Monday, October 22, 2012

Understanding the nexus between traditions, culture

It is a widely accepted practice that you do not answer your phone when you are in the toilet to avoid telling lies to the caller that you are busy in a meeting. On the one hand, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a custom as a practice common to many or a particular place or class. Tradition, on the other hand, is defined as an inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action or behaviour, such as a religious practice or a social custom. In essence, a tradition tends to be representative of a person’s culture. Also, a tradition can be widely practised, and will usually be passed down through generations, families or other institutions.

A critical distinction, however, between traditions and culture lies in the fact that whereas culture, as a way of life, evolves with time, and does get modified or adapted to changing technologies, traditions, by contrast, seem to remain static. Oftentimes, traditions try to defy changing technologies, resisting societal or individual efforts at modification. Unlike some progressive cultures, many traditions are very slow to change or to adapt. To that extent, certain elements of our culture that represent traditions tend to resist change.

However, mindful that studies on matters of ‘culture and tradition’ are often a preserve of the disciplines of anthropology and sociology, it would be helpful here to stray into some pertinent aspects of these disciplines. Very often, we hear people using phrases such as ‘Kaili, it’s the kacha…’ (i.e. It is the culture) or ‘kacha yali cinja pa Zambia’ (i.e. Culture has changed in Zambia).

Let us take the following examples to get a better sense of what we are talking about. Why do men often wear suits when they are going out on a dinner date? Is there a law that requires them to wear suits for such occasions? Or, does this have to do with culture or tradition? And what about those young ladies that like to expose their bare waist with African beads stringed around the waist? Is that a new kacha or what? Have African traditions on discreet wearing of beads now evolved or what? Besides, do traditions change that easily?

Many years ago, I had dinner with a vice-chancellor of a certain leading university in Europe. As we were enjoying our dinner, the man asked me if I knew of a certain famous academician. I responded that I knew the academician very well. And the vice-chancellor continued: “I like that guy. When he applied for a professorial chair at this university, I asked our university registrar to contact him to arrange for an interview. But when the registrar contacted him to ask for his availability, the man told the registrar that he thought that he had applied for the job and not for the interviews!” We all burst out laughing, knowing the great sense of humour of the academician that the vice-chancellor was talking about.

Then, the vice-chancellor added: “Of course, he came for the interviews, and that is how we got him to join us here.” Now, understand this: it is correct to say that the man had applied for the job, and not the interviews.

Unless the job advert had specified that only suitable candidates would be invited for interviews, why should he be asked to attend interviews when he had applied for the job? One would easily imagine that only a confident candidate who truly knows what he or she is worth can have such guts! You can only make such jokes if you know full well how good you are. Yet, tradition requires us all to conform, submitting ourselves humbly to the authorities.

I can only imagine that someone else would have thought of the famous professor in the example above as arrogant and not worthy considering any further. But he was damn good at what he does, and could thus afford to pull such a light-hearted joke that could have been easily misunderstood by many.

Closely related to the foregoing, is there a law that requires people to wear suits when they show up for a job interview? If the job advert does not specify the dress code for the interviewees, why do we still want to show up in a suit? What is it that has conditioned us to think that job interviews are partly about impressive clothes? I recall sitting on an interview panel, and one of the interviewees showed up in jeans, T-shirt and sneakers. But he was damn good at the interviews, and he knew his field of expertise very well.

The other panellists voted him down simply because they all felt he was inappropriately dressed for the interviews. I then asked them if they had specified in the job advert the preferred dress code for the interviewees. They all responded: “Come on…it is obvious! He should know.” But we can’t be making such assumptions. People come from different cultural backgrounds. What is considered formal dress code in some culture may not be acceptable in another culture.

Likewise, in some cultures, it aint a taboo for an elderly person to break the wind loudly and audibly in the presence of young people. They all will laugh about it lightly, and life continues. Yet, in some cultures, such as where many of us come from, if someone elderly fouls the air silently it is the young ones who will be blamed. And they are not expected to deny. Again, is this about tradition or culture?

A Caucasian friend of mine married to a Zambian lady in Norway could not understand why his Zambian in-laws would not sit with him at the dinner table when having dinner. And one day, he woke up in the morning with only his underwear on. He went to sit on the patio to enjoy the rising summer sun. Unknowingly, his mother-in-law was also headed for the balcony when she found him seated outside with underwear only. She collapsed! They had to call medical emergency to resuscitate her from the shock. It was then that I had to explain to my Caucasian friend some pertinent aspects about culture, customs and traditions. I had to offer him a crush-course in Anthropology 101.

Even in some churches, some of the things that we practise or follow have very little to do with the Word of God. We are often overburdened with traditions! And these traditions are created by fellow human mortals. Traditions are not divine wisdom. They are simply church traditions established by fellow human mortals. Period! We must distinguish church traditions from the actual Word of God. The Pharisees, for example, were experts primarily in church traditions. But their understanding of the Word of God was arguably exposed at times by our Lord Jesus Christ. And they hated Him for that!

A nephew of mine once asked me: “Uncle, why is it that elderly people have to wash their hands first before everyone else at the dinner table? Why can’t it just be democracy that whoever arrives first can wash his or her hands, and then start eating?” Before I could answer, the boy’s father, who was seated nearby, interjected: “It’s kacha and good table manners for you to let elders wash their hands first!!!” The boy looked at me quietly, and we both went silent. The boy then asked me again: “Uncle, OK, let us assume that Dad is right by saying young people should allow the elders to wash their hands first, can I still be allowed to start eating if I can run and overtake the elders before they get to the dinner table?”

I looked at my nephew, and smiled: “No, son, you cannot do that. There is another rule to follow. You must first wait for the elders to get seated at the dinner table and to take their meal potion before you can make any attempt at the food…” My nephew was quick to respond: “But is that not selfish? At school, they teach us that young people should eat more healthy food in order to grow up. What if the elders get all the good pieces of chicken, as they often do, and they leave for the children an ugly foot of a chicken or a chicken wing with only large gallons of soup?” Before I could answer, the boy’s father cleared his throat, and put down his newspaper. He ordered my nephew to go outside and play with his friends. I kept wondering to myself: the boy had a point! But why did his father chase him away? The reason is simple: the boy was challenging traditions! It is called marshalling a paradigm shift.

Even in corporate organisations, as an employee, you are not expected to challenge traditions. You will not get away easily with that. Serious consequences and repercussions can follow. And so it is with certain churches and other institutions. There is no sitting on the fence. In the end, we find that human beings become enslaved with traditions, constantly seeking to be accepted by society and institutions. But some traditions and cultures can rob you of your happiness! What to do now? Rebel, and face the consequences?

* The interpretations and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author. They do not represent the views of any institution, person or body to which the author is affiliated. For feedback on the article, the author can be reached electronically at:

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