The Cross-cultural Cringe: Baijou, Bad Behaviour, and the Essentialisation of Culture
The concept of the cross-cultural is a key aspect of both diversity and cultural sustainability. Its interpretations stretch from a relativist view that essentialises and privileges difference to a universalist one that sees culture as one manifestation of the fundamental bond of common humanity. The concept of the cross-cultural therefore raises important theoretical questions. It also gives rise to a diversity of practices, ranging, for example, across the lofty aspirations of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci in 16th century Peking to the demanding rituals of baijou toasting as part of Chinese-foreign intercultural exchanges. Both theory and practice lead to a number of questions. First, in cross-cultural engagement, whose cultural practices are privileged, how, and why? Second, what are the relationships between, on the one hand, cultural understandings and practices and, on the other, identity, both individual and collective? Thirdly, how are culture, and identity, maintained in the cross-cultural encounter without being essentialised? In exploring these questions, I will sketch two vignettes: 1. a young woman on field visits as an foreign government representative in China, participating in the baijou ritual out of courtesy to her hosts and as a means of gaining 'acceptance'; 2. Indigenous assertions of Indigenous culture within the framework of non-indigenous legal and social frameworks. I will use these vignettes and some related examples to examine some of the ways in which culture and cultural difference operate in cross-cultural situations; whose cultural practices are privileged, and under what conditions. I will also draw on them to analyse what we mean by 'essentialising'; how the essentialising of culture and cultural practices can encourage bad behaviour; and what this may mean for cultural sustainability and cross-cultural interaction. And I will suggest that the concept of the cross-cultural requires not a relativist approach to cultural difference but a negotiated one, based on culturally differentiated universal commonalties that make cross-cultural, rather than assimilationist, engagement possible at all.
Keywords: Culture and Cultural Practices, Cross-cultural, Essentialising Culture, Difference, Identity, Common Humanity
Dr Mary P. Edmunds
Fellow, Centre for Cross Cultural Research, Australian National University