Friday, April 8, 2011

Show me your mental map; Techniques for navigating a new cultural landscape

One of the most valuable benefits of Peace Corps service, I think, is an extended-length, purely experiential lesson on culture. So what is culture? I read a few things for a graduate sociology class once about culture, but in the past year I’ve had the chance to live it and reflect on it quite a bit. Ultimately I think the metaphor of culture as a shared “mental map" – which I first came across in Earl Babbie’s work, I think – is particularly helpful.

So culture: comprises the shared features of individuals´ mental maps that indicate, like those of any map, both the nature of reality and how to navigate that reality.

To borrow the idea from Babbie and sociology and develop it a little further from my own perspective: From birth we develop a mental map which is somewhat congruent with that of others around us, most heavily influenced by family, friends, teachers, and other influential persons. Every person has one of these maps, and each map bares differing similarity to others´ maps. Our map may be close that of our parents´ or totally different, but we will usually share quite a bit in common. And the thing that helps bridge differences in our native state, city or town, especially our native households, is that we know the landscape intimately. That helps us to converse about a common feature even when we have differing representations on the map. We come to know the subtle range of differences in the representations of these features, and form a catalogue of these representations that we can refer to.

As a PCV not only are you are surrounded by people with a very different mental map than the one you hold onto, you are in an unfamiliar landscape, as well. You don't even know what variation is out there or what features are necessarily important. You’re frantically trying to sketch out new features based on what you hear and observe of others. But rather than the 18-21 years you had to form and test the mental map that you carried with you when entering the adult world of the US, you have about six months to make some sort of usuable map of your new landscape, and learn how to orient your own pre-existing mental map with the local map – whenever and however it is necessary.

Sounds tough, and it is. But, it’s do-able. It’s also indispensible to surviving and working in the local culture.

One easy example is cold beverages. My mental map tells me that cold foods may not always do good things to my stomach. I know that Guatemalans´ mental maps usually tell them that it is a bad idea to drink cold things when you have a sore throat. If I feel skeptical that it´s a good idea to take a cold drink I´m offered, I say I´ve got a sore throat. Works like a charm. I don´t have to drink it, and no one is offended that I won´t take what they´ve offered.

To be fair this is kind of a lame trick; I am not getting people to understand my mental map – just manipulating theirs to make it coincide with my own. But what's easier? Tell someone I've got a cold, or give a three-hour lecture on hygiene and microbe pathology? While these tricks are useful, genuine intercultural exchange takes a lot more work.

What I am finding as a PCV is that depending on the person, getting people to really understand my mental map -- and understanding theirs -- takes a lot of time, patience, and conversation. Even then there are people – for example, rural male farmers or very old people - with whom I feel I can never really communicate a significant part of my mental map, or understand a significant part of theirs. (That is, the unique part other than what almost all humans have in common, by virtue of certain biological and physiological realities.) Rather, if I want to communicate with them, I have to adapt my mental map to theirs as much as possible. Yet this is challenging, since we’re talking about something that is largely inaccessible to me due to social and linguistic barriers - the mind of a rural farmer or an elder.

So the natural solution around this is that I gravitate to work most with people whose mental maps are most compatible with mine: young people, school teachers, and young to middle-aged women, that is to say, people with malleable mental maps or whose experience and perspective more closely matches my own. No matter how similar the perspective, you are usually wisest off in trying to guide people to understand, or at least follow, your own mental map using their own. The more similar the two maps are, the easier it is for us to actually communicate our maps to each other. (And the more able and willing the other person is to share their map so that I can understand it, incidentally.)

But no matter how effectively you can bend, mimic, adapt, guide, even with good friends in my town I’m usually left feeling that there will always be significant portions of our mental maps that will be mutually unvisited and misunderstood. And, it’s always treacherously easy to get stuck in the woods, trying to figure out what to make of our conflicting map information, and with no compass to mediate our surroundings. In which case, a shrug, a smile, and a change of conversation do wonders.

Note: In response to a commenter; it's not that I want to spread my mental map - and it is of course crucial to absorb and understand others' maps - but the point of my post is that effectively communicating the discordant features on my map, while often very difficult, is sometimes necessary both to achieve common goals and to form genuine relationships. Thanks for that, though - this hits on a crucial point in "development" work generally- the dangerous waters of "they should think like I think!"


  1. So true!! I am experiencing this in Belize, even though I am staying with a host "mom" who has lived in the US, is college-educated and very open-minded. My strategy so far has been to take a mental step back, observe from a distance and say to myself, "hmm, that's interesting." This often keeps me from making judgments based on my own cultural mental map. thanks for the post, Steph.

  2. I like this mental map idea. Probably mostly because of my chosen profession, but also because it allows me to put into words something that even I'm struggling to understand. It's how you know if you are making a good friend, or just navigating the social norms of communication. If they care about your map.... then they are care about who you are in a meaningful way.


  3. Hey Erika,
    Thanks for your comment. I was not intending to imply with my post however that I feel the point of understanding others' mental maps is in order to use them to spread my own ideas. Communicating my mental map to people serves two purposes to me: (1) genuine human interaction, which is essential to my mental health (2) facilitating communication necessary to achieve mutually identified and desired changes in the community. I think genuine human interaction is almost always a positive thing - especially in an increasingly connected and global world, where more shallow and negative aspects of Western/US culture are often what stick most readily.