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

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.

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.

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.

So, when we do field work as anthropologists and we visit our field sites, we try to understand culture, not just the top surface level, but deep culture. To do that you need to spend a lot of time with people because when you arrive on the place where you’re studying, you’re hanging around, taking in the sights and smells, you talk to people and you have conversations, but you haven’t done the work yet.

To start your field work, you’re pretty much a professional busybody. OK, so you’re dog people, alright. You have to hang around and spend a lot of time with people and talk to them, and you need to build trust and build relationships in order to get to help people understand themselves.

You just hang around so much that they don’t give you the polite answers about culture, but they just get so used to you being there that they just enact how they’re enacting everyday. And when you use this kind of method to research cultures and society, you’re also getting to normativity.

Normativity is how people explain themselves to themselves. It’s the way they see the world that they think is completely natural. It’s the way that they see the world, and they think “that makes perfect sense,” and everyone should probably think the same way.

Normativity also has a strong moral aspect. It’s about being a correct person in that society, and culture perpetuates itself by everybody trying to be this kind of correct person all the time and repeating it.

But it’s not like you can ask, when you’re researching for long times, it’s not like you go up to people and go, “So, what’s your normativity?” You can’t really go to people and just say, “So, tell me about the way that you see the world and take things for granted that you think it’s perfectly natural.” It’s not sociology. It’s not quantitative. So, you can’t just ask questions. You need to hang around, you need to dig a lot deeper.

But thankfully in the last five years, we’ve had some incredible tools that have helped us understand normativity. You’ve probably heard of them, they’re called ‘social media’. So, platforms such as Facebook, in China QQ, and elsewhere Snapchat and Instagram have helped us to see normativity through the posts that people show and put on display. And in each country, normativity looks different. This is what normativity looks like in Chile.

And this is what it looks like in Italy. And this is what it looks like in China. Social media has showed us social norms by the posts that people put on display and the conversations that follow. I’m sure you’ve all heard, “I can’t believe what he put on Instagram” or, “Can you believe what picture she put up on Facebook?” But when people post on social media, it might look like it’s a form of self-expression, but these views and opinions don’t come from a vacuum. They’re influenced by the tensions, aspirations, and contradictions that exist in society itself.

Social media shows us the social norms that we don’t really think about. Sometimes it can be the most provocative posts, that give us insights into the everyday, and they start conversations about the most ordinary issues. There was an incident in 2014 where a video went viral where a mother was giving her daughter licks, a form of corporal punishment, a pretty harsh corporal punishment. The video itself was a spectacle. It was pretty out there, it was funny, there were a lot of memes, it was treated as pretty humorous. But what also happened was that it drove a very public conversation about whether it’s correct or not to smack your child in 2014.

What was normally taken as a traditional mode of punishing one’s child, disciplining one’s child, that a lot of children would have experienced, was now being questioned. So, why should we be thinking about culture, and the small aspects of culture, that have implications for the largest aspects of culture?

In the past, traditions had a role. They were very context specific, they were very useful under certain circumstances. So for example, if you’re wearing a hat outside and it was cold, great! And if you came inside, it’s polite to take your hat off, otherwise you’re telling your host, “You have kept the house too cold for your guests.” We live in a globalized world, and the kind of gesture that we act, enact, it can be a compliment within one culture, but it can also be an insult within another.

So, there’s two aspect to culture, culture is twofold. There’s normativity, there’s your cultural self, there’s your blood memory, it’s who you are; and then there are parts of culture that you act out, and you perpetuate, and it comes out. But if we think about culture, not just as a set of habits or set of behaviours that everybody has or something that binds people as part of the group, if we thought about culture as interaction, maybe then we can start to think about changing the aspects of culture that are damaging or hurtful to ourselves and others.

Today I ask you to revisit reality, by asking you to think about culture as interaction. The young guys who I’ve talked about at the start, they still talk about it, they’re still chatting, they’re still trying to change that social script.

Maybe the next time you’re in a conversation, and you’re thinking “That’s not making sense” or “That person didn’t do something right”, or you want to start proving your point by saying, “The facts of the matter are”, or “At the end of the day”, maybe step back and have a think. That person’s day could end pretty differently to mine, or the facts look pretty different through another set of lenses.

There are social and cultural values that influence the behaviours that we enact out every day, that have impacts for things like what we think is a good person, what we think makes a clean person, and that justifies the way we judge and treat others.

So, instead of thinking about “This is tradition”, “This is just what we do”, “This is just who I am”, if we can change that everyday social script, if we don’t walk away in silence, maybe we can change the big picture as well. Small actions today, big impact tomorrow.

Thank you.

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