Sample “Think Piece 2” – Essay Option
“Language: An Essential For Survival”
Shared with written permission. Note this assignment did require a 5+ Essay, check your own assignment’s criteria.
“We seldom pause to appreciate the significance and power of language for human existence and survival” a quote from Communication Between Cultures that reminds us to recognize the importance of language in our everyday lives (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel 265) I never really considered how important language was until I met WWW. In 2011, I met WWW, a boy from Brazil who wanted a taste of American life. Unfortunately, he was placed in the small town of YYYY. Ever since I met WWW, I became fascinated with Brazilian culture. I always wanted to know what his culture was like. I wanted to know why he would phrase sentences the way he did or where his mannerisms came from; I wanted to know Brazil. Brazil is a country of many cultures, where the verbal and nonverbal customs may vary from city to city. In this paper, I will talk about what I learned from researching Brazilian culture, how I explored the culture, and lastly, what I took away from it and how it affected my conversations with WWW.
When I first met WWW, I was curious. He was taller than me, with black, curly hair that hung just above his eyes. His accent, new to me. But most of all, I was impressed by his smile. His smile was warm and kind. I was eager to find out what was behind that smile. To be honest, it was not until this assignment that I had even spoken to WWW since he visited America –almost five years ago. When I was given this assignment, I realized that I wanted to know more about the culture in Brazil, because it is a melting pot of many cultures, so I went to WWW. According to www.brazil.org.za, Europeans brought Africans into Brazil because of the slave trade and that resulted in the wide variety of cultures and customs merging into one country (BRAZIL). African civilizations as well as European civilizations are so diverse that seeing such a mix of cultures all in one country has piqued my interest. In general, I wanted to learn about important holidays, Brazilian fashion, and common foods to eat. Those are the basic things pretty much anyone researching a country would like to know. Additionally, I wanted to know more about the verbal culture, both nonverbal and verbal. I like to stress the importance of learning the language of every culture. I not only wanted to learn about the physical language, but the structure of the language as well, and how that language reflected the culture it evolved out of. As stated in the book, Communications Across Cultures, “ . . . language is a means of preserving culture . . .” (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, 266.) How someone speaks to you can reflect their social status, the environment of the conversation, the topic, and even their morals and values.
To be honest, I did not know much about Brazil before this assignment. I knew it was a country that had an enormous celebration every year with lights and foods called Carnival. Researching Brazil, however, taught me many things. Most importantly, it made me look back at my conversations with WWW and finally understand his mannerisms. Culturally, Brazilians are thought to be warm and passionate. Personal space is not something familiar to Brazilian culture, and as part of their culture, Brazilian people welcome everyone. They also tend to communicate their feelings outwardly and sometimes ask very blunt questions. Unlike Europeans who tend to avoid things that may cause tension because they are overly concerned about offending others. I still wanted to know more about nonverbal communication in Brazil: what makes Brazilian culture known to be so warm and passionate? What types of topics are important to members of the diverse Brazilian culture?
To answer my questions, I went to the internet to get ‘facts’ and then checked them with my friend WWW. We spent a lot of our interactions using various social media. We Skyped, video Snapchat-ted, and spoke on Facebook. WWW’s English had gotten a little rusty since he had been to Minnesota because in Brazil they mostly speak Portuguese. But nonetheless, we each figured out what the other was trying to say.
Brazilian nonverbal culture has a lot of proxemic and hepatic rituals. Proxemic rituals focus on the distance and use of space between people. Hepatic practices focus on the acts of touching another person. As I mentioned before, Brazilians tend to have warm and unreserved personalities when it comes to meeting others. According to www.intercultures.ca, “It is acceptable to touch someone when speaking to them, no matter the gender or the relationship. A touch on the arm or a pat on the back is common in normal conversation” (Cultural, no page). This can cause quite a culture shock in comparison to American culture. For example, back when WWW came to my high school, I had a huge crush on him! When I found out he had a girlfriend back in Brazil, I was bummed. Later on, I saw him at a basketball game and I struck up a conversation. While talking, WWW touched my arm and gave it a small squeeze. I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. WWW had touched my arm and he gave it a squeeze. Many thoughts were running through my head like, ‘He has a girlfriend. Does he like me? Do I call him a jerk and walk away? Did he make a move? Do I make a move?’. In American culture, a mere touch on the arm can represent flirtation. My culture conditioned me to believe WWW was flirting with me.
As stated in the article by Peter A. Andersen, The Bases of Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication, “Italians, Greeks, Hispanics, and other people with Mediterranean origins touch more and are more comfortable with touch than the English, French, Dutch, U.S. Americans, and other cultures that originated in Northern Europe” (Andersen 97). The use of hepatics in American culture is often less or reserved for certain situations or people. Since Brazilian culture is heavily rooted in Portuguese traditions, the culture uses hepatics in its everyday language, which is similar to the ways in which Mediterranean cultures use language.
As for the proxemics aspect, I remember when WWW would stand abnormally close to me when we would talk. Sometimes he would stand so close that he would tell me that I smelled beautiful. As a seventeen-year-old girl, I would swoon at the comment, even though in the back of my mind I would really question his mental sanity. Andersen states, “ . . .cultures differ substantially in their use of personal space, their regard for territory, and the meanings they assign to proxemics behavior” (Andersen, 296.). Andersen later discusses that Mediterranean cultures tend to have closer proximity to one another during interactions, whereas Northern European and Northeast Asian countries tend to create a conservative distance between themselves and others. Most of the time that remains true, unless circumstances don’t allow for the space, such as a crowded elevator. When WWW stood so close to me, I thought it was weird, even though I liked him. Even in intimate relationships in America, couples still give their significant other further distance than what WWW was giving me and we were just friends. WWW may have seen the close distance as him expressing that he was listening to what I was saying or because that was a comfortable distance. This is another example of the difference between the proxemic language of America and that of Brazil.
I finally realized WWW’s nonverbal customs were not “weird,” they were just different than mine. He did not intend to flirt with me by touching my arm or standing close to me. WWW was just trying to show me that he was engaged in our conversation. After researching all of this, I noticed how much Americans put up these barriers in nonverbal communication. I understand how frustrating it might be for people of other cultures to communicate normally with Americans while trying to convey the correct meaning. Also, as a culture, it may seem as if Americans are high-maintenance, cold, and rude people, simply because of our conservative customs. This was something I hadn’t considered before learning more about cultures outside my own.
While talking with WWW through Skype and Facebook, there were many times both of us were ‘lost in translation.’ I used a fair amount of slang when talking to him. Slang is best described as the vernacular language that is spoken by the people of a particular place or region. By using slang, I not only confused him, but sometimes he took the denotative meaning route and literally translated everything I said word for word– with no outside meaning at all. A great example was a few weeks ago WWW wanted to Skype. I promised him I would Skype that night at seven. Seven rolled around and I was busy with homework that I totally forgot. WWW did not say anything about it to me until the next day. He was very offended by my silence. He told me he felt as if he was not important enough to have a simple Skype conversation with. I was too busy to talk to an old friend type of thing. Starting to get frustrated, I said, “WWW, if you wanted to Skype that bad, you should have been upfront and told me that”. Being ‘upfront’ with someone is a slang term that means to be direct and tell the other person what you want from him or her. WWW took the denotative meaning of ‘upfront’ and said, “I cannot be up and in front of you because you live in America and I live in Brazil”. He thought I literally meant he had to be in front of me to tell me to Skype him.
According to Mary Fong who wrote the article, The Nexus of Language, Communication, and Culture, “Both written and oral languages are shaped by culture and in turn, these languages shape culture” (Fong 272). The fact that I knew what ‘upfront’ meant is because I learned it from my peers, the peers that belong to the same culture that I reside in. The culture that each of us lives in not only has an entirely different language, but the words that we can translate might have different connotative meanings too. The fact is, language is always changing. Since it is always changing, keeping up with slang might be tiresome. I don’t expect WWW to know American slang, just like he doesn’t expect me to know Brazilian slang. However, when speaking to someone of another culture, it may be polite to talk clearly and use limited slang. Not only is it then easier to understand each other, but it’s easier to translate, as well. English is extremely difficult to master, and the more straightforward you are, the easier it is to communicate through verbal language. Nonverbal language has hiccups in translation like this as well, but it is more difficult to give an example of being ‘lost in translation’ through nonverbal cues, because it takes describing the physical stance and actions of two different cultures.
Brazilians have more intimate nonverbal communication than Americans do. Now knowing this, I will break my American boundaries and try to act on their customs if I’m ever around WWW or another Brazilian again. I will also try to apply open mindedness about how people from different cultures act, knowing that just because my culture emphasizes one action, does not mean another emphasizes the same action. I think that when traveling to another country, nonverbal communication should be something you do research on before the trip. I’m pretty sure if I went to Brazil and stood farther away and did not touch others, I would probably be considered rude and people would avoid me. I think that by breaking the traditional distance barrier, Mediterranean-originated people may feel more included in our conservative culture. As for the verbal aspect, taking the time to realize that not everyone knows your cultural slang when you use certain phrases is a great place to start. You should avoid using slang with people you aren’t familiar with and if you do use it, take the time to explain it to another person. Even today, I am not familiar with slang from the forties and fifties. I might need to have someone explain the terms to me. If you want to make people feel comfortable, try asking them what kinds of slang words they use and try to incorporate them into your sentences. Not only will they appreciate that you took the time to ask, but also that you use what you learned when you talk to a person from another culture.
All in all, after learning some basic things about Brazilian culture, I have noticed many of my customs and how they might come off to others. By talking with WWW, I explored Brazilian culture both in their verbal and nonverbal languages. WWW also showed me more insight into the research on Brazilian culture and how it applied to our conversations. I really had no idea how much sense his mannerisms made until I looked back on our conversations. It is strange how by reflecting on previous conversations, I ended up reflecting on the importance of language to humanity. Language is what brings us all together, but it can set us apart. It just depends on how willing you are to listen and to learn.
“BRAZIL.” Brazil Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.
Cultural Information. Foreign Affairs and International Trade: Canada, 15 Oct. 2009. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.
Samovar, Larry A., Richard E. Porter, and Edwin R. McDaniel. Intercultural Communication: A Reader. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. N. page. Print.