How to navigate cultural expectations of you, according to an expert

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Balancing the cultural expectations of family and community can be hard when you want to forge your own path. We speak to an expert about how to navigate them, and live your most authentic life as well as hear from influencer Anchal on how she does it…

As we move throughout our lives, most of us become increasingly aware of how societal expectations have shaped our behaviour. A lot of the time, we might choose to conform to particular norms about the ‘proper’ way to behave; but other times, we resist the pressure to perform those roles as we come to understand more about our personal identity.

When it comes to cultural expectations, however, things can be a little more tricky. Finding the balance between maintaining familial and communal bonds while asserting our own individual choices can be difficult, especially when we respect the specific traditions we’ve grown up with. Nevertheless, it’s something we have to tackle if we want to live life on our own terms.

One woman who’s no stranger to navigating this path is makeup artist and YouTube star influencer Anchal. The realities of how cultural expectations play out in adulthood is also the inspiration behind Anchal’s newly launched podcast, What Would The Aunties Say, in which she takes on different issues faced by women and girls in the British Asian community, from colourism and gender inequality, to interracial relationships and the pressures of marriage, with personal insight on how she balances the different aspects of her identity.

In the latest episode of the Stylist podcast Nobody Told Me…, Anchal discusses her experiences of dating in secret, familial and cultural attitudes towards love and relationships, and the concept of being ‘left on the shelf’ as a woman of thirty:

Although bridging the challenges presented by cultural obligations can take hard work and careful consideration, achieving balance is crucial to our sense of wellbeing. 

With that in mind, we spoke to culture and diversity consultant and founder of Culturally Minded, Vaishali Shah, to find out how to navigate cultural expectations, and more importantly, live a life that’s a reflection of your authentic self.

1. Accept the process

“Finding a harmonious balance between your personal ambitions and the expectations of your culture/family and community can be a difficult juggling act, but one that is important to achieve to the best of your ability. 

“Both are important in my opinion; you want to express your goals, ambitions and values in a way that feels authentic to you; but at the same time, be mindful and sensitive when it comes to broader considerations such as family, community and culture. Both are important to your overall sense of wellbeing, and getting the balance right requires careful consideration, planning and research.

“What is key is to accept that it is a process – meaning that there is no beginning and no end, but an ongoing commitment to reconciling the differences in opinion and approach between how you choose to express your own individuality and what is acceptable in the eyes of your family, culture and community.

“It requires an open mind and a willingness to learn. Do some research; educate yourself through reading books on the topic, listen and learn from other perspectives, especially those who have successfully bridged the gap; talk to friends and colleagues of your cultural background.”   

2. Think critically

“In my opinion, it helps to determine the areas in your life that are of particular significance, such as work, relationships, health, etc. 

“For each area, try to define the non-negotiables and where you are willing to be flexible. Making a list of all the pros and cons of your culture and community will give you clarity. From the cons list, what items can you compromise and be flexible on? Your willingness to bend and adapt on these will help to ease potential conflicts and will demonstrate your thoughtfulness, appreciation, and respect for cultural and family norms.

“Approach matters from a practical point of view. For example, if you’ve grown up in an Indian vegetarian family and culture, you may decide to eat meat when you are at a restaurant or outside the home, but not in the house if you’re living with or visiting your parents. Modern Indian parents who are vegetarian sometimes give their children the choice to eat meat, but not at home. Dressing appropriately for your culture is another area where you can show sensitivity, especially at certain occasions such as weddings where there are community expectations.

“It is possible to maintain and live by your core values while being mindful and respecting your family’s and cultural expectations.”

3. Have honest conversations

“Honest conversations are critical in navigating cultural expectations; however, they are not always easy. The closer your relationship with your family members, the more challenging honest conversations can become, especially in cultures where respect for elders is paramount. 

“Of course, not all families are the same. Some families who have been in the UK for generations are more liberal and open to frank discussions, while others have maintained a more traditional approach. Discussions where there is a genuine wish to understand differing viewpoints, where no judgement or blame are attached and that are conducted in a mutually respectful way, can bring clarity and a greater appreciation of the reason behind diverse perspectives.

“Parents can play an active role in encouraging open and candid conversations within the family, especially as children grow up, so they don’t do things in secret simply because they feel they will be judged or blamed.”

4. Set boundaries

“I believe boundaries are essential if you want to live your life by your own rules and values, especially if they are different from those of your family or culture. Setting boundaries is not easy and will require constant monitoring before becoming firmly established. There is likely to be resistance, which is natural.

“Your own definition of how you want to live your life, and what is most important to you, may be at odds with your culture. For example, success for you may have nothing to do with ambition, how much you earn or what assets you own. It may be all about the quality of your life, how content you feel, and achieving your spiritual aspirations. A culture that puts great emphasis on education and financial success will equate self-worth with net worth, but for you it will be everything to do with your spiritual worth. These are areas where creating and maintaining boundaries is essential so you can live a life that is authentically yours.

“Various resources are available for support in this area. A session with a trained cultural consultant, for example, would mean a deep dive into your family and cultural dynamics, with concrete suggestions and steps you can put into practice. You could also speak to others who have successfully struck a balance that works for them and their family and learn from them. Read articles on the internet, and see if there are community groups and mentors available who can support you.”

5. Be authentic

“To be authentic in the world, you have to first be authentic to yourself. That requires a lot of introspection and self-awareness. It is a process of self-discovery, personal development and evolution. According to me, to be genuine, you must be willing to be who you want to be, rather than who you think people want you to be. That means not pretending to be like anyone else just to be liked and accepted; believing that who you are is good enough. It needs courage and commitment.

“It also means resisting the trap of cultural biases and stereotypes which continue to exist, such as the perception of beauty. In India, Asia and the Middle East, for example, there is often an ingrained belief that a fair-skinned woman is beautiful. There has been a recent backlash against this bias, which is not relevant to today’s generation, resulting in many companies no longer manufacturing products to lighten the skin. However, ingrained cultural attitudes take time to change.

“To be authentic to yourself while living in a culture and society with many cultural biases and discrimination takes the courage of your conviction. It’s a balancing act that requires ongoing fine tuning between resisting peer and cultural pressure and following the calling of your heart. “

Nobody Told Me… is Stylist’s podcast exploring the personal life lessons of brilliant women in their own words. Season two is brought to you in partnership with Clinique, who for over 50 years have been empowering women through great skin care backed by dermatologist expertise.