Interwoven in the urban crowds are a kaleidoscope of people groups. They are diverse socio-culturally, economically, ethnically, and also linguistically, all seeing their environment through their particular worldview perspective and all with distinct values of their own. One no longer need travel outside the United States or Canada to encounter a diversity of worldviews. In fact, differing worldview perspectives are now in close proximity, as close as one's next door neighbor. The question then arises ...
What is worldview?
While visiting a small island between Okinawa, Japan and Taiwan named Irabu-jima, a researcher was asked an interesting question. A priest for one of the indigenous religions asked, “What island are you from?” As the conversation continued, it was discovered that the priest had never traveled to any other place except for the few small islands near his home island. Basically, he viewed the world as being made up of islands. As a result, from his worldview perspective, the question seemed natural. The priest's geo-political background influenced him to see the world from a specific perspective. He grew up on an island, had only traveled to a few other islands, and therefore, viewed the world from the perspective of being made up of islands.
The norms that shape how people see the world come from a variety of forms. Those norms include: (1) geo-political, (2) socio-cultural, (3) religious, (4) ethnicity, and (5) linguistic. The combination of these norms or influences shape how a person will see the world, or their worldview. The term worldview comes from the German translation of Weltanschauung. Weltanschauung is defined as “a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). As A.F.C. Wallace (1970) states:
[A worldview is] the very skeleton of concrete cognitive assumptions on which the flesh of customary behavior is hung.
Accordingly, he continues, the worldview of an individual “… may be expressed, more or less systematically, in cosmology, philosophy, ethics, religious ritual, scientific belief, and so on, but it is implicit in almost every act.” In short, worldview is a person’s overall perspective or lenses for understanding and interpreting life. It is a person’s basic assumptions of their world, providing a coherent mental and emotional map for making sense of one’s surrounding. It is expressed in the what one deems important in life (their value system) and seen through their how their behavior and ways of interacting with other people.
A person’s cultural background and upbringing shapes a person’s worldview. Exposure to different cultural practices or mores, or changes in geography or living circumstance, or significant tragedy or success — such experiences shape one’s way of thinking about life and meaning. In essence, such experiences determine one’s worldview.
A gap between worldview perspectives often exists in cross-cultural encounters, resulting in mis-communication or misunderstanding. The concept of worldview is foreign to many, if not all of us. Therefore, this article begins by illustrating where worldview comes.
People go through life using their worldview constructs absorbed from childhood. Throughout Asia Pacific, these constructs often come from religious rituals and rites, which all the while inform worldview. For instance, on Irabu-jima, the people’s worldview is shrouded with animism and shamanism. Accordingly, they see the world being inhabited by myriads of spirits. As such, for the people on Irabu-jima, these constructs give shape to how they relate to one another, outsiders, and the world in which they live. They, like clockwork, constantly ask the spirits for good favor. When they don't ask, they create disharmony, resulting in a poor harvest and economic success.
The people of Irabu-jima perform their religious rites and rituals asking the spirits for a good harvest. These rituals and rites not only thanked but also entreated the spirits for a good harvest. Having a long history, these rituals and rites are performed before and after a harvest. According to tradition, the spirits may be communicated with through the agency of the “yuta,” whose role is performed almost exclusively by women. The yuta is an intermediary between the spirit world and those of the village. The world that can't be seen is closely intertwined with the world of the living (Negishi, Mayumi 2000:PG). The yuta has supernatural power to see, hear and discern the cause of misfortune and advise action to be taken. These “yuta” women are consulted for ill health, dream analysis, suitability of marriage partner, matters related to the tomb, selection of a house site, economic hardships, and even politics. The yuta and her practices are deeply rooted in the social structure as one is able to see the role of women in having economic success.
Shamanism is popular and well-patronized in Irabu-jima while at the same the people reside in one of the world's most developed nations. Needless to say, the people of Irabu-jima, as is the case throughout the majority of Okinawan prefecture, move comfortably between modernism and shamanism for treatment and counsel (Allen 2002). When it comes to working among such a people, one should realize that religious rituals and rites inform how the people act and behave, how they make decisions, what they see as acceptable and unacceptable, and what they value and deem important. In other settings, other cultural phenomenon may inform worldview. Nevertheless, the values and assumptions people hold concerning the world often lead to fixed views of others, all which makes up their worldview.
Many of the people groups now residing in the United States and Canada are no different than those who reside on Irabu-jima. Many go to shamans for counsel. Many, though they go about living in modernism and even affluent homes, perform daily rituals and rites in order to maintain social harmony with the spirit and sacred world. Their worldview perspective forces them to adhere to specific assumptions and premises.
All people hold assumptions and premises concerning the world. As previously mentioned, these assumptions and values come from five different norms: (1) geo-political, (2) socio-cultural, (3) religious, (4) ethnicity, and (5) linguistic. People group formation occurs as some norms become more dominant than others in shaping one's worldview.
As an example, the western business worldview is driven by a rational economically free market society. Moreover, it is most often English language oriented. Such cultural dynamics drive the assumption that anyone can succeed economically in life if he or she only tries hard enough. Such influences give rise to valuing individualism, or the self and one's personal convictions being most valued. Therefore, the dominant norm that shapes worldview is socio-cultural.
On the other hand, many Asia people view economic success resting in the hands of the spirit world. They, in turn, delicately strive to maintain harmony with the spirit world, resulting in performing certain rites and rituals on a regular basis. Such influences give rise to valuing collectivism, or the group and loyalty being most valued. Hence, the dominant norm that shapes worldview is religious.
Often there are fine lines between the dominant norms that shape people group formation. Nevertheless, through naturally encountering people groups, one can discover the norms that are dominant in shaping a people's worldview. As a result, one will learn the basic assumptions and premises of the people group, helping to close the gap for good communication to take place as two different worldviews meet.
People also categorize cultural phenomenon. Most people recognize and categorize the family unit. However, how they group family is often different dependent upon the culture. Some people group family to include extended family groups or think in terms of clans, while others are more exclusive. Such categorization determines how people view self. For some people, self-identity rests in how others see them while in other settings it comes from how they see themselves. Moreover, for some people, self-identity rests in how they view themselves in relation to the group. In other words, they first ask, “What is good for the group?” Whereas, for others, especially those coming from an American culture, they first ask, “What is good for me?”
As another example, people categorize time, space, and cause and effect. Some people process time linearly while other people process time circularly. In terms of how people view space, when people come from different cultures that have different expressions of personal space, relationships between them can be uncomfortable. People also have different views on the cause and effect of events in their life or how to produce change. As is the case in Irabu-jima, the people view the cause of poor economic stemming from being out of harmony with the spirit world and not receiving good favors. Other people, though, might view the cause more naturally (e.g. dry weather, infertile soil, etc.).
A gap in worldview perspectives exists in cross-cultural encounters. To bridge this gap, it is needful to follow several guidelines as one naturally encounters people groups.
Be sensitive and vulnerable. Go as a learner. Being a learner begins with eating the same food that the other people eat or following protocols on entering, sustaining, and exiting conversations. Observing local customs can often stretch one beyond personal comfort zones. Nevertheless, such steps in sensitivity and vulnerability are needed if one expects to close the gap between worldview perspectives. When it comes to another people's local customs, we need to remind ourselves that our way is not always the best way it is just one way.
Learn about their context. Closing the gap also comes from studying the cross-cultural context, looking beneath the surface and asking specific questions concerning worldview. For instance, as Gesteland (2002) asks, are the people we are encountering more deal focused or relationship focused? Deal focused people, such as Americans, do not mess around in discussions. They immediately get to the point. On the other hand, relationship focused people, such as most Asians and South Americans, build and work through relationships. They, consequently, often follow certain cultural protocols before talking about certain things. A few other questions to ask would include:
- How are group or individual decisions made?
- Do the people come from a more informal or formal culture?
- Do the people view time as rigid or fluid?
- Are the people more expressive or reserved in their behavior?
Enlist cultural informants. Invite the people to tell you the "should" and "should nots" in their culture. Give these cultural informants permission to inform, correct, and modify how you speak and behave. In doing so, informants can provide valuable insider information on the deeper aspects of culture and help prevent you from breaking cultural protocols that harm relationships and widen the gap between worldviews. These cultural informants often become the lifeline of closing the gap.
Conform to their way of doing and saying things. Paying attention to one’s surrounding and the people in that surrounding is often a good way to learn how one should act, behave, and even what to say. Once observed, test the observation by mimicking such behavior and ways of speaking. By testing, you can begin to discover if what you are doing is appropriate. However, at this point, it is always appropriate to refer to your cultural informant.
What worldview perspective do the people groups near you have? Are you sensitive and vulnerable to their worldview? Have you taken time to learn their worldview and enlist cultural informants? Do you strive to conform to their way of doing things? Closing the gap between worldview perspectives helps one avoid misunderstanding and even more important mis-communication. The time and steps are a worthy investment.
Allen, Matthew. (2002). “Therapies of Resistance? Yuta, Help-Seeking, and Identity in Okinawa.” Critical Asian Studies. 34/2 (June): 221-42.
Gesteland, Richard R. (2002). Cross-Cultural Business Behavior. Copenhagen, Denmark: Copenhagen Business School Press.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2007). “Worldview.” http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=weltanschauung
Negishi, Mayumi. (2000). “Animistic Rituals Run Deep in Okinawa.” The Japan Times Online. 17 July.
Okinawa Prefecture Government. (2003). “Wonder Okinawa: Festivals and Rituals of Okinawa.” Http://www.wonder-okinawa.jp/022/en/ Okinawa Prefecture Government. 7 June 2007.
Oshiro, Manabu. (2004). “Ceremonial Spaces and Traditional Performing Arts in Okinawa.” Http://www.jpf.go.jp/e/culture/news/0412/img/pdf/report11.pdf Japan Foundation Okinawa International Forum: Utaki in Okinawa and Sacred Spaces in Asia: Community Development and Cultural Heritage. 8 June 2007.
Ryukyu Cultural Archives: Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education. (2007). “Folk Customs of the Ryukyus.” Http://rca.open.ed.jp/web_e/city-2000/outline/index.html 7 June 2007.
Wallace, A.F.C. (1970). Culture and Personality. New York: Random House.