The need to study language AND culture

A literature professor argues that in order to truly learn and use a language, you must also learn about the culture in which the language is used:

I have been asked several times at my university in Oman to do a brief “cultural introduction” to native speakers of English from North America and Europe who have come to improve their Arabic. I start by mentioning that there is a large difference between learning how to speak a language and learning how to navigate a culture. Then I segue into a discussion of how to dress appropriately. My watchwords are: no knees or elbows on display in public. Usually, at this point, several of the listeners look angry, disbelieving and/or bored, especially the men wearing tight, casual T-shirts and women in spaghetti-strap underwear shirts…

My attempts to make Westerners understand that they will need to make adjustments to fit into Omani society have not gone well. The most common response is, “But I am me. They will just have to accept me as I am.” The problem with the “I need to be me” response is that most Westerners do not realize that the consequences of “being me” are not the same as in the West. Omanis rarely use direct confrontation and will simply avoid a person who they feel is violating cultural norms.

The trick is to find a balance between integration and self-integrity while learning not just the language but also how to use it in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, most Gulf Arabs use an indirect communication style. They will rarely make a negative comment in public and never convey negative information that they do not want to share. For example, if there is a specific need to convey a warning or bad news, Omanis will often recruit an intermediary to deliver it. That is why I, a non-Omani, have been asked to give the “dress and act politely” lecture to Western students…

The other answer I get when Westerners refuse to, say, comb their hair, smile when greeting an Omani, or stand up to shake hands, is that “I don’t need to talk to people—I just need the language.” As a literature professor, I find this bewildering. Imagine a person who visited Britain having read all major political-theory textbooks but never having seen Monty Python, read Wordsworth, tasted tea, or been to a soccer game. Could that person cope with references to the “Beeb,” “Oxbridge,” “Beckham,” “twee,” or “pillock”? Words such as “slamming,” “in the dumps,” “bummed,” or “shambolic” don’t show up in vocabulary lists. So much of daily language is slang and metaphors that if a person is not speaking often with native speakers, she or he will never be able to carry on a normal conversation in that country. The last response I often get from Arabic language learners, is “I don’t plan to live in this country, so I don’t need to fit in here.” While it is true that the people who say this may never live in Oman, if they have careers that involve familiarity with the Arabic language, literature, politics, or business, they will probably meet some Omanis down the line. Imagine the icebreaker or dealmaker comments that a person will have at hand if she or he can greet an Omani with a local expression or a local joke.

There is much more to language than just the words, grammar, and inflections: language is a window into much larger cultural frameworks that are full of complicated symbols, values, and meanings.

It sounds like the language learners described above want to learn the language but don’t want the language to affect them too much. In other words, they want the skill of being able to speak another language (and can be perceived as being really marketable) but they want to keep the language at arm’s length. To some degree, this sounds like modern day ethnocentrism: “I want to learn your language to be able to talk to you but I don’t want to have to learn about what makes you tick because that wouldn’t be worth my time.” Of course, it could very well be worth one’s time for business or political or social purposes as the examples at the end of the last quoted paragraph above illustrate.

But, it sounds like a larger issue here is explaining to students why one should learn a new language: is it about checking off a box on a list of high school or college requirements? Is it about being able to put this on a resume? Is it about becoming “smarter” or more “cosmopolitan”? Is it about learning how to authentically interact with cultures different from your own? This last reason fits with calls for students to learn cross-cultural skills as they will go on to navigate a world where more frequently cultures interact and sometimes clash.

Could Abraham Lincoln secure Republican nomination today?

A sociologist argues that four traits held by Abraham Lincoln would make it difficult for him to become the Republican candidate for president today:

1. Lincoln ‘invented’ income tax…

2. He didn’t advertise his faith…

3. He wasn’t a looker…

4. He tended toward moderate positions and long, complex arguments.

I think #3 and #4 are more recent cultural trends than facts about the Republican party but #1 and #2 are interesting. Here is what they suggest and this would be helpful to remember during this upcoming presidential campaign: political parties do change their positions in response to their historical and cultural circumstances. Political parties may stand for some basic ideas and viewpoints but how these play out in response to changing cultural and historical conditions can vary. Therefore, Lincoln could push for an income tax because of a perceived time of need while current Republicans would like to limit income taxes. Additionally, strong outward demonstrations of conservative faith are relatively recent among Republicans (since the rise of evangelical voters in the late 1970s/early 1980s?) even as Americans generally prefer their presidential candidates to be persons of faith. Lincoln was elected by mostly northern voters as a Republican president (due mostly to northern voters, which goes against the image today of Republicans as southerners and midwesterners) roughly six years after the Republican Party was founded in response to issues of slavery. The Republican Party of today is far away from the particular issues of the late 1850s.

Of course, lots of people, including President Obama, like to claim Lincoln as their inspiration. As time passes, political parties and historical legacies change and are difficult to directly transpose into the present.

(This list of Lincoln’s traits was put together by a sociologist who studies Lincoln. See this earlier post about her thoughts about how Lincoln is regarded today.)

Cultural differences regarding the “accordion family”

A new sociology book highlights the phenomenon of the accordion family by contrasting different cultural approaches to the issue:

The global economic recession is a big driver of this phenomenon but hardly the only one. Cultural attitudes about “boomerang kids’’ vary widely. In Japan, which has been in recession for two decades, both parents and their adult children are filled with shame, and turn inward. For the Japanese, writes Newman, “personal character takes center stage,’’ not abstract explanations about diminishing economic opportunity. The Japanese “retain a strong normative sense of what is appropriate and what is deviant in the evolution from youth to adult,’’ Newman writes, and boomerang kids represent deviance (the Japanese often refer to boomerangs as “parasites’’), bringing social stigma on the entire family.

Italy is a completely different story. Italians, especially Italian men, have for centuries remained in the family home until they get married, which may find them there into their 30s or beyond. Newman interviews various 30-something Italian men living at home who quite simply don’t see a problem. The parents Newman interviews also don’t consider it dysfunctional, generally enjoying the company of their adult children. There is no social stigma attached, writes Newman, since “37 percent of [Italian] men age thirty have never lived away from home.’’

In the United States, we are somewhere in between Japanese-level stigma and Italian-style acceptance. “American attitudes are more conditional than other cultures,’’ explains Newman. Parents will support a boomerang adult child who has a plan, a way forward to improve life (e.g., through additional education, training, or an internship), but will object if their adult child is using the family home as an escape from the world.

These are some interesting contrasts across these countries. The American case in the middle here has me thinking about moral symbolic boundaries. The idea here would be that young adults living at home are fine as long as they can justify this move and reassure their parents that this is a step toward their eventual success and moving out. If they can’t make this case, this is seen as mooching. This fits with a larger American idea that we are willing to help people who also seem willing to help themselves.

I wonder if Newman also tracks these attitudes over time as perhaps these are relatively recent developments to adjust to a changing industrialized, globalized world. What aspects of a society or culture directly lead to these rules about who can live at home?

Another note from this review. Here is a paragraph that sums up the work:

Newman interviewed hundreds of boomerang adults and their parents for this accessible book, which effectively, even entertainingly, combines rigorous, statistics-driven social science with personal accounts to provide a vivid portrait of what’s happening globally.

Here is my translation of this paragraph: “It is an academic book that doesn’t read like one, meaning that you will be convinced by the data (hundreds of interviews!) but it has plenty of personal accounts to keep you entertained.” Perhaps that is too cynical. But this does offer some insights into how the general public tends to read social science research. Data, numbers in particular, can’t be too overwhelming. The book still has to be entertaining in the end, even if it is making an important point. Stories, whether they are personal accounts or good examples, are very helpful. None of these things are necessarily bad things to do yet one wonders whether the larger point of the work is muted by having to meet these requirements.

Cultural differences in pedestrian behavior

How you act as a pedestrian is influenced by your culture:

Much of the piece focuses on the research of Mehdi Moussaid, a crowd scientist at the Max Planck Institut for Human Development in Berlin. A great deal of Moussaid’s work looks at how pedestrians respond to sidewalk traffic. When a person is walking straight toward another, for instance, a decision occurs whether to go right or left to avoid a collision. The decision has nothing to do with driving customs; in Britain, walkers avoid to the right despite driving on the left. Still people end up choosing the proper side through the some sort of implicit social understanding, Moussaid concluded in a 2009 study…

Not every society reacts to pedestrian congestion the same way. A recent comparison of Germans and Indians revealed that although people from both cultures walk “in a similar manner” when alone, their behavior varies greatly in the presence of others. As one might expect given the densities of their respective countries, Indians need less personal space than Germans do, according to the researchers. As a result, when Germans encountered traffic during a walking experiment, they decreased speed more rapidly than Indians did. “Surprisingly the more unordered behaviour of the Indians is more effective than the ordered behaviour of the Germans,” the study concludes.

Moussaid has found that it’s a natural tendency to clump together on the sidewalk. In a 2010 study published in PLoS One, Moussaid and colleagues reported that 70 percent of walkers travel in groups — a custom that slows down pedestrian flow by about 17 percent. That’s because when pedestrian groups encounter space problems on the sidewalk they flex into V-shaped clusters that “do not have optimal ‘aerodynamic’ features” just so they can continue to talk, according to the researchers.

I have been known to get frustrated with pedestrians on sidewalks, particularly those who suddenly stop in clumps, forcing other people to go around them. In high school, I remember thinking that the school could paint/put traffic lines on the floor to help remind students that they shouldn’t walk four across.

But I am very fascinated here by the idea that people of different cultures act in different ways as pedestrians. This must be part of the socialization process: children learn how to walk with other people around even though no one ever explicitly says do this or that. What happens in notable tourist spots – which sidewalk behavior “wins out”? Do some people have consistently quicker paces compared to others? Do different cultures have different goals in the average walk, say getting to their destination versus enjoying the stroll?

Sociologist discusses the problems of the publishing industry

A sociologist discusses the major issues facing the publishing industry:

One year ago I interviewed John B. Thompson in the Rail about the state of the publishing industry. Thompson is a Cambridge University sociology professor, and his 2010 book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century was the result of more than five years of talking to editors, publishers, writers, and agents in the U.S. and the U.K. about the rapid changes in the traditional structures of book publishing. Given that these transformations have only continued, I thought it worth checking in with Thompson a year on. An updated second edition of Merchants of Culture will be published in March by Penguin (U.S.) and Polity (U.K.)…

[Thompson:] There are two major developments that are having a profound effect on the publishing industry today and that are creating a situation of deep uncertainty about the future. The first is the continuing economic crisis that has metamorphosed since then into a deeper and more pervasive recession and that has created a tough economic climate for publishers and booksellers. Retailers are often operating on tight margins and reduce their liabilities by ordering less and stocking more cautiously. Booksellers will return more books to publishers in order to reduce the amount of capital tied up in unsold stock. But even these measures may be insufficient as many retailers have been and will be forced out of business. And when retailers close, publishers lose shop windows to display their books and are faced with substantial write-offs for bad debts. This further depresses profit margins that were already under pressure from static or declining sales. It’s an economic snowball effect…

Well, it’s the intensification of a surge in e-book sales, especially in the U.S. While physical book sales are static or declining for most publishers, e-book sales are surging ahead—it is one of the only areas today where trade publishers are seeing serious growth. And the growth is startling: For most U.S. trade publishers e-books accounted for 1 percent or less of overall revenue in 2008. In 2011 the figure is likely to be between 18 and 22 percent (possibly even higher for some houses). And, interestingly, the biggest shift from print to digital has been in commercial fiction, especially genre fiction like romance, science fiction, mystery, and thriller. For fiction as a whole, e-books accounted for around 40 percent of overall sales for some large trade houses by mid-2011. But in some categories of genre fiction and for some authors the percentages were even higher—60 percent for some categories like romance, and even up to 80 percent for some authors. Narrative non-fiction has also seen a significant but smaller shift to digital. Anything more complicated—such as books that use color, like art books or children’s books—has so far lagged far behind. This change is already forcing the key players in publishing to reconsider their positions. Practices that have become settled conventions in the field are suddenly opened up to scrutiny, and players who have interacted amicably for years suddenly find themselves locking horns in new conflicts where the rules are no longer clear (as happened, for example, when Random House and Andrew Wylie clashed over Wylie’s decision to launch Odyssey Editions). To what extent the game of trade publishing will actually be transformed by this development remains, at this stage, unclear. Much will depend on how quickly and effectively the key players are able to adapt to the new information environment that is emerging around them. We are living through a revolution of sorts, and one of the few things you can say for certain about a revolution is that when you’re in the middle of one, you have no idea where and when it will end.

New technology means that a lot of people need to adapt, producers and readers included. Two additional areas I wish Thompson had commented on here:

1. It would be interesting to hear more about publishers and other actors are trying out some new ideas in order to make money off e-publishing. Amazon now has a publishing wing. Are the major publishers really shifting major resources and people to this or are they trying to hold the line? Do the recent commercials on TV and radio for books (examples from James Patterson here and here) represent these publishers continuing to hold to the old model? How much overlap is there between the e-book and traditional publishing world?

2. Thompson talks a bit about the future role of books. I’d be interested in hearing more about whether how the “long tail” phenomenon and growing e-book sales in certain genres will change larger cultural meanings and understandings. Not so much whether books will matter (I think they still will) but how they matter. Will popular e-books really only matter if a movie gets made or the author makes it to a popular daytime talk show? What books will become “classics”? Fifty years from now, which books will form a “canon” for this era?

Americans are coolest nationality according to poll

A new poll from finds that Americans are the coolest nationality:

Social networking site asked 30,000 people across 15 countries to name the coolest nationality and also found that the Spanish were considered the coolest Europeans, Brazilians the coolest Latin Americans and Belgians the globe’s least cool nationality.

“We hear a lot in the media about anti-Americanism,” says Lloyd Price, Badoo’s Director of Marketing. “But we sometimes forget how many people across the world consider Americans seriously cool.”…

“America,” says Price, “boasts the world’s coolest leader, Obama; the coolest rappers, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg; and the coolest man in technology, Steve Jobs of Apple, the man who even made geeks cool.”

Brazilians are ranked the second coolest nationality in the Badoo poll and the coolest Latin Americans, ahead of Mexicans and Argentinians. The Spanish, in third place, are the coolest Europeans.

At least one marketer is happy.

Two thoughts:

1. I would be very hesitant about accepting the results of this poll. If this is a web survey of social network site users, it is probably not very representative of people within these countries. Serious news organizations should report on the methodology and discuss the downsides (and advantages) of this approach when reporting this information. But, if it is an accurate take on social network site users, generally younger, plugged-in populations, perhaps this is exactly what American companies would want to hear.

2. America has military, political, and economic power but this hints at another, less-recognized dimension: cultural power and influence. For better or worse, American values, celebrities, products, and ideas have spread throughout the world. Even if our economic and political power goes into a relative decline, this cultural influence will live on for some time. (A bonus: a Badoo poll from earlier this summer also said Americans are the funniest nationality!)

3. Is being “cool” really something to aspire to as a nation? In an America dominated by celebrity, media, and consumption, it may be hard to know that this is not the primary objective.

(Some background on