Written by Peter Muijres – http://www.cultureclass.org
The last blog post was about the question how the availability of words in different languages facilitates people to express things. Right now, this emphasis will shift towards the question whether a language is able to express cultural uniqueness and what implications this would have for cross-cultural communication. ‘Intranslatable’ foreign words are often quoted and explained to show there is nothing special about the culture that generated them.
The Swedish word Mångata, is popular for example, meaning: the road-like reflection of the moon on the water. Next one; the Spanish sobremesa is the leisurely time spent at the table together after people have finished eating. Easy. Next, one: utepils means enjoying a beer outside in the sun. Next one in line is the Japanese Komorebi. English language might need several words to describe the effect of sunlight filtering through leaves where the Japanese need only one, but in the end we are talking about the same thing, aren’t we?
That remains the question. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that words that exist only in one language expresses an unique experience particular to that culture, because the meaning of words determines what we are capable of thinking of. At the other hand, the structuralist approach in linguistics, proposes that the words in a language are like the holes in a fishing net. Each language group throws the fishing net in its own way over a surface, which represents reality. Although the net and the holes will always fall differently, and different words cover different aspects and dimensions, the reality underneath stays basically the same. The methaphor is used to illustrate that people all have a similar experience of reality, although the words they use to catch this reality may differ.
What does this mean to cross-cultural communication? Structuralists might argue: ‘communication between cultures is possible because people understand the words they use in the same way‘. Cultural differences are superficial and no experience is exclusive to people in one culture, the structuralist view holds. At the other hand, cultural relativists, like Sapir and Whorf, might argue that ‘communication between cultures goes wrong all the time, because people understanding the words they use in different ways’. The latter suggests that people from different cultures make sense of reality differently and should therefore be understood in their own terms.
An abilty to explain something (‘erklaeren’) and having an interpretative understanding (‘verstehen’) are two different things, Max Weber once explained. By now, you might have a notion of what utepils is. However you still have no idea what it means to live through a long, dark Scandinavian winter and the mindset, social setting and joyful expectations of spring and summer that the Norwegians tend to associate with ‘enjoying a beer in the sun’. Understanding the meaning of a word means something different than understanding that meaning in its cultural context. Let’s sink our teeth into two examples.
The German word ‘Fingerspitzengefuehl’ literally translates as ‘fingertips feeling’. The concept describes a certain strategic awareness, tact and intuition that allows for a quick responding to situational changes. The description might have drafted a picture by now, but it probably won’t include the almost geek-like joy and satisfaction that fingertips feelers may derive from observing how all particles in an incomprehensible scheme ingeniously work together to produce the tangible, hoped for result. A commitment to understand what needs to be done, why and in what way fosters a carefully cultivated mindset of punctuality, discipline and critical curiousity on a level where skills turn into art. Famous for their attention to detail, planning and punctuality, a missing cultural context would fail to make understandable why Germans were among the first to come up with a word for ‘Fingerspitzengefuehl’.
The opposite of planning is delicately caught by a word the Portuguese came up with: desenrascanço. Literally meaning “disentanglement”, desenrascanço refers to improvised, ad hoc solutions that prevent the problem from getting completely out of control and without a solution. So, that be a serious reason for concern?
Although you may have an idea of the translation of desenrascanço, developing cultural sensitivity requires a context. Desenrascanço is normally used to express an ability to solve a problem without having the knowledge or the adequate tools to do so, by use of imaginative resources or by applying knowledge to new situations. Portuguese people are said to strongly believe it to be one of their most valued virtues and a living part of their culture. There is a distinct pride and pleasure involved in the resourcefulness associated with the ability to handle unexpected situations and is not to be confused with an endorsement of amateurism, irresponsibility and lack of planning.
This brings us back to the original question: is a language able to express cultural uniqueness and what implications would that have for cross-cultural communication? The purpose of raising questions such as these is not to end up with a final answer that should be copied and applied across situations indifferently.
One post on cultureclassblog mentioned that picking up easily on new languages indicates cultural intelligence, because it shows an ability to recognize and apply subtle culture specific meanings in communication. What did the American expat, who refused to speak anything but English, communicate by stating : “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s surely good enough for me!”? That speaking in the same language is no guarantee for being on the same page.
More important than the content of words is your view of self, others, your relation to others and the world that you communicate. Relationships depend on communication and over 80% of it happens non-verbally. Attending to mind whether another person really understands and feels understood may not seem necessary at times, but may contribute something else within a context where borders are crossed and opportunities created together.
Cultureclass.org provides training in cross-cultural personal and communication skills.
By Peter Muijres – Culture Class
Getting sloppy with your daily prayers? Do sexy bikini girls make you sigh and your eyes wander off? Do feelings of greed, envy, anger or other sinful thoughts clutter your mind? The month of Ramadan offers Muslims a tailored opportunity to get their spiritual, moral, social and psychological ducks in a row again. However, many people who are not Islamic only have a faint idea what it involves and why Muslims do it.
Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, because they have to and/or choose or want to. Opting out of fasting without having a good reason means inviting severe critique and social rejection and is therefor hardly an option. At the other hand, Muslims are self-motivated to fast. Fasting is a religious obligation because one of the five pillars in Islam (#4) commands that all adult Muslims have to fast during the month of Ramadan. The other four pillars are: #1: Accept God as the only god and Muhammad as his messenger (Shahadah). #2) Pray at least five times a day (Tarawih). #3) Spend 2,5 % or more of your savings to the poor and needy (Zakat). #5) Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life (Hajj).
Ramadan is the 9th month of the Arabic calendar during which the fasting takes place between sunrise (suhoor) and sunset (iftar). The Ramadan month is holy, because the first revelation of the Qur’an was sent down by God to Muhammed during Ramadan. During the holy month, the ‘thawab‘ for being good or bad are multiplied. ‘Thawab’, entails a sort of religious credits associated with being virtuous as a Muslim. The sight of the crescent moon marks the start of the Ramadan and the break-of-fasting party (Eid-al-fitr) 30 days later marks the end. This year, in 2014, Ramadan starts today on the 28th of June and ends on the 27th of July.
Muslims who are exempted from fasting include children, and adults who are travelling, menstruating, breast-feeding, busy with a Jihad (holy war), ill or pregnant. Who is fasting and who is not has always been an inspiring source of conversation. Modern days have complicated the cut-off line, because it is harder to determine who is travelling, for example. Are first generation Muslims who are temporarily living abroad travelling? Also, are people with mental disorders ill and thus exempted, so they can continue taking their prescribed medication? Even if they are, the ‘spiritual medicine’ and healing effect that the sense of ‘social belonging’ has to offer, motivates many to participate nevertheless. When circumstances force a person to miss one or more days of fasting, these can usually be compensated with fasting extra days after the Ramadan month.
Fasting is associated with religious, cultural, social and psychological benefits:
– Religious benefits: Ramadan offers a great window of opportunity to please God, repent your sins and save your soul because the thawab are multiplied during the holy month. It is a time of reflecting on your belief and reconnect with God, repent your sins. The five prayers a day and recitation of the Qur’an help you remind how you ought to behave.
– Benefits for cultural identity: During Ramadan, all Muslims are doing and focusing on the same thing. That has a strong bonding effect within the ‘umma’, the transnational Muslim community, and strengthens to the cultural identity of Muslims.
– Social benefits: During Ramadan, Muslims try to be nice to each other, not to get upset and avoid feelings like envy, greed, lust, anger and such. They try to keep their coolness and avoid swearing and fighting. This creates a great opportunity to restore social ties, get in touch with people you haven’t seen for a while, settle old conflicts or make new arrangements. Family and friends visit each other after sunset and organise buffet style dinner parties with delicious traditional dishes and drinks in abundance. The charity resulting from observance of the third pillar helps out the poor and needy.
– Psychological benefits: To fast for 30 days during the daytime requires an effort and shows that you are capable of self-restraint and self-discipline. Abstinence, poetically worded ‘dying before you die’ (Rumi), will help you:
(a) regain appreciation for the luxuries you have,
(b) free yourself from the value and dependency you may have attached to wordly goods, and
(c) prepare you to sacrifice yourself and your possesions for a higher goal when necessary.
So, although fasting is in effect a religious and social obligation, in many Islamic countries enforced by rules and laws and an facilitated by an adaptation of daily life, many Muslims consider it a choice to fast. Pickthall illustrates that element of choice in a speech in 1920. He points out that God does not require people to fast, because God does not want or need anything from us creatures. Instead, Muslims themselves decide to fast because in the end the self-disciplinary effort of pleasing God and all social side effects include are to their own benefit. The fasting before and the feasting after sunset brings Muslims closer together and to God, and works as a source of self-respect, social restoration and the acknowledgement of others.
Culture Class is a group of trainers, therapists and performers who train and coach people to realise their potential beyond personal and cultural limits. http://www.cultureclass.org