Recently, I walked into a local shop and bought a bar of chocolate. I said to the shopkeeper that it wasn’t a healthy choice but i felt like i needed a quick sugar boost.

She replied by saying: “Well, we’re Scottish, we’re not meant to be healthy!”

I internally rejected her suggestion and left rather dismayed by her comment.

Scotland has one of the worst rates of heart disease in Europe – although it’s improved significantly over the last 5 years.

Is this because of genes, poor diet, life style, just bad luck, or a combination of all of the above and more?

And is there something deeper at play, beneath that surface?

Poor health is of course, multi-factorial. It’s a combination of many different elements coming together to produce an undesirable result. Some of these elements are out of our control but many are not.

One contributing factor that often goes unseen though, is the role that “cultural beliefs” play: ideas that we, as a society, collectively encourage each other to believe to be true.

It’s not just with health of course. Cultural beliefs can be significant in the shaping of our overall attitude and many of our behaviours.

They are the rules and norms we learn from our peers through socialisation from a young age, so, as such, can often exist unseen in the background, affecting much of what we do.

We might even consider them to be a fixed part of our social identity, something that is unchangeable because of how woven into the fabric of our social existence they can be.

And it’s usually a mixed bag. As a Scot, I love many of the beliefs and values that underpin the society and culture I belong to. Some i’m not sure of, and one or two I really dislike.

Which brings me back to the comment by the shopkeeper.

She’s not speaking for everyone when she says that Scottish people aren’t meant to be healthy, but she does reflect an – albeit old-fashioned – belief system that sits in the background of Scottish cultural: that we are an unhealthy nation and there’s not much we can do about it.

It’s not true of course, and it’s changing, thankfully. But we are still known as the country that invented the “deep-fried Mars Bar”. There still seems to be a strange national pride in unhealthy habits that’s difficult to shake.

I remember growing up as a teenager it seemed to be a rite of passage to “get blind drunk” every weekend.

Not to “enjoy the effects of alcohol responsibly with friends”, but to actually get drunk to the point of near incapacitation. If you didn’t go along with it you were seen as weird.

Yet if you cross-reference this with other cultures you see that this belief is not universal. For example, in France, they still drink alcohol but, in general, they have a very different relationship to it. They do it as an “aid to social enjoyment” rather than the end goal being to “lie unconscious on a floor somewhere”.

What’s the difference? Many things i’m sure, but it all starts with the cultural beliefs that are encouraged by society.

I’m picking on beliefs to do with health, but cultural beliefs affect many, if not all, aspects of our life.

In the U.K, the cultural beliefs we have about expressing emotion – particularly with men – are very different to say, in Italy. We shake hands with a stiff upper lip, and they hug passionately.

In my mid thirties I learned to dance and was met with some derision from certain groups of people I was friendly with. Apparently, in the U.K, men don’t dance. It’s seen as feminine. But if you go to latin-based countries the opposite is true – if you don’t dance then the people start to question your masculinity.

There’s no definitive right or wrong, just groups of people adhering to different social expectations and established norms.

And each set of cultural beliefs will contain advantages and disadvantages, with some of the disadvantages being quite considerable.

So can these cultural beliefs be changed? Or are they impenetrable parts of our internal furniture?

I think they absolutely can be changed, but first you have to be aware that they aren’t the only choices you have. They aren’t undeniably facts of life that we simply just have to live with. They are just examples of social learning and conditioning.

As human beings we have a rich variety of choice when it comes to our thinking and behaviour. We can choose to either embrace or reject the beliefs we have been indoctrinated into.

It might be met with some resistance from certain groups we belong to, but it’s possible if we have the awareness and the will.

If you want to change your cultural beliefs, the first step is to take a look at them and make a choice as to which you want to embrace, and which you want to critique and move away from.

Often the reason why they remain powerful is because we believe them to be an unchangeable part of our identity; or worse, we believe them to be part of our genetic make-up.

So start off by considering the following questions:

  • What has my cultural and social upbringing lead me to believe that supports me? (It’s good to start with the positive)
  • What has my cultural and social upbringing lead me to believe that doesn’t support me?

And then take steps to embrace the first and critique the second – is this really the only choice you have?

What could be an alternative way of looking at it?

Because it’s not the only choice. We are infinitely more flexibly than what we realise. There is always a rich array of different choices that exist outside of our current way of thinking.

Another way to explore them is to examine them in relation to different categories of your life. Your categories may be different but here are the ones I like to use:

Health:

  • What cultural beliefs have I bought into regarding my health?
  • What beliefs are present, within the society i belong to, regarding health?
  • Do any of these beliefs negatively affect me?

Success:

  • What cultural beliefs have I bought into regarding success?
  • What beliefs are present, within the society i belong to, regarding being successful?
  • Do any of these beliefs negatively affect me?

Self expression:

  • What cultural beliefs have I bought into when it comes to expressing myself?
  • What beliefs are present, within the society i belong to, when it comes to expressing myself?
  • Do any of these beliefs negatively affect me?

 

It can also be useful to explore different cultures: how do they think about “health”, or “success”, or “self expression”?

Better still, spend time with people of different cultures and nationalities. It will expand your mind and range of choices immeasurably.

It makes sense that if “culture” affects our attitude, mind-set and belief structures, one way to make changes at these levels is to experience different cultures.

Recently, I was on an 8-day training course in Barcelona and spent time with some Italians. By the end of the week I found myself naturally being more expressive. It opened up a slightly different way of behaving for me.

This is just a small example, but the principle is the same for other, more important, cultural learnings.

Cultural beliefs are ever present, and affect much of what we do, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be altered.

With awareness, we can choose to embrace, move away from, or change them.

It might not be easy, but it’s possible. And the first step to doing that is awareness.

So what cultural beliefs work for you?

And which ones would be best left for the historians to study?

Have a great week!

Steven Burns