Culture: The Same In A Different Way

I read recently (in The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb) about a study done by Science about national identity. The basic finding of the project, which surveyed members of 49 cultures, was that there is basically no correlation between nationality and character. Or, in other words, your bad temper has nothing to do with your being Irish.

As a culturally-displaced person, this was not easy for me to swallow. It doesn’t take long for someone to live in China before they start to develop a distinct mental image of the average Chinese person. Where this image captures their clothes, their music, their hairstyles, their food, their displays of affection, etc., it is probably largely accurate. But these sketches have a tendency to end up talking about character traits.

For instance, if I had a nickel for every time I had someone explain to me how important ‘face’ was to Chinese people, I could take my wife to McDonald’s (how much can you really do with a bunch of nickels?). This is a bizarre ‘distinction’ – can you imagine a culture where saving face was unimportant? For every story that I have about a Chinese person acting in a certain way to ‘save face,’ someone living in a western nation could supply an equally vivid example – though they may not think to call it ‘saving face.’ A similar factoid that many Chinese friends have taught me: family is very important to Chinese people. Who could penetrate such alien psychology?

Which brings us to crazy ideas about language and character. I have a book about China that explains a meaningful ‘cultural point’:  “the Chinese have a word for ‘yes,’ but not for ‘no.’ Their words for ‘no’ mean ‘not yes.'” Not only is this factually incorrect (the opposite is far closer), but it is meaningless – both verbally and culturally! Does the manner in which a people’s language expresses ‘no’ have anything to do with that people’s inclination (or ability!) to deny or negate a given statement? Of course not. This isn’t a cultural point at all – it is linguistic trivia. One would think people in China are constantly agreeing in Dufflepud-fashion. The same book goes on to explain how the Chinese are a ‘gentle, kind, and generous people.’ No more (or less) than anyone else, I’m afraid.

So is there no need for cultural study and adaptation? There definitely is, but it’s important that we keep it in the appropriate arena. I’m nowhere close to being an expert in this area, but as I understand it, culture has a lot to do with symbols and expression. What’s going on inside of our hearts is very similar, but it can be expressed very differently. Family is important to Chinese and American people alike, but whereas Chinese children may be expected to take care of their elderly parents (because they value family), American parents may feel a need to attain a financial independence that will not burden their children in their old age (because they value family).

It would seem to me (though I could certainly be incorrect) that valuable cultural studies would focus far more on the expressions than the ‘underlying traits’ (What do we think we’ll find, anyway?). Instead of looking for a magical national character that explains people’s behavior, perhaps we should just be trying to learn all we can about the symbols – what do I know about Chinese songs, history, novels, cartoons, sports, clothing, and holidays? That’s far more distinct cultural information than some notion about a desire to save face. I can better understand their heart by looking at my own (and best by looking at their Creator’s heart).

This whole thing got me thinking about those moments of hair-plucking frustration that my wife and I have experienced in the past few years that are commonly referred to as ‘culture shock.’ What was the problem in most cases? In my case, it’s been mostly problems with communication – I can’t tell someone what I need to tell them, or I can’t understand what they need to tell me. This doesn’t prove that language is culture in the sense of the ‘not-yes’ fallacy above; rather, it shows that language is culture in the sense that most real cultural information (the symbols) is unattainable or unintelligible without the language. The rest (particularly for my wife) were times when we had to act in ways that made us uncomfortable (karaoke parties, hospital visits, silkworm appetizers, etc.). Different expressions (of the desires for diversion, health, and pleasure) are hard to get used to. But that’s cultural adaptation – comfort with the symbols, mainly by prolonged exposure.

Application: Do you, like me, find yourself groundlessly believing in stereotypes masquerading as national character traits? What steps are you taking to learn the real cultural info? Specifically, what are you doing to better learn the people’s language and actions? We all get culture shock, but could there be a better treatment for it than a better grasp of the language and a prolonged exposure to their expressions? Come to think of it, the masters of the language that I know don’t seem to suffer from overwhelming episodes of culture-shock.

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2 Comments on “Culture: The Same In A Different Way”

  1. Don Heinz March 27, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    In Chile it took me a while to catch on to the fact that when people did not know how to direct me to a place I was looking for, they actually gave me false directions because they didn’t want to tell me that they couldn’t help me. Now I know to ask for more details, and it helps to already know the lay of the land a bit. 🙂


  1. Tweets that mention Culture: The Same In A Different Way « The Gospel in China -- - January 20, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Tolson, Chris Harper. Chris Harper said: Excellent thoughts from the mission field in China: 'Culture: The Same In A Different Way' – […]

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