Rethinking Culture: Small Actions Today, Big Impact Tomorrow by Jolynna Sinanan (Transcript)

 

Here is the full transcript of social media researcher Jolynna Sinanan’s TEDx Talk: Rethinking Culture: Small Actions Today, Big Impact Tomorrow at TEDxPortofSpain conference. This event occurred on October 6, 2016.

 

Jolynna Sinanan – Social media researcher

Ireland has a very high suicide rate, for the size of its population. Last year, 375 men took their own lives, and men are five times more likely to commit suicide than women.

This is my husband, Filkra. This photo was taken of him in Singapore, a place where, growing up, he never thought that he would visit. Filkra grew up in a village of 300 people. It’s in the south of the country; he’d never really met people from other countries before he left, he’d never seen a coconut, and the idea of drinking wine instead of Guinness would have been stupid-like. I’m not suggesting that people from the village are backwards.

It’s quite the opposite: a lot of the most intelligent and well-travelled people I know are from that village. But growing up, the village felt like a very small place. He’s going to hate that. I’ve put this slide off for so long. This is the latest selfie that Filkra has shared on Facebook. Actually, it’s his only selfie; he doesn’t really post that much.

Him and his friends wanted to share this post because I wanted to say to other young men, “It’s OK to talk”. Filkra and his friends shared this post because they all know a mate who’s taken his own life. Of course, there are many factors that contribute to such tragic outcomes, including mental illness.

But what these young men are trying to tap into is the culture of masculinity in Ireland says that men should be strong, they should be stoic, and they should be silent, even when things are very difficult, and when they have very serious problems; even if it can lead to things like depression and anxiety. In these few seconds, Filkra and his friends were using social media to try to change that aspect of their culture.

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What if I said to you, instead of thinking of culture as this sort of amorphous thing, what if we think of culture and society as an ecosystem, and the slightest little action that we take on it will have a ripple effect throughout the entire entity, throughout the entire organic entity.

Small action today, big impact tomorrow. A lot of what we think is right and wrong in the world is based within culture. A lot of the big picture issues, for example, whether women are inferior to men and that justifies the way that they are treated to whatever degree, or that people of the same sex should be allowed to marry or not. A lot of these big picture issues are linked to social scripts that we enact and perpetuate every day and we don’t think about.

Filkra and I are probably together because our cultural selves are the most obvious aspects of who we are. He still has a very thick Irish accent, even if he left decades ago. My mother is Chinese, she is from Malaysia. My father is Trinidadian. I was born in London, and I grew up in Australia.

So, any given time – Yeah, I know, trying to compute right? This is what my head is like, there’s four cultural logics going: you need to act like this; no, Chinese don’t do this; Trinidadians do this; Australians do that. This is my head all the time.

So, yeah, I know, go on, try it, yeah! And, when the four of us, my parents, and Filkra, and I are in a restaurant together, people are just plain baffled to how we ended up at the same table, let alone in the same country. See, what even is this? I want to give you some context to this photo. We’re standing in front of a fence because we got married in an alleyway behind a pub because we wanted to make a point.

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Filkra said, “We’re not having Guinness.” I said, “I’ll choose the wine list.” And my Chinese relatives said, “Oh, a Pub”; and my Melbourne Fitzroy hipster friends were like, “Oh, this is the best wedding ever! Let’s eat some kale.” So, it’s no wonder that I became an anthropologist.

Act out my cultural neuroses for the rest of my life and get paid for it. But, when we think about culture, we think it’s food, we think it’s family, we think it’s the way we dress, we think it’s traditions that we perpetuate and hang on to, because that’s what we do.

But if we dig a little deeper, culture is the way we see the world and the way that we act that we take for granted, and we just carry on as normal: that’s the way it is. You’ve probably seen this model of culture before.

This is Dr Schein’s model of organizational culture. He says that there are three levels: he says that there are behaviours and artifacts, he says that there are values, and he says that there are assumptions. This is the most popular translation of Dr Schein’s model. But he’s since said that it’s quite incorrect because it’s built on one crucial assumption: showing culture as an iceberg implies that culture is static, it’s frozen, and it’s unmoving.

Instead, Dr Schein says, we should look at culture as a lily pond: it’s a living and breathing ecosystem, and what you see on the top is nurtured from below. And more so, you can see your reflection in it so that any small touch or impact that you have can have a ripple effect through the entire system.

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