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Language: A Perpetuation of Behavior


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the opening content of my Cross Cultural Communications course and she warned in her TEDtalk about the dangers of a single story. She gave anecdotal evidence of single stories in her life: a house-boy that equated poverty, her American college roommate’s single story of what ‘African’ meant, and Adichie’s admittingly single story of Mexico (Adichie). This short clip exemplified the intricacy of language and how it can alter an individual’s viewpoint of another individual, group, nation, or continent. A strong conclusion that Adichie gets to is,

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power (Adichie).

This power plays an important role in defining what stories are told and more importantly, how they are told. My appeal of a Cross Cultural Communication class, outside of the requirements as an International Relations major, was grasping this idea that the variety of cultures have to work towards a seemingly simple act of communication for common goals or interests. However, as many of us know, there is nothing simple in the act of communication. Language as a construct depends on the region, on its history, and on its people. It is a relative act of communicating between people in terms of so many various factors. I always admired the complexity of language but this course taught me much more than just the intricacy of words and emphasized the importance of them. Words can influence behaviors and perpetuate ideas that may not be the intent of the spoken words but impact. So how do we know when to speak and when to listen?

Stories are an interesting aspect of communication. We rely on stories to tell the past, guess the future, and relate to the present. There are indicators around the world from various periods of time of people telling their stories, passing them on from generation to generation. These stories can be the history of a people, the lessons learned of an individual, and a warning to the future. The concept of stories is something most people can relate to, that’s what they are meant to do. However, the danger of stories can be when someone starts to tell another’s story or someone starts to attack another group. It can lead to conflict. Weaver explains this undermining another culture through the idea of an ‘Ax Metaphor’ (Weaver). This metaphor involves a family of sons that must ask the father’s permission in order to use the Ax. When society interviens, they believe that from a production perspective giving each son their own ax leads to better means of productivity. However, now that household’s system has been derailed and their traditions undermined, albeit, unintentionally. In relation to the matters of language, telling another’s story may seem like a means of justice and working towards understanding another side but it can sometimes just backfire in influencing others perception of those people’s story. This can be dangerous because when someone tells other’s stories, they run the risk of generalizing or stereotyping and perpetuating a stigma.

But in most of the Western world, individuals, businesses, and organizations hold the right to ‘Freedom of Speech’. Free press is an essential component to democracy; it is the greatest watchdog of the government for the people. If there were no free press, common individuals would have virtually no information of what the government was doing, how the elected officials were behaving, or anything that keeps the country and its leaders in check with the people. Americans give themselves a huge pat on the back for maintaining free press in comparison to many other governments in the world; however the greatest downfall of this free press (especially with today’s technology) is that even with all the access to information very few Americans are paying attention. Similarly, maintaining a democracy with people that have little interest in what is going on both domestically and internationally is difficult because how will individuals understand or grasp events that can detrimentally influence their current lives or situations? How will they pick up the underlying messages in the language being spoken to them?

2017 has been a whirlwind of a year and this fall has been a concoction of a semester. There are conversations circulating about sexual assault to immigration to Black Lives Matter to the NFL all within the span of four months. After reading an analysis of why white people don’t feel black people’s pain (Silverstein), I wondered, how has this mentality perpetuated a behavior? Has this underlying assumption that black people feel less pain stem into obvious results of police brutality? How does this then impact the fear many white people have when they see a black person walking down the street? Does this relate to Trayvon Martin, Jordan Martin, Freddy Grey, and hundreds upon hundreds more? I needed to know how this assumption was rooted in fear and how it applied to language.

Weaver said that “Sigmund Freud believed that our personality is like an iceberg. Most of it is hidden under the water level of awareness, submerged in the unconscious mind” (Weaver). This iceberg model or analogy can be utilized when analyzing how mentalities and perspectives are a part of cultural differences. When cultures collide, it may seem like a reflection of similar behavior and beliefs however, the values and thought patterns are where the conflicts arise (Weaver). This process of perception and cognition go together in gathering the input (perception and information), programming the information (ways of solving problems, logic and thought patterns), and finalizing the output (behavioral ‘norms’) which leads to the important parts of our “cultural programming” (Weaver). However culture is much more than just the language we speak, there are abstractive and associative contexts.

The variety in culture contexts can be simply boiled down to high context cultures versus low context cultures. These differences can be observed in a culture’s perception and interaction ranging from concepts of time, space/objects, sensual or non sensual, competition versus cooperation, and most importantly, verbal emphasis versus nonverbal and verbal emphasis (Weaver). Weaver focuses on the importance of developing a “realistic cultural empathy… this is an essential cross-cultural communication skill” (Weaver) but without denying your own culture. This is a very crucial distinction in regards to language perpetuating behaviors in low-context cultures. In the United States, a low-context culture, words play a crucial role to our day-to-day behaviors. Everything needs to be written out very clearly and the ways in which individuals interact is very direct and to the point. Hence, controversial conversations circulating hate speech, political correctness, and social awareness.

While navigating how to say what we want to say and understanding what others are saying, this fear of saying what you think keeps people from speaking up. Meanwhile, there are others saying exactly what they think and some even try to add some lighthearted humor in order to approach these serious issues. For example, comedian Louis CK in one of is stand up routines said, “I’m white, which thank God for that shit boy, that is a huge leg up, are you kidding me… by the way let me be clear, I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better who could even argue? If it was an option, I would reappear every year” (Louis CK). This sort of humor is just one of many ways comedians have addressed social and topical issues without it turning into an obvious political debate. So how can Louis CK’s comments be harmful or an issue? Well, in this statement there isn’t much of one; in fact this is a prime example of a time that the comedian utilized his platform as a brief educational tool that race can be an obvious form of privilege. But in another routine Louis CK commented on the differences between raising boys and girls, “boys fuck things up but girls are fucked up” (Louis CK). This comment, seemingly harmless, can have real subliminal effects on an audience member in how they may raise their kids or perpetuating a thought they already have.

However, this behavior and way of speaking is not just reserved for comedians. Several celebrities or public figures have also exhibited similar behavior. For example, after more than 80 women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment in 2017 the United States finally started to listen. Even though this was not the first time the women were speaking up. This list of women has been repeated for the past three decades. Today’s conversation has been about the shock, the reality, and the atrocity of how it went on for so long. Yet tracing various sources back through the past thirty years can show that it was well known in Hollywood and across the nation that Harvey Weinstein was explicitly displaying behaviors of misconduct towards women. A clip from Saturday Night Live makes light of the Weinstein trope in one of their 2012 skits. While still involving comedy, Saturday Night Live had a young actress say “oh please, I’m not afraid of anyone in the show business, I turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein no less than three occasions” (IZachProduction). This can be speculated to be just a stereotype but stereotypes usually come from a partial truth or a suspicious truth, so why did nobody speak up against Weinstein or at the very least question this running joke? Even after Courtney Love said in a 2005 interview, “I’ll get libeled if I say it… If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the four seasons don’t go” (IZachProduction). And yet this Hollywood accepted “open secret” was kept under wraps for over thirty years and made into ‘jokes’.

So how do we keep ourselves from falling into the trap of ‘group speak’ or Orwell’s 1984 dystopia? We must learn the history and the importance of words prior to using them and it will not be an easy task. And the concept of a group having a word only they can use has been another thing I have struggled with wrapping my head around. Girls can call each other names, black people can use the n-word, and homosexuals can throw the word ‘gay’ or ‘fag’ around but unless you fall into identity with that group there can be this pressure to not use a word. Or worse, use it behind that group’s back. And that’s when we start stereotyping, blaming, condemning, judging and labeling other groups. In literature “nigger” is used in many period pieces that reflect the horrible realities of that time. Today, it’s thrown around by teenagers, adults, and children who don’t even know what the word means or represents.

But who am I, a white woman, to say it stands as a form of identity? That, I cannot answer. What I can say though, is that this course allowed me to fully reflect on how the words that come out of my mouth, whether to a person or behind their back, can certainly influence my thoughts and my actions as well as those of others. I have come to the conclusion that it may be a lot of pressure on public figures to push them to think before they speak but it is also crucial as a nation if we ever want to progress and educate ourselves. Sometimes, humor is not just a few reckless words scrambled together. Most humor and celebrities or public figures have rehearsed or at least outlined what they would say on stage. Meaning, some of these jokes are meant to have a hidden meaning or even a call-to-action. However, it can be reckless in regards to the lesser educated individuals gathering this input, processing the information, and compiling an output just as Weaver said. Therefore, it is the responsibility of public figures to recognize how loud their voices can thunder over a nation and maybe just putting that into consideration.

And this was the greatest danger that I learned in this Cross Cultural Communication class. Jokes, while allowing the ability to tackle serious issues in an ‘easy’ way can stem from far deeper, more concentrated issues. Systemically, our society should be aware of how the words they say can affect other people because language can perpetuate behaviors we are not even aware of them perpetuating. But we need to keep ourselves and others accountable for not only the words we say but the actions that follow them. And in order to look towards a successful future in cross cultural communication, countries need to solve their systemic issues before tackling international ones. Because how can we communicate with those foreign to our language and our culture when we can barely communicate within it?