The basics: On our frame of reference

Photo by Burst from Pexels

Whenever we measure, cut, read, listen to, eat, cook, write, or think about anything, we need something that anchors us to our prior experiences and which allows us to make sense of what we are now going through. This is something that we all do, and, as we tend to experience things in a similar way, we also interpret them in the same way. Most of the time this is due to us having absorbed the culture that surrounds us and which acts as our frame of reference.

The blind spot of familiarity

The customs of our own culture are so ingrained into us that we rarely think about them. We talk, behave, and perhaps think in ways that we seldom question or challenge. In this way, our frame of reference acts both as the way we understand and interact with the world, but it also makes us blind to different ways of doing things, understand the world, and respond to it.

One of the best ways to become aware of this blind spot is through overseas travel. Whether its driving on the other side of the road, having a different climate or another language, travel is an extremely friendly way of dipping our feet into someone else’s culture and get a trial run of it. As a result of travel, particularly if its long-term travel, people add new perspectives, customs and patters of behavior to the ones inherent to their natural culture. From time to time you can see how both systems have conflicts or how a third alternative is developed as a mix of both.

The reality, however, is that even within our own culture there are subtle differences that make us stand out from one another. Given how we are seldom aware of them due to our familiarity with our own culture and the expectations it sets for us, it is not surprising that the conflicts that result from those differences can sometimes involve more aggression than the ones among nations.

If you don’t think that is the case, please consider the following exercise: whenever you chat with someone else, think about how you see them. Irrespective of their level of education, we tend to look to our fellow humans as just a tad bit dumber than we are, right? Perhaps, if not dumber, a little uglier? Whatever specific characteristic it is we focus on, it exists without question. Well, just as we think this about everyone else, is it too crazy to suggest that everyone else also sees us as a little dumber than them, perhaps a little uglier?

A short spanish lesson

In spanish there’s this phrase: “Cada cabeza es un mundo” which can be translated as “Every head is its own world”. Considering what I’ve said up to this point, the meaning of the phrase is quite apparent: whatever differences our common culture tries to smooth over, there are some differences among us that just won’t go away.

Unlike scientists and engineers that rely on standardized methods and tools, such standardization does not exist among us humans. It may be the case that the closest thing we have is obedience to a common legal system, given the consequences we may otherwise face.

Still, at an individual level the implications of this are more interesting. We talked about travel as a means to experience another frame of reference. The reality is that we can omit the traveling part and create the frame of reference that we want. Personally, I would advise that such a frame remain consistent with the laws of the country in which you live in, but you may as well disagree (every head is its own world, right?) and bear the consequences of that.

In any case, the message that is worth remembering is that

  • The way we were raised has a strong influence on the person we are today.
  • Given the right attitude and consistent effort, we can raise ourselves into a different person.

See you next week.