Westernisation occurs when non-Western societies are influenced by Western culture. However, the world is not the West, and the West is not the world.
We were once about to go and pay our respects to a friend whose mother had passed away, and my husband, who had lived overseas for decades, suggested that we take a bouquet of flowers to the mourning family.
I was appalled at the idea: Egyptians do not expect flowers when they are in mourning. It is just not done. Mourning is a sombre event in Egypt, with women wearing black and ongoing recitals from the Quran or long subdued services in a church. In many Western societies, on the other hand, sending flowers to the family of a deceased person is a very common gesture.
Other gestures include bringing food and celebrating the life of the deceased and not wearing black attire. Mourning is a sombre moment in Western societies too, but no one can deny that there are differences.
On another occasion a Chinese student whom I had taught for several years graduated in Canada. As I congratulated her, I gave her a warm hug. However, her arms remained loose next to her sides in response. She later told me that she had never been hugged in her life. She also told me that in Chinese culture hugging is awkward as public displays of affection cause embarrassment.
My mother, Egyptian to the core, also never hugged but always gave a peck on both cheeks. The same goes for most Egyptians, though this is changing. This is the case while in many Western countries hugging is a common way to show affection.
When an Egypt person invites a Western person over to his house, he often puts on a spread. The Western person may be shocked, asking “does he really expect me to eat all this?” No, the Egyptian person does not expect the visitor to eat all the food piled up in front of him, but Egyptian hospitality dictates that there must be a huge display of food.
When a Western person comes over with a bottle of gourmet vinegar or some guest soap, for example, an Egyptian person may be confused. Vinegar is sour, and soap implies the need for more cleanliness. Sweets and dessert would be more in order.
In 2003, when former US president George W Bush ducked the flying shoes of a journalist who yelled “this is a gift from the Iraqis. This is a farewell kiss, you dog,” many Western reporters emphasised Bush’s ability to dodge while ignoring the essence of the gesture, as Bush jokingly brushed it off by saying “all I can report is a size 10.”
But the flying shoes and the name calling – “dog” is a derogatory term to Arabs – meant much more and were perhaps even a redemption of a sort in the eyes of the Iraqis, turning the journalist into a hero. No one can deny how different the spectacle was in the eyes of Iraqis from what it was in the eyes of westerners.
Some westerners now add the pronouns “she/her” or “he/him” to their signatures in an email or letter. It’s a way for the person receiving the email to understand the preferred way to address the sender. However, it is also a way for the sender to show support and solidarity for transgender and non-binary people.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy director of the National Centre for Transgender Equality in the US, said that “if I was introducing myself to someone, I would say, ‘I’m Rodrigo. I use ‘him’ pronouns. What about you?’”
In many societies around the world, people would find such distinctions difficult to comprehend.
Cultural values create different social norms, so we should not expect nations and peoples to become mirror images of one another. In fact, it is a good thing that we aren’t all alike. If we were, it would be a very boring world.
As the world gets smaller and smaller, we must accept different cultures as they are. Different social norms may surprise, even shock, but trying to impose one culture on another will never work.
Standards of shame, modesty, respect, personal freedom, religious values, and much more will all remain stumbling blocks in the face of our becoming indistinguishably alike. In fact, cultural norms set social guidelines that people adhere to in order to fit into the contours of their own society and not necessarily those of other societies.
More importantly, should one society try to impose its standards on other societies? Non-Western societies should not adopt Western values or take them at face value without looking at them carefully and weighing up the worth of any change and whether it would apply in their case or not.
More importantly, the West should not expect the rest of the world to accept its standards as a given.
Western values do not equate to globalisation and should not be taken as a standard. In fact, Western dominance is sometimes seen as a continuation of Western imperialism. Hence, applying the values of the West in an Asian, Arab, or African society often counteracts and clashes with those of that society. Besides, the West has its own pitfalls that should be looked at as warnings to others that no one should implement, ethnic cleansing, slavery, colonialism, and racism, to name a few.
Recent developments in the West have created even more of a gap between the West and other societies. Euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and comprehensive sex education in schools have all been remolding fundamentals. It is not up to non-Western societies to appraise such changes when they take place in Western societies, but it is their prerogative not to accept them.
Western society itself is still grappling with many of these issues, so for the West to expect such values to be implemented elsewhere is hardly rational. The West should understand that rejecting them is justifiable.
However, as societies worldwide dispute such values, they are being besieged by them through images in Hollywood films and on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney, as well as on social media. One of the hardest battles for the world in general will remain the juxtaposition of what societies believe are their own social standards and invading foreign influences.
Cultural expectations are not the same across the board. The rule should be to each his own.
The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly