Inter-Cultural Communication (aka Yes, Americans have culture!)

In trying to prepare to earn my certification in ASL, I am reading a book called Reading Between The Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. And loving it. Not so much for interpreting (I’m still in the set up for that). But for the discussion of culture.

The Deaf (capital D) are a minority with their own language and their own culture. Not all deaf people are Deaf, but there is a big sub-culture of American Deaf in our country. When you are an ASL interpreter you are doing more than going from one language to another; you are going from one culture to another. For example, much that is considered rude in mainstream American culture is typical in Deaf culture, and visa-versa. Interpreting involves interpreting the message, not just the words.

In order to discuss itercultural communication the author first has to discuss what culture is, and, more specifically, what (mainstream) American culture is, so interpreters can recognize that we are indeed coming from our own cultural viewpoint and assumptions, and try to check them at the door.

I want to photocopy the 3rd and 4th chapters of this book and distribute them to our entire population for reading. Especially since oh-so-many people don’t even realize that assumptions and statements they make about what is the right way are not the right way universally! That blindness is actually a halmark of American culture, itself!

We Americans are notorious for our unwillingness to acknowledge that our perceptions and behaviors are culturally influenced…Like most of the world’s inhabitants, we feel that the way we do things in our country is the right way to do them. Members of certain nationalities insist that their superior culture has passed down the proper ways of behaving (think of the French pride in their language, art, and cuisine). Many Americans, on the other hand, assume that any values they hold, they have individually selected. (Emphasis added, pg 65)

I am lucky enough to have spent time in high school out of the country, so I have always been aware to some extent of the existence of our culture. Plus, such things just fascinate me, and while being a wall-flower I have always informally studied them.

Even so, a lot of the things mentioned in this book about American culture were surprising to me, and I kept catching myself saying, “Yes! Exactly!” in my head.

I have talked a lot about my search for identity, now that braniac/engineer is no longer “who I am.” But why is it not who I am? I am still a very intelligent person. And I still have all my engineering training/certification, even if I’m not currently practicing.

Evidently, the reason it’s not who I am, and the reason it’s so hard, is our American culture.

The inevitable icebreaker when getting to know someone is “What do you do for a living?” And our first question after running into an old friend or acquaintance is often “What are you doing these days?” Our fixation on doing seems to pervade our every waking moment, because what we do provides a large part of our identity and helps define who we are. (Emphasis added, pg 69)

In American culture we really are defined by what we do, and that is why losing (really, leaving) my career is so hard for me. It stripped away my identity. And I am reminded of it every time I see someone new, or someone I haven’t seen in awhile, and they ask.

More on this thought:

Why are we not surprised to hear that a man who recently won many millions of dollars in his state lottery continues to work at his old job as a garbage collector? Because, as we know, work in the United States is more than simply a means to make money. “Work constitutes a practical ideal of activity and character that makes a person’s work morally inseparable from his or her life” (Bellah et al. 1985, 66)…It is common for Americans to take only one or two weeks of vacation a year, while many Europeans are guaranteed four to six weeks annually. (pg 70)

Our identity is formed by our work. It just is here. So when I have no career, or even job, I’m really proud can I feel proud of myself?

It is also American culture that makes it so hard for me to relax. When I’m happy, I feel guilty! How ridiculous is that? But I feel like if I’m happy, then I could be working harder and getting something done.

Because success in American life is measured by external accomplishments, we feel compelled to keep accomplishing more and more. While we may complain to those closest to us that we are always too busy, who among us would care to be the opposite–as defined by Webster’s–“idle, lazy, indolent”? Activities valued in other cultures but assessed by many of us as unproductive–mediating, standing around chatting, or sitting and relaxing and doing nothing–tend to make us nervous, as if they represent lost moments in which we could have been doing something useful. (Emphasis added, pg 69)

I struggle with this all.the.time. I cannot relax. I can’t. I feel so guilty. And that is much of why I still have a hard time in my current life. It is not that I am not working. I currently have 5 jobs. Five. I do all of them every week. But I also spend a lot of time sleeping (necessary). And a lot of time relaxing. (And, to the above point, none of my jobs make *that* much money). And so I feel like I am being lazy. Unproductive. A mooch. And when those thoughts keep circling my head, it is hard to feel happy with myself!

There is so much more discussed about American culture in this book. Things like how we are individualist instead of collectivist (“Compare the American saying “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” with a Japanese proverb that translates as “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”” (pg 42)), how we are convinced (by scientific studies, the written word, experts and logic rather than the stories of friends, historical context, or passion), how we organize our arguments and presentations (topic sentence/main point -> supporting arguments -> conclusion VS. background->information->main point only at the end). It is fascinating. Cultural studies just suck me in.

And it is helping me learn more about myself and why I am the way I am. I figure perspective can only be a good thing!

What unspoken cultural rules can you think of, in America or your own home?

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Invisible Illnesses, Life

One response to “Inter-Cultural Communication (aka Yes, Americans have culture!)

  1. Wow! What an eye-opener to realize just exactly how true those statements truly are.

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