Culture’s Flow (#4 in a series)

writeshareIn the first three posts ( (#1 in the series, #2 in the series, #3 in the series), I have been hinting at a metaphor for culture that I will explicitly discuss in this post. Let me introduce it with a poem, Culture’s Flow.


Old conversations and new
Sometimes I ask my trainees or students to close their eyes and imagine culture as this river. Its source, high on a mountaintop, starts with the melting ice that flows from the glacial peaks where the old wisdom of our people and our history has been stored from time beyond memory. In our primeval stream of culture are stories that have been handed down for generations—they carve the deep river bed for the stream of the discourse that flows within us.

Fresh waters of discourse, tributaries join our river’s flow from other places, from others’ mountaintops, from forest-hidden springs and history-pooled rainstorms of experience. Our stream collects, incorporates, assimilates endless sources of discourse. We absorb conversations from face-to-face contact with each other, hear rumors from elsewhere. Especially today, we are inundated by electronic streams of discourse from all over the globe, pouring through virtual media, sometimes going viral. If you’re in social networks, you may get more stories, ideas, reflections, comments than you know what to do with. They overflow your banks. Little by little, and large by large, sometimes tiny imperceptible memes, sometimes by seeping flood, sometimes by tempest and tsunami, they join this river, widen and deepen it and increase its flow. There are stagnant backwaters and rich deltas.

The mix
Discourses intersect. Some join the deeper currents; others cause raging rapids and whirlpools of power and contradiction. We belong and contribute to all kinds of discourses. Everything from our nation to our favorite football team has its story, a discourse about who we are and what we are about. These discourses meet in us to create our culture, shape what we call our person and personality. They produce the endless conversation that we have with ourselves, as we noted last time. We group ourselves with others by the importance, the gravity, and the glue of what we see as our common discourse. The river is meant to nourish the land it cuts through.

When we talk about waters of ancestral glaciers for centuries, we could call them our “primitive conversations,” origins lost in time, those that we share. Then there are “prevailing conversations,” discourse in the air, on the airwaves in cyberspace, conversations that we hear and think about or just absorb, that reflect the cultural values of the specific contexts that we find ourselves in. Prevailing conversations may indeed seem different from the original ones, but then again, not always. Culture is enduring. Its discourses don’t go away, but they flow deeply and they intimately blend with the discourses of the current moment, carrying them along in the river’s course.

Forever old, forever new (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!)
When I was growing up, if you needed to take care of yourself, you went to the doctor and did what the doctor told you. A generation or so later, many of us got into natural foods, natural healing and healers. It looked like a cultural revolution. What didn’t change, but actually got stronger, was the discourse that ran, “I can control my health if I do all the right things.” It is a discourse related to, “I can control my life.” “I can control my career,” etc.”

I remember a European colleague once saying to me, “You Americans think if you do all the right stuff, you can live forever.” He didn’t share my strong US discourse of control, the belief that we are in charge, or think we should be. When I was younger, medical doctors were gods (maybe they still are in some places). Now there are prevailing discourses that tell us that we can diagnose our own problems, for example, through websites like WebMD. What happens when we discuss the problems with only relying on prevailing discourse in spite of older wisdom? While Internet information may help us ask good questions, self-diagnoses based on Internet searches can also go horribly wrong.

That is just one example of how, hearing the prevailing discourse, we may think it’s far afield from primitive wisdom. Yet looking carefully, we may find that it’s just a fresh way of expressing a more ancient discourse flowing from the river’s deep streams. Sometimes there are landslides and earthquakes, events so deep and moving that they may seem to dam up the river and alter its direction, but the power of water…

Seeing culture as a river with both ancient sources fresh inflows helps us see how streams of culture combine to create our reality. We are in a cultural flow. The metaphor allows us to visualize and acknowledge the strong streams and the mix, to accept and speak about both the endurance and the flexibility, the fluidity of culture.

fullnotemptyFull, not empty
More importantly, this metaphor helps us imagine culture as inner fullness of stories and their discourse, replete with possibilities, not emptiness or alienation from our sources. Culture is forever flexible, forever moving, something that belongs to us, something that can irrigate our land and shape our landscape. Flow makes it invalid, impossible for me to stereotype or to label others or myself in fixed, inflexible ways, because we’re all part of the Flow.

Flow is everywhere, everything is flowing. We can see it, we can describe it, we hear its discourse and build our worlds with it. Yet, as the sixth century philosopher, Simplicius of Cicilia said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Why? The river has flowed on and you have changed as well. The challenge of viewing culture as a flowing river is that it requires us to accept that we have both inherited and that we continue to create, shape, dismantle, and destroy through the discourses that flow within us.

What can we do with this metaphor?
We can learn about ourselves and about the groups we are part of, identifying, reflecting on and taking ownership of our cultural streams. We can seek out our deepest discourse, the primitive undertows, as well as listen our prevailing self-talk and the chatter around us. We can ask what conversations are “primitive” and which are “prevailing.” What words and tones of our mother’s voice do we still hear, for example? For a humorous but confirming evidence of mother’s voice, listen to Anita Renfroe’s “The Mom Song.”

We can list or map our discourse and the courses it takes us on. I have often recommended using a personal journal for this—some years back I created a handbook on personal writing that is downloadable. When you wish to share, or explore a group’s cultural discourse, a personal or shared blog or a Facebook or LinkedIn group could focus on identifying the streams of identity we take part in. Colleagues and I developed a tool called the Cultural Detective: Self Discovery that provides some basic exercises for identifying our own or our organization’s core values, looking at how our discourse was and is being shaped by people and forces in our story. Mind mapping can be a resource for this. I use MindManager but there are quite a few software tools for this. Take a walk along your river and see what you can see…

This post originally appeared in the blog of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research and is provided with the assistance of its editor Anastacia Kurylo.

Our Culture on the Firing Line

UN gun sculptureWe are very pleased to be able to share with you another guest post by the insightful and talented Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus, University of California Berkeley’s International House. Sadly, the topic is again, or still, timely. We published his first post on this subject, “Language Under the Gun,” in February of 2011. Let us work to change the culture of anger and violence by this time next year!

As introduction to the piece, allow me to share with you Joe’s message, urging me to publish his post sooner rather than later: “If it can be published earlier, given the ‘heat people  are packing’ now in the current ‘ballistic’ and ‘explosive’ reactions to Obama’s proposals, that would be more likely to ‘hit the bull’s-eye’ in the current environment.”

With only 5% of the world’s population, US Americans now possess about 50% of the world’s guns. Is it any wonder then that mass shootings in the US have skyrocketed in the last decade? And in the wake of the grotesque massacre in Sandy Hook, gun sales have spiked dramatically. No wonder that sales of kids’ bullet-proof backpacks have soared, or that our culture more than ever is drenched in the language of guns!

As I watch left and right wing politicians and pundits “up in arms” on TV, battling in a “cross-fire” of blame, each side looking for a “smoking gun” to explain or cast blame for horrifying gun-related catastrophes, I’ve become increasingly aware of how our culture’s preoccupations with guns are reflected even during innocent “shooting the breeze” conversations.

We often value the “straight shooter,” yet we are wary of those who “shoot their mouths off,” and those who “shoot from the hip” or glibly end an argument with a “parting shot.” We caution colleagues to avoid “shooting themselves in the foot,” and counsel them not to “shoot the messenger.”

Without suspecting what drives our language, we are “blown away” by adorable photos of loved ones. At the movies, many audiences are thrilled by “shoot- em-up,”  “double barreled action” scenes, or are excited by car chases where actors “gun” their engines.

I often ask friends to “shoot me” an email and I’ve encouraged job seekers to give an interview their “best shot” and “stick to their guns” during salary discussions. And if a job is offered, I might congratulate them for doing a “bang up” job.

In sensitive business negotiations, I’ve advised patience, urging clients to “trouble shoot” solutions, but to avoid “jumping the gun” and to be aware of “loaded” questions. To get the biggest “bang for the buck,” I’ve recommended bringing the “big guns” to the table. We look for “silver bullet” solutions, hoping for “bulletproof” results. And when success is in sight, we say: “You’re on target,” or “you’re going great guns!”

We encourage entrepreneurial risk taking, even if the project doesn’t have a “shot in hell.” Just “fire away” when you make that “killer” presentation, and if your idea is “shot down,” don’t be “gun shy.” Just “bite the bullet” and go at it again, with “guns blazing.” Don’t be afraid to “shoot for the moon,” even if it looks like a “shot in the dark.”

Having worked as a university executive with students from more than 80 countries, I’ve noticed that students from abroad are struck by the violent language in our songs and films, and they hear it bleeding into our political discourse. Many have asked me in amazement why it is even necessary to state that guns and ammunition are banned from university residence halls. Yet, “son of a gun,” 26 colleges in three states permit guns on college campuses. And gun liberalization legislation for colleges is in the “cross hairs” in at least nine more states.

I’ve heard staff and students alike stressed by an approaching deadline, instinctively describing themselves as being “under the gun.” Sometimes my colleagues have described emotional co-workers as “loose cannons” or having “hair trigger” personalities. And when a student has gone off “half cocked,” psychologists have advised employees to “keep their powders dry” and to review “bullet point” guidelines for handling volatile personalities.

In the same way that the US is flooded with millions of guns (there are 90 guns per one hundred Americans), so our newscasts — “sure as shootin’ ” — are exploding almost nightly with murder stories, reflecting the newsroom mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the local story becomes a national tragedy, there is “new ammunition” for both gun control supporters and opponents of fire arm bans in such places as elementary schools, day care centers, churches, or even the neighborhood bar!

The world of guns has had our rhetoric in its sights for a very long time. And our wounded language — now more than ever with a gun to its head — is telling us that our culture is on the firing line.

Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus at the University of California’s International House, is currently a cross-cultural communications consultant, university instructor and Cultural Detective certified facilitator. Contact Joe via email or LinkedIn.

This post builds on Joe’s February 2011 piece, “Language Under the Gun.”

Endangered Languages Project

Experts estimate that only 50% of the languages that are alive today will be spoken by the year 2100. The disappearance of a language means the loss of valuable scientific and cultural information, comparable to the loss of a species. Tools for collaboration between world communities, scholars, organizations and concerned individuals can make a difference. Such is the raison d’être of the Endangered Languages Project, an online collaborative effort to protect global linguistic diversity.

The first thing I noticed on this site is the incredibly high quantity of red dots on the world map, each indicating a severely endangered language. The site enabled me quickly and easily to look up endangered languages in Mexico, where I live (the closest red dot to my home is the Seri language, one I’d never even heard of!). I also looked up the language that first interested me as a pre-teen in the southwestern USA: Navajo (it is labelled “at risk” and is currently a featured language on the site). Even in my adopted homeland of Japan, as I expected, the Ainu language is ranked “critically endangered.”

The languages included in the project and the information displayed about them are provided by the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat), produced by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and The Institute for Language Information and Technology (The Linguist List) at Eastern Michigan University. The list of collaborators in the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity is indeed impressive. The project site is definitely worth using!

Want to Feel Ukiuki, Pichipichi and Pinpin? Japanese Food Onomatopoeia

I have been quite ujiuji (melancholy) in recent weeks, feeling uzu-uzu (a burning desire) to hear and speak Japanese. Living in a small city in Mexico, zenzen (almost never) can(‘t) I hear Japanese, and my heart gets shoboshobo (sad).

Joe’s recent blog post on the French food fixation only fueled more tsukuzuku (heartfelt thinking) on my part. As you may have already figured out from my wazawaza (purposeful) language, I’ve been thinking about Japanese sound symbolism, particularly in the context of food.

Whether you eat gatsugatsu (gobble or devour) or potsupotsu (little by little), if you want to talk about food in Japanese you will be using words that mimetically represent feelings and senses. As the originators of the concept of umami (pleasant savory taste — one of the five basic tastes), Japanese tend to mokumoku (munch) the way they listen: with all their senses. Taste, texture, and temperature, sound, smell and sensation… all are important elements that combine to keep people ukiuki (cheerful), pichipichi (young and vigorous) and pinpin (in good health).

While many people think of Japanese food as the 
tastes and textures of sashimi or sushi, a typical meal may also contain irorirona (a variety of) food including boiled, broiled, fried or pickled dishes, a soup and hokahoka (warm) steamed white rice. Is your stomach starting to guuguu (growl hungrily)?

For the fresh or raw component of your meal, would you like something shakishaki — crisp as in veggies or fruits, e.g., lettuce washed in cold water? Or would you prefer something more korikori — crunchy and crisp, as in fresh raw abalone? Be sure to rinse the abalone well, so it doesn’t taste jarijari (gritty) or zarazara (coarse). Maybe you want something sharishari — tangy and juicy, like an Asian nashi pear or sherbet? Or is your tongue like mine, and craves the piripiri (sting) of wasabi or fugu (blowfish)? Any of these dishes will require chokichoki (cutting with a knife) preparation.

A boiled dish in our meal might include pumpkin nimono, stewed hokuhoku (steamy and dense but not soggy), or something more furufuru (soft and jiggly) like boiled eggs. Maybe we should make some chikuwa (fish paste roll) for oden till it’s buyobuyo (swollen and soft) and fuwafuwa (fluffy)? Oh that sounds good! There are just so many possibilities! So many tastes and textures!

There are madamada (still) ippai-ippai (lots) more onomatopoeia to consider. What about a main dish? Shall we eat something sakusaku (freshly cooked crisp and light) like tempura shrimp? I could fry it till the shrimp inside are puripuri (plump with a nice resistance) and the breading is poripori (quietly crunchy). Perhaps you are really craving the shikoshiko (chewy, elastic firmness) of some udon noodles? Never over-boil the pasta so it becomes betobeto (sticky and gummy); rather, you’ll probably be wakuwaku (trembling with excitement) to eat your tsurutsuru (shiny and slurpy) noodles and gabugabu (drink heartily) a beer!

Instead of your normal bowl of rice you might enjoy something a bit more mochimochi (soft, sticky and chewy) or netoneto (glutinous and gummy) like sticky rice. Maybe rice that’s a bit more pasapasa (dry), like jasmine rice, sounds appetizing? The kunkun (smell) is so nice! Tabitabi (once in a while), though, I like the parapara (moist but loose) of fried rice.

Even though by now you are panpan (full), pukupuku (swollen), and maybe even kokkurikokkuri (nodding off), a karikari (hard and crispy) biscotti, a fukafuka (soft and fluffy) cream puff, or even some purupuru (wiggly, jiggly) kanten (gelatin) for dessert might refresh your soul. Maybe just a handful of something punyupunyu, like some gummis?

After such a big meal your throat may feel karakara (thirsty). I’d definitely recommend a chibichibi (sip) of a kachikachi (ice cold) shuwashuwa (sparkling) beverage over a betabeta (sticky) dessert wine. It can help settle any mukamuka (queasiness) you might have.

What if you’re not really that hungry, and you just want to mushamusha (munch)? You might want the paripari (thin and crispy) of nori (toasted seaweed) or chips. Sometimes, though, we crave a louder pachipachi (crispy snapping sound), like the baribari (loud crunchiness) of sembei (rice crackers) or the kachikachi (crisp firmness) of arare (another kind of rice cracker).

For those of you interested in this subject, I found a really cool study conducted by a cross-disciplinary group of students (information science, engineering, medicine) from the University of Tokyo. They “harvested” online food reviews in Japanese to find the most common food-related onomatopoeia. How cool is that — a terrific application of science to language and culture studies! Below is one of the tables from their report, detailing the most commonly occurring onomatopoeia for food.

There are several categories of onomatopoeia in Japanese. They are:

  1. Giongo (擬音語): These are the words that mimic the sounds of life around us, such as the sound of sprinkling vs. heavy rain, a door creaking or glasses clinking. Most of the food onomatapoeia above are giongo.
  2. Giseigo (擬声語): Sounds made by people or animals, such as a cat’s meow or a dog’s woof.
  3. Gitaigo (擬態語): Words that describe actions, such as smiling or grumbling, or psychological states, such as cheerful or irritated. Sometimes these latter are also called gijogo. Technically these are not onomatopoeia, since they don’t mimic sounds; they are mimetic words that mimic actions or emotions. However, since we don’t use these types of words often in English, and they are very important to speaking and understanding Japanese, I include them here.

I also found several online dictionaries of Japanese onomatopoeia. The first is Giongo Dictionary, where you can sign up for a daily email to keep learning. A second, if you read Japanese, is Onomatopedia. The third is a cool little resource with sounds you can listen to. Finally, though it only works sporadically, is Nihongo Resources, where you can search in English or Japanese. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

Japanese speakers: Please share some more of your favorite 擬音語 (giongo) and insights with us! There are of course regional (and personal!) variations of many of these!

Speakers of other languages: We’ll be happy to publish it if you send us your post about unique features in your language. Thanks!