The Cat in the Can

When I look at a can and see a picture of a sardine on its label, I assume and expect a can filled with sardines. When I look at a bag and see pictures of lollipops, I expect to find lollipops when I open it. When I see a can with a picture of a cat, I expect to find… it filled with cat. Wait, what!?

I have been thinking a lot about expectations, especially when considering someone moving into a culture different than their own. This is a great illustration of how our culture affects our expectations. We eat fish and we eat lollipops, so it is only natural to find pictures of a fish and lollipop on the outside of the packaging.

Those pictures help us identify the object we want and anticipate what we will find inside. We do not eat cats in our Western cultures so we would never expect a can with a picture of a cat to actually contain cat. It even sounds weird when I write it. If the label were in another language and we couldn’t understand, we would still expect the can to contain something for the cat because of our shared cultural knowledge.

Shared cultural knowledge includes knowledge about what to expect when you hear, see, or do certain things. A recent commercial advertises a certain tortilla chip. Their ad focuses on the fact that they do not need a logo or a slogan to advertise their product because they are so well known. They show a red and a blue bag, the shape of a triangle, and someone wiping cheesy powder across their chest. If you are from the U.S., chances are you know what chip I am talking about. This is a great example of shared knowledge.  

Another example I quickly learned when I lived overseas is what it means when there are tree branches lying in the road. At first, I thought it was the wind or irresponsible people who threw them there, I came to realize they are signs of warning, usually that a car or truck is broken down ahead or there is some problem with the road. Instead of being irresponsible, those branches were a sign of responsibility and care for others.

Other examples include knowing how much bus fare is when it is not written on the bus or posted anywhere, the business hours of stores and restaurants (hint: some countries mostly close down between the hours of 12 and 2pm), and whether you should sit and eat when you buy food from a small, local vendor.

This last one came as a surprise for me because I just assumed since they were selling food, they would be happy we sat there and ‘advertised’ their service by being customers. At first we did not know it was expected that anyone who lived nearby had to bring their own storage containers to take food home in. This frees up space for others.

To understand what is going on and what to expect in different situations, we need to develop a base of shared knowledge, or common knowledge, with those around us. We will address some things to consider before starting this process of building a base of common knowledge and practical ways to do it in other posts.

Moving from my home culture to another culture has been a very challenging but rewarding experience in many ways. Challenging because I need to be a humble and dedicated learner. And rewarding in that my world has dramatically expanded. I share knowledge and understanding with brothers and sisters around the world. Their joys and concerns have become my joys and concerns. It is a beautiful thing to realize my heart and mind can connect with someone who is so different, yet in many ways like me.

“Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance- “

 Proverbs 1:5 NIV

Make it Real

In the comments below:

  • List two things you believe most people in your home culture understand how to do but may be confusing to a foreigner.
  • If you live in a culture other than the one you were born into, give an example of something everyone else knew how to do but you had to learn.

Photo by Davy De Groote on Unsplash

One thought on “The Cat in the Can

  1. I think someone from Switzerland may not know how to navigate our freeways? I was in the little town of Burtigny and was impressed that even in October the people in the town walked everywhere. Many did not own a car. As I traveled by train and bus I didn’t see major highways.


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