The Topics and the Questions – teasers

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My experiences gave rise to multiple cultural questions. These questions did not at first evoke a strong or deep reflection. They lurked in a cloud above my head in my daily life, without interfering with it. And over the years, these ideas accumulated and became brewing issues that surfaced occasionally and spilled over.

I gathered all the pondering that constructed the broad frame of my inquiries and tried to arrange them in topics. I also constructed questions.

The first one was perhaps on the day of my civil marriage when I was asked: “Will you change your name?” I was struck by the question because I had never contemplated that I would ever change my name. This somehow nurtured the thought that I could change who I am. It was not before years later, that this subject hovered back in my head. I wrote about the experience and about all the deliberations I went through later in my life about that topic.

Change my name? Why would I do that? Give up my name and take my husband’s? That is not changing my name! That is replacing my family name by my husband’s family name. At first I did not make much of it. Later, when I listened to the stories of other women I got to know, I realised that this is a very interesting topic with deeper implications.

In general, most of the stories and experiences I have gathered gave rise to a few underlying questions:

Why do people behave and feel the way they do as individuals and as groups? In other words, what is culture and how does it shape us?

How do we perceive the other side to every story? Where does empathy come from and how do we mobilize it? Why do some people change their view and others not? What are the barriers?

Do we often mix the things we all share with the differences that are part of each cultural group? Differences that are inherent in different socialization process?

Living these past years here in Switzerland where the extend of social interactions is very different from where I come from, I became curious about how relationships can vary across cultures. I wondered: A good talk about things that truly matter; Can it be summoned? Can we schedule these talks with the people we care about? Or are they only likely to arise in a conducive environment of trust and intimacy and long conversations about other many insignificant things?- In other words,  spontaneously?

I also wondered: Why does it feel so lonely here? And how does everybody else feel? In every corner of life around me here, I perceive life being lived in isolation. Why do I feel this way?

Is growing up in an individualistic society impairing to happiness? Harvard said loneliness is toxic. Meaningful relationships are what makes life healthy and happy. Perell said in her talk about desire and love in marriage, that in our modern times, we have replaced a whole village with one person. We expect him/her to provide us with protection, predictability, reliability, and also adventure and mystery. We want that person to be our soulmate our best friend and also mysterious and aloof. Does it increase the likelihood that you will be bored in marriage?

Can we have a conversation about culture and cultural differences without offending anyone? By virtue of my preoccupation (rather obsession) with cultural topics, I often found myself defending my discourse and fending off accusations of simplistic generalizations and crude simplifications. So, I learnt how to explain to people the difference between making conversations about cultural traits and stereotyping.

Are we all similar or all different? Reading a book about the Harem gave me an unexpected insight – (1- I’d rather be suppressed in a community than empowered in an isolated society and  2-) we often mix up what is universal and what is cultural in the human race– the importance of informal community

The so-called happiness index: Why do many ex-pats roll their eyes up almost every time a study is mentioned where the Swiss are among the happiest people on Earth? Do we have different conceptions of happiness? How subjective is such an abstract and ambiguous marker? Do different cultures vary in their definition of happiness or in how it should manifest to the world? 2 types of happiness: do you spend your time happily or not and how you see your life – happy about it or not? Are you happy about your life or are you living it happily? Are some cultures more conducive of happiness? If we cover basic needs (safety, shelter, security….) what distinguishes cultures from a happiness point of view? It is not climate – (Importance of social capital)

Why am I not a nature kind of person? Culture is all the more fascinating for me. I am often struck by the aura (quality) of virtuousness (righteousness) accorded to preference to nature versus … countryside vs city. Is it indeed more noble/honourable to find comfort and stimulation from nature than from people?

What Linguistic convention do we come from? Language is different from linguistic convention- you do not get very far just learning the codes, you need to know the length of pauses, the order of words, the context position and relation to the language by which people think….it does not matter that my husband and I both speak in English to one another. Linguistic conventions are how the world is structured and constructed in your mind by different ways primarily defined by the language you first speak. He thinks in German and I think in Arabic mixed with English. That creates an entirely different communication space when we talk with one another. Challenges that are unique to this combination. I tend to first set the context and then build up slowly to the news. He starts with the news. Arabic is extremely high context where a lot is unsaid (relies on trust and is best suited for personal interactions) whereas German is one of the most explicit languages (best for contracts and manuals)…etc

Why are Germans often perceived as humourless when they are perfectly capable of making jokes laughing hard –but in the right time for jokes. The difference with German culture when it comes to humour is more about the stronger boundaries between work and private time. A compartmentalization of their activities and their actions that fall into domains with very clear separations.

A female coalition is ever more needed in our societies. In our evolutionary history the hindrance of female coalition caused by an ecological accident is why today we and the chimps are in a violent society that also supresses women (females) while the bonobos are not. We must find ways to rebuild society and rid our gender from the penalty of childbearing that our biological identity prescribes us. Otherwise we will continue to be victims. (the importance of social female capital)

When I faced an identity crisis after becoming a first-time mother in a foreign country and culture, I realized that being a mother is culturally defined– being a good mother varies in meaning across cultures. The role and duties assigned to us mothers vary across cultures while motherhood in its affective sense is universal. Nanny, mother…who is who?

Is the West truly more empowering? The myth of human empowerment in individualism. Some core values of individualistic cultures just like neo liberal economic policies should be revised – discarded altogether as fundamentally impairing to human prosperity, happiness and well-being.  Time and time again – the myth of human beings being primarily rational in their motivations has been dispelled. A universal truth has been unravelled that by large human beings are not prewired individualist and happiness is ‘other people’. But we still haven’t learnt the lesson.

The difference between organized institutional community support (effective state system) and informal social community support (people). Can’t we demand to have both?

The silent shock – adapting to my new life in Switzerland was harder than I liked to admit. Why?

I was a stay home mother with help – a nanny. I carried this as a badge of shame until I realized it and got the courage to face this identity crisis.

When I was discussing that book with a friend of mine who is French, she and I admitted that we were both surprised with the characters of the women in the harem. We assumed that since they belonged to this culture, they would be naturally submissive and co (anecdote three)And in what other ways does this error apply?


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More topics:


Forget about equality; We want justice. My case for women rights.

Can I still call myself a feminist? I stopped working, I like fashion and I believe men and women think in profoundly different ways.

I had this one encounter with a woman selling cheese in the mountains that made me rethink about intercultural communication differences and their deeper meaning.


How do you change culture? One of the hardest changes to advocate for are cultural changes. Because no one knows how you can go about it? How do you induce cultural change? Collective social action is perhaps our best shot. There is a term, moral revolutions, that was used by ….and he argues that such revolutions come about by collective social movements. Historically, it has always been, that a small group, deviates from the mainstream in their thoughts and it is this small group that triggers a movement, which throughout time gathers speed and grows by attracting and pulling from the mainstream.

Are there only 2 extreme poles of going about things: a preference to cutting corners almost endemic or a strict and sometimes nonsensical sticking to the rules?

What is love? Is there a universal consensus on what is love? Does it have to be unconditional. Otherwise it loses its meaning. And if its conditional, is it still love? Some say, love is respect. Is it? Is it a thrilling sensation or a chronic bliss with one particular person. A true life-time partner is your soulmate, your best friend. Says who? Why? Love has different meanings but we speak of it as if it has but one.

Love goes through stages. Does it? How do we know we are all speaking of the same thing? People disagree on the definitions but they don’t question the meaning. They know they are talking about the same thing. How? Are they correct? People speak of love often as if it were a precise state or feeling. Often one will say, I have only loved once or I have loved 3 women in my life. My wife is my one true love. What do they mean? Or is it implied that we all love the same way and it means the same thing to everyone and …no one ever says of ya, how do you define love? Is it because there is a definition buried somewhere and we have all checked that box saying, I have read and acknowledged what love means and will use it as such in all future conversations.

When a Russian acquaintance of mine saw me smothering my oldest son with kisses and I said “I could eat him up”. She looked very confused and said “why?” I realized that we conventionally attach pleasure and joy with food, while some other cultures do not. And we assume we share such meanings. We are oblivious most of the time to these differences. This was one of my earliest moments that mark the beginning of a time when I got very curious about cultural differences and languages beyond code.

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