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Saturday, Feb. 25, 2009
The character of a culture resides in its language
By BOYÉ LAFAYETTE DE MENTE
Defining people by their ethnicity while virtually ignoring their cultural background has always been both dumb and dangerous, but there is a growing appreciation among business leaders, diplomats and politicians of the importance of understanding other cultures.
Comprehending another culture, however, usually requires long periods of living in that community and personally experiencing the attitudes and behavior found there — often preceded or accompanied by extensive anthropological or sociological research.
But there is an easier and faster way to get into and understand the mindset of a people. While working in Asia as a trade journalist in the 1950s and '60s, I observed that the attitudes and behavior of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans could be explained using a relatively small number of keywords found in their languages — words that revealed why they thought and acted the way they did.
I first became aware of the role such keywords played in the psyche and behavior of the Japanese when I tried to explain their way of thinking and doing things to the American importers who began flocking to Japan in the early '50s.
I made use of this keyword approach in my first book, "Japanese Etiquette & Ethics in Business," published in 1959, and in subsequent books, introducing to the international business community such terms as wa (和, harmony), nemawashi (根回し, behind the scenes consensus-building), tatemae (建て前, a facade or front in conversations and negotiations), honne (本音, the real intentions, the real meaning of the speaker), kaizen (改善, continuous improvement), shibui (渋い, refined, elegant, restrained style), wabi (侘び, wistful beauty) and sabi (寂び, rustic beauty).
Examples in Chinese and Korean include the Chinese term guanxi (pronounced gwahn-she), which is usually translated into English as "connections" but is more clearly expressed as "cooperative relationships," or what I refer to as "the Chinese life-line"; and the Korean term anshim (ahn-sheem), "peace of mind," or "being at perfect ease," referring to the Korean ideal for all relationships. The more I studied the Japanese, Korean and Chinese ways of thinking and doing things, the more obvious it seemed to me that these keywords preserve and transmit concepts that are pivotal in shaping the thinking of the people who use them — and provide a shortcut to understanding the speakers.
Further experiences in Mexico — where the term palancas (pah- lahn-cahs), meaning "leverage," is essential in achieving goals — and other countries confirmed for me that the beliefs and behavior of people in all societies, especially older ones, are primarily programmed by their native language.
This led me in the '80s and '90s to write a series of "cultural code word" books on China, Japan, Korea and Mexico in which I identified and defined — in all of their cultural nuances — several hundred keywords in the languages concerned.
That fact that you must be intimately familiar with key terms in the native language of a people in order to fully understand their thinking and behavior is not yet common-enough knowledge, even among scholars and educators, much less diplomats, politicians and the international business community. This failure to perceive and understand the role that words in a language play in human behavior is a key reason the world is continuously roiled by misunderstandings, friction and violence: We cannot communicate fully and effectively across the cultural barriers built into languages.
Languages are, in fact, repositories as well as transmitters of cultures. They contain the essence, the tone, the flavor and the spirit of a culture, and they serve as a doorway to understanding it. It is fairly simple to interpret or translate technical subjects from one language into another, but translating cultural attitudes and values into another language ranges from difficult to impossible. They seldom, if ever, include all of the cultural nuances that are bound up in those words and which comprise the essence of the original language.
Among the people of developed nations, those in the United States are, I believe, the least sensitive to the cultural differences that separate people and therefore almost always stumble when interacting with other cultures. This problem will continue until studying other cultures and the values that can be identified through their languages becomes fundamental to the education that people receive in their youth.
Boyé Lafayette De Mente has written more than 50 books about business, culture and language. See www.boyedemente.com