Off the Map: Cultural standards

When you think of the word standard, what comes to mind? Undoubtedly, various standards development bodies such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) will be a first choice, or perhaps a file format such as XML. Or maybe the term standard evokes a flag or banner for those of us interested in vexillology (the study of flags). For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on the commonly used definition of standard as being a collective set of agreed-upon rules and guidelines within a specific community of people, as codified in a document or in some other form of repository such as the ISO.
While the existence of internationally agreed-upon standards is a relatively new invention in the broad spectrum of human history, the reality is that human civilization has often been perpetuated due to the existence of various standards. If you take ancient Egypt as an example, one of the reasons that society flourished for a few millennia was due to a well-defined system of cultural operations and interrelationships. Admittedly, it didn’t hurt that the Pharaoh was a designated god-king with complete sovereignty over the people, but that’s a different discussion. The structure and cultural rules in that particular society enabled the civilization to persist, at least until a different society with different rules took over.
The role of faith has also been a substantial influence for establishing early cultural standards, whether it was forms of indigenous religion that formed in or around a specific culture, or whether it was codified in religious texts passed down through the ages. Objectively, these documents acted as a standard of behavior that either agreed with or transcended local values, and thus the various cultures either embraced or rejected them, according to their own inherent standard — a sometimes fierce dynamic that continues to this day. Shared religion was an early way of establishing a type of standard that bridged diverse cultures so that when encountering a group who shared a specific faith, one could expect certain behaviors and practices.
Usually the standards upon which cultures rely are not written down or codified in some way; rather, they’re an informal passing down of inherent behaviors and viewpoints from generation to generation. It’s one of the fundamental reasons for ongoing cultural differences that exist even today, usually assisted by geographic and linguistic isolation. We’ve all heard stories of newly discovered tribes who speak a previously unknown language and who represent a unique new culture. Such examples illustrate how cultural standards are partly responsible for the persistence of a culture.
Most of us have experienced cultural standards through this generational effect, without any explicit codification and usually through behaviors learned from our parents. It’s fascinating to consider how much information is conveyed without any textbook or guideline, but rather through observation and subtle (and sometimes not subtle) reinforcement. As far as I can remember, I don’t ever recall my parents giving me a handbook called How to Behave Like a Southern Californian. All of my innate behaviors were acquired through social osmosis, through my parents, my older brother, my teachers, my schoolmates and my friends, including persistent surfer lingo such as “totally awesome” or “gnarly” and calling everyone a “dude” regardless of gender.
Some standards have arisen that at least try to develop rules that are beneficial to everyone, and these are often stewarded by custodial organizations such as the ISO. For example, the ISO 7010 is a widely-adopted standard that dictates safety signs to be used in public areas and workspaces (Figure 1). It seems the cliché of the world getting smaller all the time is borne out in travel statistics. Over the past two or three decades, the reality of globalization and the movement of the workforce from one country to another have made it necessary to find ways to transcend linguistic barriers when considering public safety. ISO 7010 established standard symbols and colors so that whether people are working in Seattle, Bangkok or Dubai, they will understand how to find the exit in a building or when to yield at a road intersection.
But standards such as ISO 7010 are not really specific to a given culture; rather, they are the direct result of the interaction of diverse cultures. In fact, most of what we know today as any kind of cultural standard is the result of the demand for intercultural efficiency for the sake of global economics, politics and so forth. Besides the rise of international standards for everyone’s mutual benefit (safety codes, signage, air traffic rules), one interesting outcome from cultural intermingling is the rise of cultural protectionism in various forms. It’s no secret that countries such as China have gone to extremes to shelter citizens from the internet and other forms of free-flowing information in order to maintain local control. Many governments are experiencing this battle for the public mindshare and fighting off what they perceive to be cultural dilution to ephemeral forces such as social networking, films, television, games and other popular media.
One form of perceived cultural protectionism that has received a lot of attention is the notion of Protected Geographical Status in the European Union (EU). This EU law attempts to ensure that only products that genuinely originate from a specific region will be allowed to use the name associated with that region. This is a notion related to that of “cultural exception,” an idea that took hold in France in the 1990s to treat local “cultural goods” differently from foreign food, content and other products flooding their market. There are several forms of the law, such as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which controls the use of the name of a geographic location as used as a designation for agricultural products (Figure 2). For example, cheeses such as Asiago, Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) may only be called by these names if these products originate from their traditional locales. Roquefort cheese can only be called Roquefort if it’s made from the milk of a certain type of sheep, and only if the cheese is matured in the caves near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in France (the source of the fungus Penicillium roqueforti).
Unfortunately, another type of unwritten cultural standard is that of the cultural stereotype. By their very nature, stereotypes are essentially a type of encapsulation of a culture, so that with only a few cues, someone would be able to pinpoint the exact culture of origin. Usually the stereotypes are based on some degree of fact from a culture, but the facts are often historical, outdated and out of touch with the “ground truth” reality of people living in the locale in today’s world. Again to borrow from my own background, if I tell people I’m of Scottish ancestry, I inevitably hear comments about eating haggis (sheep’s innards boiled in a sheep’s stomach), playing the bagpipes, wearing a kilt and tossing a caber, a tall pole used in Scottish sports. While all of these things are truly Scottish, and are convenient for indicating something of Scottish association, they certainly don’t represent the modern Scottish population.
The issue with stereotypes is that there’s a fine line or even a gray zone between using them to encapsulate a certain culture or using them to belittle, criticize or marginalize a culture as being only about such cultural artifacts. Such stereotypes do act as a form of standard because they become a standard representation for a given culture, but they need to be understood as a limited vignette, not a complete picture. In the world of content creation, I have seen time and again how artists, writers and designers readily draw upon cultural stereotypes as the only standard of reference. Unfortunately, rather than conducting some level of additional research, usually due to brutal deadlines, they forge ahead with the assumption that such stereotypes have appeared so many times and in so many contexts that they must be acceptable to use.
When we engage in the process of content development and adaptation for other locales and cultures, the potential existence of local and global standards for qualitative issues is a factor worth keeping in mind. We also must guard against the easy tumble into the realm of cultural stereotypes. Standards such as ISO, the EU’s PDO and others aren’t really true cultural standards, but in some ways they are the closest manifestation. In all likelihood, you won’t be so lucky as to find a single source that codifies all the pertinent issues in a given culture, but will rather have to investigate along various dimensions, from religious and linguistic to political and legal factors.