Adversarial Cultural Beliefs

Adversarial Cultural Beliefs

‘A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people’

Mahatma Gandhi

Culture – as defined by the Google dictionary, is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Shared ideas and beliefs provide a means for people to co-exist peacefully. They create a group of people that are largely homogenous in beliefs and actions. However, any culture that unites – also has the capacity to alienate. As demonstrated in traditional ‘East vs West’ ideologies, when two opposing cultures clash, neither can truly adopt the other position as the fundamental values that spawn their respective beliefs are different.

In most developed countries, cultural diversity is celebrated as a triumph. Apart from showing that different cultures can co-exist peacefully, it also acts as a platform for intercultural mingling. It is not uncommon for an Asian to be dressed in a Western tuxedo, or a Caucasian to be wearing traditional Vietnamese marriage attire.

The impact of cultural beliefs can have a profound impact on an individual’s actions, and therefore, their fate. For example, in Western countries, statistically speaking, Asian students disproportionately outperform their peers in academia. The reasons for this are of course, multifactorial. However, some key factors are undeniable. Most Asian cultures have an established history of valuing academic excellence AND work ethic as the pathway to success.

If some cultural beliefs can drive groups of people to great success, we can also safely say that unhelpful beliefs can drive the opposite. No culture is perfect. Not all beliefs are helpful. Even more so when we account for particular time periods and established status quos.

In the context of movement, have you ever pondered how your own inherited cultural beliefs have driven you to, or away from it? And as an extension, whether you’ve considered if the cultural beliefs of the client in front of you have any impact on their exercise choices? Is this not a fascinating question?

When I am faced with a Chinese client who was born in the 1950-60s, I can hypothesise that they hold very similar views to my parents (I am Australian-Chinese). In fact, I can say with the highest level of confidence that saying these three things will immediately resonate with this population group.

1. It’s always better to go slow

2. We should always start light

3. Older generations are different. They require more expertise and patience

I’ve since come to understand that these statements work because there is a traditional view within the Chinese community that the elderly will become frail and elderly. They believe that they should be protected. There is also the belief that strenuous exercise is harmful, and likely ‘inappropriate’ for this population. I know from the scientific literature that a large part of this untrue, but long-standing cultural beliefs will always be more powerful than any scientific journal you can muster.

As another example, I have worked with teenagers from Asian households who have given up exercise because they have been told from a young age (myself included), that exercise is treated as enjoyment, an act of less importance than ‘book study.’ Despite, the scientific literature regarding cognitive development being crystal clear – that physical exercise enhances memory and cognitive function, it is unable to break through the chains of cultural conviction.

What does this mean for us as coaches? Two things come to mind.

1. Recognise that different cultures will have different views of exercise

2. Understand that any attempt to challenge a traditional view may be perceived as an attack on their cultural identity

Once we are able to appreciate the impact of cultural belief, we can respectfully approach any conversation that may be adversarial to their views. By coming from a place of understanding and cooperation, we will be able to foster greater client buy-in and exercise adherence.