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cultural assumptions underlying language and action

January 11th, 2004 by Jason · No Comments

I’m continuing to read through American Cultural Patterns which I first blogged about here Here’s my thoughts from chapters 3 and 4.

For Americans language is largely a tool to convey information. Since it is only a tool we generally believe it can be translated into another language without significantly altering its meaning. The idea that language is a collection of symbols which have cultural meaning and affects how we see the world is known as Whorfs hypothesis. For example, language affects a persons appreciation for spatial distance or extended family relationships depending on how many words she has for describing those categories. Language affects how we think, such that if a culture has few words for the future they will be more likely to be oriented to the present. Our language can affect how easy it is to criticize rather than praise and how much we value precision versus ambiguity. Nonverbal communication, including eye contact, touching, tone of voice, and the amount of space between those talking, differs widely from culture to culture. Additionally, its prevalence and importance varies from culture to culture.

As I have worked with Latino youth during the last couple of years I have learned the importance of figuring out and respecting the nonverbal communication of another culture. For example, when I confronted one of our 6th graders on his bad behavior he looked down the whole time. I took this is as a sign of disrespect and not paying attention. I later learned that in the Latino culture looking directly at someone when they were talking to you means just the opposite; it is a sign of confrontation and disrespect. It was also a reminder to me that there are many nonverbal forms of communication that I use daily without examining what messages they are conveying, especially in other cultures.

Chapter 4 deals with the different ways cultures value forms of activity. Americans are action oriented and we consequently organize information around that goal. Information is organized into problems that need to be solved and then a course of action decided upon which will bring about the desired results. Indecisiveness or allowing others to make decisions for us, qualities valued in some cultures, are seen as weaknesses in America. We are oriented around doing to such an extent that it is a primary motivator in our quest to achieve and thereby form an identity for ourselves. Furthermore, we like our achievements to be measurable and visible and competition is a de facto motivator for achieving success. This mindset also comes through in our strict division of work and play, our orientation towards the future, and the maxim that time is money. These things make it hard for us to understand cultures which are oriented around being, who value those who are wise or meditative, and may consider group solidarity more important than winning. However, it is important to note that these types of cultures are more prone to have a highly authoritarian nation where authority, not the individual, is the primary source of motivation.

I am certainly no stranger to the American orientation towards action and achieving. On my honeymoon I persuaded my wife to visit the bank to join our bank accounts so I could feel productive. I have long struggled with judging the quality of my day by how much I accomplished during it. And though I noticed this tie between my worth and achieving some time ago it has been a difficult process to try and uproot and change those assumptions. I realize how ingrained these cultural assumptions are in me when I have a hard time even wrapping my mind around the descriptions of other cultures ways of being. I cant help but think I must seem unintelligible to them as well.

Tags: life