Using Cultural Informants
One way to continue learning about your host culture is to identify people who understand it and can explain it to you. In general, you look for information of three kinds:
- important facts or textbook information about the culture;
- ways to behave and not behave in various situations; and
- reasons for host country people behavior or reactions.
You may need to approach different informants for these different kinds of information. In most Peace Corps posts, you have your choice of four types of potential informants:
- host country nationals;
- the Peace Corps Volunteers;
- other Americans (not PCVs); and
- third-country nationals.
You may assume that host country nationals will always be your best resources, but this may not necessarily be true. They may know the do's and don'ts of host country behavior, but not all may know many facts about their culture, nor why host country people behave the way they do. For the this information, you may be better off asking foreigners or that handful of host country people who have studied their culture.
In dealing with informants, keep the following general guidelines in mind:
- Critically evaluate the opinions of PCVs, other Americans, and third-country nationals who seem especially negative or bitter about the host culture.
- Select people who have been in the country long enough to have successfully built relationships and have some perspective.
- Select host country people who are somewhat representative of their country:
Talk to a variety of informants, a cross section, so you don't get the views of just one social class, one ethnic group, only men, the college educated, etc.
Try to corroborate what you've heard from one informant with the views of at least one other person.
Try to select informants who are objective, able to distinguish between their own personal experience and what is true of the culture in general. Otherwise, you have to do the distinguishing.
- Avoid those who may be too Westernized, or at least consider their Western bias in evaluating their comments.
- Remember that people who speak English may not be representative of the general population.
- Your Peace Corps trainers or other HCN staff also may not be especially representative (though they may be knowledgeable and understand where you're coming from).
It may be interesting for you to see how the views of the four types of informants compare by asking each of them the same question. These are some suggestions:
- Why do host country people ___________?
- How should I treat counterparts at work?
- Someone asked me to lend them money. What should I do?
- Is it okay in this culture to____________?