‘My car is red.’ ‘Big deal,’ you may say, ‘my car is blue, green or silver.’ On the face of it, ‘my car is red’ simply sounds like a point for information, principally about the colour of the car. But is that really all it conveys? The relationship between language, culture and personal constructs is complex and profound. ‘My car is red’ conveys all kind of hidden personal and cultural messages.
‘My’ relates to ‘I’. It says something about how I see myself in relation to others, my ‘self’ as separate and distinct from others. It’s a culturally-constructed ‘I’. ‘My’ says something about possession. I consider the car in some way ‘belongs’ to me. This notion of possession, of belonging, is a cultural construct. It’s about the relationship between ‘me’ and ‘other’.
It points beyond my personal beliefs, my personal constructs, to a wider cultural context, how the relationship between people and objects is perceived and organised in my cultural environment. It has political and economic implications, touches on issues of rights and legality, shared implicit values, rules and behaviours that the culture I live within accepts and endorses.
‘Car’. At a literal level, I picture the car and I see an object that has a particular function, a mode of transport. As I explore my ‘car’ phenomenologically, I realise it evokes feelings of comfort, convenience, freedom, enjoyment for me. Culturally, it also represents something about relative wealth, social status, mobility. It's an object and a personal-cultural symbol.
If I had never seen or heard of 'car' before, or any such vehicle, and encountered one out of context, I could only guess what it is, what it is designed for. I would have no idea how to operate it, what its capabilities are, what significance it carries in my actual cultural environment. In other words, the whole idea of 'car', what it means, is culturally constructed.
‘Is red’. This attributes properties to the car, as if ‘redness’ is inherent to the car, an actual colour of the car. It’s about the car, it’s not about me. It’s a metaphysical view, how I believe things are in the world. To be more accurate, I could say, I experience the car as ‘red’, where ‘red’ is the colour I experience in the brain when I see the car in white light. Is the car still red when it’s dark?
But ‘red’ is a social construct too. We use red to denote a colour, a label that distinguishes one colour, or a group of similar colours that fall broadly into ‘red’ within my culture, from other colours. I don’t simply see and categorise colours at a personal level, I live within a culture that distinguishes between and organises colour categories in very specific ways.
I inherit the language I use, language that creates its own ways of framing and categorising. I also inherit my own cultural environment and history. My thinking and experience is profoundly influenced by these inheritances. At the same time, I have my own unique experience of the world. How I act in the world shapes language and culture too, it’s a mutually-influencing process.
So, ‘my car is red’. Simple to say, profoundly revealing when unpacked. It says something about me, how I perceive and experience the world and myself in the world, and also something about the beliefs, constructs, values and practices of my wider cultural environment. Revealing such assumptions, opening ourselves to re-examination, can be a radical route to transformation.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.