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Culture and the Paradigm of the Letter 'E'

Excellent example of paper 2 by Krystal Riley. Fall 2008.

Is it possible to write an objective analysis on human values? Of this I am uncertain, although I feel it must require being a master of contradictions. From what I can tell, nothing can exist entirely outside of the context from which it was created, and we humans tend to play with this relativity through awareness and our being intentional. The meaning interpreted through a word is often dependent on its placement in a sentence, and that sentence rests almost entirely on the thesis of the whole. If society is drafting a story, then it is almost certain that I would be doomed to ridicule if I was to loudly assert myself as merely being the letter 'E'. Standing alone, this letter carries no message, except to suggest that at some point it has strayed from its original home. Sure, as a vowel I can boast of my adaptability and the fact I am in high demand, but it is quite clear that if I were to attempt to truly alter the spelling of any word where the letter 'E' does not belong I would quickly be shunned, and my creation misunderstood. Culture, both material and non-material, is often just the interaction between symbols, rituals, and the environment in which they are occurring; just as we likely are all in agreement on the order of our alphabet, its pronunciations, and the corresponding definitions to the words it can build, humans have assigned meaning to every facet of existence.

Socialization is how persons learn to interact meaningfully, safely, and efficiently. We capture values in norms; some are explicit and known throughout society, such as laws and ordinances, while others are known more locally or abstractly. For example, it's an accepted fact that it's not okay to take sips from the soda of the man sitting next to you on the bus, and that in San Francisco you don't take short cuts at 2:00 a.m. through the tenderloin district. Pretty helpful if you think about the alternative of not having a clue what "the bird" was meant to tell you. It is through the process of socialization that human beings learn behavioral norms, cultural values, and begin to formulate their identity. For example, once a child has begun to understand the subtleties and rules of their culture, they now have the ability to analyze and evaluate themselves and the people around them in comparison to these standards. They soon gain an understanding of roles and the expectations that society has of them. Through this knowledge, the relationships we have with others, and the influence of the subconscious mind, we develop our personality.

Asserting that we are merely products of our environment may seem a bit fatalistic, and some people, in an attempt to escape the what they perceive to be the inevitability of being a product and pawn of their environment, take on the identity of being the opposite of whatever mother culture is attempting to communicate to the masses. While this too is necessary to the balance of our society, so-called anti-conformity does not seem incredibly proactive to me, if human beings did not conform to certain social expectations there would be chaos; an identity that is tied to culture is necessary to effectively function. Just as language is the tool we use to communicate, culture is the human tool we use to express and create meaning; we intentionally create, preserve, and communicate our identity. It is interesting to note that both language and culture are static entities; their definitions are inextricably linked to individual identity, which inevitably fluctuates throughout the course of a lifespan. Certain sociologists would suggest that society doesn't imprint personality, personality is the function of the meaning of a society, and because it is created by us, in essence we are culture, and even on an individual level we are society.

As I assume it is for most people, I have almost always had an underlying awareness of the frameworks of interaction that are occurring around me. It seems that it is far too easy to relate to others through common conditioning, entire conversations can occur through instinct, and even apparently meaningful interactions are often operated through the exchange of meaningless shibboleth. However, certain frustrations associated with this are offset by the fact that when witnessing what appears to be the pointlessness of many social norms, analysis often proves them as having tremendous relevance.

Is it rude to not respond to a monotone 'hi how are you' from a cashier? Should we make eye contact and smile when passing strangers on the street? Definitely maybe! Depends on what local customs and cultural norms are, throw in differences in family background, language, and extreme situations like a gang neighborhood where it might be the pinnacle of good sense and good taste that you NOT make eye contact, maybe some oft repeated and taken for granted gesture is much greater than just a social lubricant, it's a survival tactic! This way in which what we mean is bound in the context of our culture into which we became socialized was illustrated anecdotally by a friend of mine when I described this paper. He said every gesture has a story behind it. He has Cherokee in his lineage, and he described a tradition wherein unfamiliar and wary tribe leaders greeted each other in public by showing that their hands were free of weapons, then clasping hands as a sign of trust. Sound familiar? Business executives shake hands! The French kiss! The Japanese bow, and in the United States when asked how you are doing by a stranger behind a counter, it's usually customary to reply 'I'm doing just fine, thank you!

Even as various meanings of the letter 'E' are only known by the tone of voice, sentence, paragraph, or literary context in which it is used, it is likewise with people. We know ourselves and others in the context of the relationships, families, and culture in which we live. Although most people have experienced the frustration of being translated incorrectly, it still remains true that we are in constant communication with the rest of the world.