Thursday, June 14, 2007


Assimilation vs cultural diversity

The old story of the baby picture on the baby-food jar came up in conversation the other week. Everyone's favourite urban-myth–debunking site,, has a great article about it, so if you want to be amused you should go there and read what the Snopes fopes... folks... have to say. Yes, it's an apocryphal story. It's worth some discussion anyway.

One version of the story, from the Snopes page:

When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the beautiful Caucasian baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the label of what's inside, since most people can't read.
The point of the story is that this huge, multinational company should have known better, and should have changed their packaging in advance. Of course, even if the story were true, one can't imagine the shoppers really thinking that it's mashed baby in the jar. Even so, the initial “ick” factor would turn people away from the product, as would a desire not to do business with a company so clueless. And then, if the shoppers really can't read, they might know it's not baby-paste inside, but they won't know what is inside, and would avoid it for that reason.

The reality is that such multinational companies generally do know better, and they do adjust their packaging, marketing claims, and even product names for the target markets. An example of that is the story of how Coca-Cola picked the Mandarin characters to represent its name in China. Shopkeepers and others got it wrong, but the company itself took the time to get it right.

The target markets also adapt. They see the value of the new offering. Perhaps it's a better product. Maybe it works better, maybe it lasts longer. Perhaps it's less expensive. Whatever the reason, consumers embrace it and everyone wins.

The multinationals, at least the successful ones, know how to strike that balance between bringing something new with them and fitting into where they're going. A company that tries to turn the culture upside-down is likely to have a hard time of it. A company that blends in, and perhaps morphs the culture gradually, adds value and prospers.

That's not limited to large corporations. Individual immigrants have the same balance to strike. Does one disappear into the masses? How much of one's home culture does one retain? And how much push-back does one get? “When people come here,” many say, “they should learn to fit in!” But there's a difference between fitting in and becoming invisible.

And, of course, those demanding that immigrants “fit in” by checking their home cultures at the golden door are themselves descended from immigrants. Those who insist on assimilation proudly participate in St Patrick's Day parades, hang out at the local Italian-American club, worship in Hebrew, or perhaps trace their ancestry to the Mayflower. Most of us got here relatively recently, from somewhere else, somewhere with its own culture, dress, food, dances, language, and customs. And through the last four centuries we've made this country what it is by merging parts of all of those cultures to make a richer, stronger alloy.

And yet each wave of immigrants is hated by the ones who came before. Each time, we resist “those people”, with each change in the definition of “them”. We're currently looking at a fence to repel people from south of us, and we're deeply suspicious of folks who cover their heads or faces for religious or cultural reasons.

My own view of “fitting in” is one of friendliness and acceptance. If your traditions don't hurt me, or others, why should I mind if you keep them? I'd rather learn about them. If expressions from your language can add interest to ours, I'd like to adopt them. Your clothing might be exotic and beautiful; why not wear it? (Most likely, I'll find it nicer than some of our home-grown fashions that involve denim garments that are a few sizes too large.)

Cultural diversity's a topic I come back to often on these pages, so maybe I'm just repeating myself. By all means, it's in immigrants' best interest to fit in... but not to disappear.

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