Trying On Each Other’s Cultural Lenses

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

–Anaïs Nin


Like many myopic children, I first discovered that I needed eyeglasses when my teacher noticed that I was having trouble seeing the blackboard and mentioned it in a note to my parents. I was 8 years old.

There were few real pleasures associated with being one of the “four-eyed” kids in school, but most of us still probably remember how, whenever we encountered one another, we would usually “bond” by swapping glasses in order to determine whose lenses were stronger or weaker. (Oddly, having stronger lenses was seen as more impressive.) From time to time, a non-glasses wearer would ask to try ours on, and they’d always be shocked and surprised by the sudden vision of a blurred world that the simple act of putting on our lenses could provide.

Since childhood, my eyeglasses have changed more times than I can count–the frames according to fashion, the lenses according to necessity. Now that I have entered middle age, suddenly even things that are right up in my face have started to become more difficult to see, and my lenses have shifted from single focus to progressives. Friends who enjoyed 20/20 vision all their lives are now buying several pairs of “readers,” seemingly just so that they can forget to bring them to all dimly lit restaurants with the tiny print menus. In short, if we live long enough, we all eventually discover that our lenses probably need some correction.

Cultural Lenses

The fact that we see the world through a set of lenses has always been apparent to those of us who need to put on glasses each morning, but the power of lenses –both physical and metaphorical–is very real for all human beings.

Our “culture” is the system that we use to make meaning of the things we encounter in the world. All of us wear cultural lenses, or filters, whenever we interpret a situation. Our cultural lenses help determine many critical factors in our human interactions, including how we perceive time, how we share space, how we relate to power, whether we are more focused on “being” or “doing,” whether we like to communicate directly or indirectly, whether we place greater value on individualism or collectivism, whether were feel more comfortable competing or cooperating, whether we prefer order or flexibility.  Even though our own cultural lenses might be invisible to us, they are always there.

The key to communicating across cultures is to start by recognizing that we are all wearing our own cultural lenses in any given situation, and acknowledging that other people may be looking at the exact same situation through a very different pair of cultural lenses or filters, ones that make just as much sense to them as ours do to us. Just as kids trade glasses for the fun of seeing how the world might look through a different set of eyes, we need to learn how to “try on” the lenses of someone from another cultural background if we really wish to understand and communicate with each other more effectively.

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