule of law, which is derived from constitutional documents.

    Those people have an internal sense about whether they’re doing right or wrong based on written rules, and telling the truth is valued.

  • HONOR is the dominant cultural framework of peoples in the East and Middle East. They know that speech and behavior display respect or disrespect, and honor and shame are highly valued within families and the community.

    Maintaining the approval of community is very important; reputation is based on the honor code.

    “The Mormon faith is more honor oriented than justice oriented,” Strauss said. “And black Americans lean toward this culture more than the justice model. Gangs tend to be honor oriented, and the culture of Mexico is also group oriented with family taking central place.”

    Tradition and stories passed down from generation to generation are very important in the honor culture.

    Strauss told about a tradition among some Spanish-speaking communities where a grandmother will put an egg out at night, then run it over a sick child’s chest the next morning. They then crack the egg into a glass to decide what the malady is, then put the glass under the bed to draw out the rest of the malady.

    “Do you think there’s any talking them out of this practice? No. My neighbor practices it and I’ve never once told her, ‘No.’ She learned that in a relationship of endearment,” Strauss said.

  • HARMONY is most prevalent in indigenous cultures, with interactions with spirit beings the key to maintaining harmony. This view is prevalent in South Korea, China and Japan where conformity is important to save face and being part of a group is prized.

    In contrast, European researcher Geert Hofstede ranks the United States the most individualistic country in the world, thanks to Americans’ focus on self.

  • RECIPROCITY is the common cultural framework in places like South America where one learns to develop connections with the right people to secure needed resources for survival. This is the most common world view, Strauss said, and it’s an uneven relationship.

The downside of the justice pattern, Strauss said, is a lack of charity, unreasonable punishment, bureaucracy and militaristic aggression. The upside is law and order, safety, clarity and equality.

The downside to the honor pattern is the tribalism that can ensue, along with a tendency toward revenge. And it produces entitled politicians and others who expect others to respect them, even when they haven’t earned that respect. “Don’t you know who I am?” they might ask if stopped for running a red light.

The upside is the adherence towards tradition and a desire to do the honorable thing.

The downside to the harmony pattern is an inability to critique and the tendency to have blind spots and group think. The upside is a tendency toward seeking peaceful relationships and group dynamics that are able to fall in line behind something for the betterment of society

While reciprocity can result in instances of charity and benevolence, the downside is tyranny, dictatorship, exploitation and loss of freedom for many in that society. In reciprocal societies, people want to maintain even bad relationships to keep resources flowing.

“There, a small group of people own and control everything,” said Strauss.

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