Cultural Differences – US American vs Russian (and others)

One of the objectives in coming to Italy was to understand the differences between our national cultures. Despite that being incredibly successful and far from being that simple, I have stumbled on other cultural differences that are interesting and, at times, concerning to me. Allow me to explain . . .

As many of you have read about me, I study the mechanics of language and cultural differences. Living in Italy has opened up an “research” area to observe language in use as well as culture in its own habitat. Just as Italy is very complicated, so are other cultures. Edward T. Hall once said, 

“Culture hides more than it reveals and strangely enough, what it hides it hides most effectively from its own participants.”

I could go on and on with his quotes, but the point is we don’t actually think about what we do and we have no idea WHY we do it. Although studying other cultures is super interesting, the outcome is awareness of our own culture (like learning a language – you learn your own language’s grammar quicker by studying another language).

Example – years ago I was chatting with a co-worker from another country. He was a manager and he was telling me that US Americans tend to use the superlative (best, greatest, most awesome) for everything. He explained that he had recently given a performance review with one of his employees and when he told her she was doing a “good” job, she was very disappointed. She thought she was doing a GREAT job. We, as US American English speakers, have lost touch with what “good,” “fun,” “enjoyable,” “not-so-good” mean; we immediately go to the superlative (generally). I have tried not to use the superlative in my communications and people think I’m pissed off at them. It’s hilarious! 

So, let’s talk about the Russian (as mentioned in the title of this post). I have a friend who is Russian. We hang out with other expats in a group called InterNations (check it out! It’s awesome! www.InterNations.org). I don’t remember the comment the other person made, but she put him in his place by saying, “if it weren’t for us [Russians], you all would be part of Germany.” I was taken aback. That is what US Americans say all the time when taking about WWII. I am well aware that our education is VERY biased if not downright wrong, but to hear the same history being repeated by a Russian was fascinating. Are they taught that too? What else do they believe about that period? What actually DID happen? 

Flash forward to another meet-up and we were talking about pregnancy as she is now expecting her first child. Keep in mind, women have been doing this for millennia and we can now say with some certainty what is a typical pregnancy and what the average woman will experience. Emphasis on “typical” and “average.” There are always outliers. But she has been telling me tests they have done for situations that I have never heard of. We then started talking about vasectomies and I was thinking “Holy shit! I think our science is different too!” 

Another day we were talking about how she is feeling, and I asked her if she meditates to reduce stress and to physically relax. She stopped and asked me if I was serious. “Yes, I try to meditate every day.” She said we Americans are crazy. We’re just as nutty as in movies. I laughed, slightly embarrassed by the idea that they see us as laughable. 

But that is the point of this post. Differences exist and we should embrace them. I am soooo curious about what people learn in their own countries and what they believe as a result. I just want to know more. What it makes me do is to reflect on what I believe to be true and it helps me see how our culture behaves. I can then choose to say,” Yep, that is exactly me.” Or, I can choose to change my ways.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take away this: There are two (or more) sides to nearly everything we believe to be true. Apparently even with Math and Science. Instead of arguing with someone’s “opinion” try asking them questions (and not the kind that is intended to prove you right). Be curious. Sometimes these other ideas actually make our world make sense.

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