My take on culture and tradition

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On my journey to visit every country in the world, I come across a variety of different lifestyles, cultures, mindsets and politics. As of writing this blog, I have been to 89 out of 195 countries, including places like Iceland, Afghanistan, Colombia, China, Belarus and Uganda. All of the these countries couldn’t possibly be more different from each other. In this blog post, I want to take you on a cultural journey – a mini tour around the world.


1. We have Iceland, the most equal country in the world, where feminism is a big thing, gay marriage normal, a 30 minute bus ride can cost $35 and the people seek to improve their lives through technology, innovation and social change.


2. Next up, Afghanistan, the most conservative country in the world (personal opinion), where being gay can cause a death penalty, strict dress codes are in place all over the country and in certain areas, women don’t even have names. A plate of street food costs $0.10 and the population tries to hold on to their traditions, their islamic values and concepts of social hierarchy and order.


3. Then, Colombia, a country famous for its parties, a big nightlife scene and here and there some gang violence. The people live for the moment and – despite being officially christian – live their own proud Colombian identity freely. If they want to be with someone for the night, so be it. A lot of people live in poverty and seek refuge in criminal gangs and underground business.


4. Now China, a socialist country with very limited freedoms for the individual. Despite not following a traditional religion, the country preserves its social structure through law-enforcement, social pressure, politics and censoring content on the internet. It feels very safe to be in, as there is practically no stealing, murder or other criminal offences and surveillance cameras are everywhere.


5. Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe. People are proud of their eastern heritage, the country is extremely clean with almost no garbage to be found on the streets. No freedom of speech, but being so close to western countries, a lot of people know their stand and are against the dictatorship. A country in change that will not have the same system 10 years from now. Mark my word.


6. Lastly, Uganda. Very poor, very dirty and a lack of basic infrastructure wherever you look. Economically, one of the worst countries to live in. A lack of schools and education contribute further to the vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment or if any, very bad paying jobs. The people don’t seem to have the mindset or will to attempt a change of structure for the country but further continue to litter and work only when they have to, a big reason being the very hot climate.



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Now, the question: With just these 6 countries (from 195!) being so different from each other, how can you possibly keep an “open” mindset, connect with people and most importantly: how can you form your own opinion without being disrespectful? Well, it is a tough question to ask and even tougher to answer. Of course, growing up in Germany has anchored values into me (like punctuality, being reliable, a work work work attitude, and a generally forward-thinking mindset). Not all of these values are either good or bad. Take that “work work work” attitude that Germans are famous for all over the world. It’s a true cliché. Many Germans fail to enjoy life because work overruns them. They don’t fight this by partying more (as people would in Colombia for example) but instead, Germans try to become more efficient, to get more done again, and be overrun by the next, more advanced task that follows. It’s a vicious cycle here again.
Hence follows: German people are cold. To a degree, that’s true. Although it’s always the environment and the culture that influences a person, not the biology necessarily. For example: Would I dare say African people are dirty, because the city of Kampala is? No, that would be utterly racist and incorrect. It’s not the people, it’s the lack of waste management and the habit of littering that is so common in the country that people have come to see it as something normal.

A similar thing happened to me in the country of Jordan. When locals eat in a restaurant, a lot of the food gets thrown away in the end. I was shocked! I wanted to speak up and educate them about food waste and ethics until I realised: They are not bad people. Leaving food on the table and dumping the rest has a long tradition in Arabic countries. It comes from the hospitality of wanting to feed and treat your guest as well as possible, so in earlier times, not leaving anything on the plate meant that the food offered was not sufficient to the guest. Thus, leaving food and in western words “wasting food” has always been seen as something normal. 


And that’s the point: WHAT IS NORMAL?!

Is it normal for me to kill someone because I am in a civil war in Libya? Is it normal for me to sacrifice my fun in life because I am in the work heaven of Germany? Where do you draw the line, what is culturally acceptable, sustainable, respectful to others while at the same time preserving my personal freedom? Well in short, this utopian mindset-building doesn’t really work anywhere in the world. Before I give my personal opinion, let’s look at a geo-political thesis.

Colder countries are richer than hot countries. Generally true, with some small exceptions that can be disregarded using further geopolitical information. The UAE for example is a very hot & rich country, same goes for other gulf states like Qatar and Bahrain. But this can be explained using only a single natural resource: oil. It doesn’t change the overall statement of “colder countries are generally richer than hot countries”. Quite the opposite. It shows that if a natural resource is so important like oil, other socio-political factors can be diminished by the sheer influence of that very resource.

Colder countries are richer than hot countries. What are the causes? Some will only blame history and the influence of colonialism for example. While true to some degree, what caused colonialism in the first place then? Tradition? Mindset? Then what were the causes of that? It appears that a colder climate makes more productive people. In the early ages, living in South America or Africa was possible without great effort compared to Europe. In warm climates, you didn’t have to fear freezing to death or being killed by a mammoth. Crops could be harvested all year round while in Europe, a single snow storm could wipe out the entire village by killing the yearly harvest. Wouldn’t that mean that hot countries are richer than cold countries because of their advantage? Well, yes! It appears that the richest man in history was Musa Musa from Mali, a very hot country. What about the people groups that lived before Europeans started dominating the world? Egyptians lived in a hot climate. We know about the Maya peoples in Central America that lived in a hot climate. The Inkas in South America that lived in a hot climate and the list goes on. All these people groups dominated their respective parts of the world.

But humans are an intelligent species that, when in trouble, seeks to optimise their conditions. And well, in Europe it was a true survival of the strongest. If your house fell victim to a snow storm, you died. If your crops failed because you didn’t protect them enough, you died. If you couldn’t keep yourself warm throughout the winter, you died. This produced a rational mindset in people, an attitude focussed on surviving and optimisation. It wasn’t that the people chose to be productive and efficient, they had to be. So throughout the centuries, the world shifted as technology started to become more important. Europeans soon became the ruling people group using weapons, advanced technology and social structure. The native Africans, Americans and pretty much any other people group in warmer climates didn’t have the need to advance so rapidly. When a crop failed, there were plenty of other crops that could be cultivated, not just once a year. Through this lack of innovation, Europeans seized control over the world. This brought all the misery we know as slave trade, genocides, racial segregation and so on. Of course increasing globalisation contributed further to the development.

What is normal then?

How should we shape our values?

Well first of all I believe it is important to acknowledge (especially as Europeans) how and why we ended up in the current situation of the world. Then we recognise global trends and recent developments in the world. For example, the world is moving closer together than ever before in history. Cooperation is a necessity nowadays, as we have the technology to wipe out the entire planet within minutes. Cooperation and collaboration between countries is essential to grant the wellbeing of the global population. 500 years ago, there wasn’t such thing as a UN general assembly. The term “country” didn’t mean a lot either. There were kingdoms, empires and tribes living in parallel. Nowadays, we can’t exist in parallel, we need to work together. Countries now form unions. Sometimes these unions break apart or develop into new countries. Just have a look at the EU. Is it a country? No, it is a union of countries. Will it be a country in 100 years? Quite possibly. Ultimately, it depends on how you define a country.


Now my personal approach: The maxim of the open-mind

Having looked at the history and the modern world alike, we see that cooperation is necessary. So for creating our own opinion and mindset, it is mandatory that we don’t discriminate against people that think otherwise. Cooperation is not impossible when two parties fundamentally disagree. Cooperation only becomes impossible when one side tries to destroy the other one’s opinion (or the people itself) or impose, for whatever reason, certain restrictions, limitations or threats on either their own people or the opposite side so no agreement can be reached. In the modern world we see for example that Pakistani citizens are not allowed to travel to the state of Israel. This is enforced by the Pakistani law, so it is an imposing of rules to their own people that makes cooperation with the other side (Israel) nearly impossible. Most commonly however, we see that countries impose rules and regulations to one another instead of to their own people. Take the United States and Iran for example. The US sanctioned the Iranian government and the lives of Iranian citizens became harder. Now these sanctions will have their reason somewhere, but cooperation is now a near-impossible task. I am not saying that sanctions as such are a bad thing. But as an individual traveller, you can’t have sanctions against people groups. We are not countries, we are individuals.

And this is why you need to differentiate between people and politics. Always.


So to back up: Our mindest as travellers needs to be open. We can’t have sanctions against people groups. We need to be respectful at all times in order to align with our steady goal of enabling cooperation.

But wait, does that mean I can’t have an opinion? Do I have to act like Switzerland and always stay neutral? No and no, but if in doubt, staying neutral is a great attribute to have as a traveller. Sometimes you get into tricky and even dangerous situations so staying as neutral as possible can be the key to escape the situation.

However. In most cases it is obviously good to have an opinion. The question is just, how can you convey it without being disrespectful and how can you form a mindset when everyone thinks something else? Remember Iceland, Afghanistan, Colombia, China, Belarus and Uganda. If you ask a random stranger in every one of these countries, how life is supposed to be lived, you will get a variety of different answers. Is following a tradition still possible and socially okay in modern times? As long as it doesn’t harm anyone, yes. And how do you determine whether it harms anyone? – Through the maxim of the open mind:

I always ask the question: Is this behaviour justified? Is it unnecessarily disrespectful towards someone who is innocent?

What about female circumcision? Is it justified? As a person that tries to be as liberal as possible, no. Its sole purpose is rooted in gender inequality. And as we have analysed above, you shouldn’t unnecessarily discriminate against a people group – that includes women. Otherwise cooperation becomes near-impossible, which violates our goal of a peaceful global community. Hence, female circumcision is not justifiable. Forbidding women to enjoy sexual intercourse is morally against the maxim of having an open mindset. And this is exactly where I draw the line. If a culture, tradition or ritual is justified (meaning it has a reason behind it) AND doesn’t hurt, harm or kill anyone innocent who does not want to be involved according to his or her own free will, it should be preserved. Otherwise, it is unjustifiable from a modern point of view.

I draw the line between morality and culture where culture can’t justify its actions. Moral should always control culture and not vice versa. And yes, the understanding of morality differs greatly throughout the world. But if we aim to establish a global, peaceful community, having an open-mind is absolutely mandatory. Only then can we avoid war, conflict and suffering.

So in short, we should always differentiate between a country and the people that live in it. As for culture, we should ask the question: Can this culture/tradition justify its rules and behaviours without violating the maxim of an open-mind, that is to not discriminate/harm/kill or inflict any negative consequences on people that disagree with it, don’t want to live according to it, or think otherwise? It should also not discriminate against a generalised people group, otherwise living in harmony peacefully is impossible.


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This is my take on culture and tradition.

Thank you so much for reading until the end.
Message me your opinion @thegermantravelguy on Instagram, I’d love to hear how you see the topic.