"If a map is accurate and you can read it, you won't get lost. If you know a culture, you will know your way around in the life of a society."
-- Dr. Clyde Kluckhohn, Mirror for Man (1952).
In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, 19-year-old Hyder Akbar recounts the interrogation of an Afghani by three Americans. Akbar, who grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco, served as translator during the interrogation. What started as a friendly interview turned sour when the Afghani was unable to supply the general dates of his stay in Pakistan. In many cultures, calendar dates aren't as important as they are in the United States. Because of his failure to remember dates, the Afghani was allegedly beaten to death by a CIA contractor.
How often are we misunderstood as a result ofcultural differences? Although the consequences are rarely as grave as those Akbar endured, communication and understanding are critically important in a cross-cultural world.
This June I returned to the United States after studying abroad for nine months in Dakar, Senegal. Although I attended the university there, the content of my studies informally involved the marvels of everyday life. Fortunately, the Baobab Center, a headquarters for international visitors, provided a thorough orientation during the first weeks of my visit.
Among the first lessons was food etiquette. In Senegal it is most common to eat rice from a large communal bowl. Depending on the setting, rice is eaten with the hand instead of silverware. The rules continue: Only use your right hand for eating. Don't smell the food. If somebody shows up during the meal, invite him or her to join you. Leave the bowl when you have finished. Some of these rules are based on practicality, and some are based on tradition. Smelling the food might give an impression that you expect it to be rotten. I was amazed by the expectation of sharing. The sharing of food is done with unbelievable sincerity, even if it requires giving up the last three licks of your ice-cream cone. Though the invitation to share food is usually turned down, I made sure to find a private corner to snack on bananas or food from home.
The Senegalese also have markedly different attitudes about pregnancy. One never points to a pregnant woman's stomach; indeed, the subject of pregnancy seems entirely off-limits in polite conversation. By the time I left in June, my host mother appeared to be at term. She wore baggy clothing and took frequent naps, butnever once did I overhear talk of her baby-to-be. Speculation about an unborn child could invite bad luck, it is believed.
And yet talk about women's bodies is blatant and everywhere. One of the first Wolof expressions I learned (Wolof is one of several languages of Senegal) was jaay funday, a reference to a large woman's huge rear. I will never forget the day my host father told me I had gained weight. As I left for school one morning, he kindly volunteered, "Tu as bien grossi." In case I hadn't understood, he made you're-getting-fat hand gestures and repeated himself. After my tailor and neighborhood shopkeeper (both men) offered the same observation with the same gestures, I decided that maybe I should reduce my rice intake. In hindsight, I realize that never did these men mean to deflate my ego. It was more like commenting on the weather.
I give these examples to illustrate the intricacies and obscurities that, more often than not, upset cross-cultural communication. Although my experiences were nothing like those of a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan, I believe there is a theme: Before reacting, we need to reflect, listen, and learn the rules of the host country. U.S. soldiers are most often ignorant of basic religious beliefs and local customs in Iraq. Might it be good to know that Muslims believe dogs to be impure animals before we search their houses with dogs?
Our soldiers were sent to Iraq without a map of the culture. Is it any wonder that our soldiers are befuddled? Is it any wonder that hundreds are dead? Is it any wonder that the war is not over? We should have done our research.
Since my stay in Senegal, I have felt less like an American and more like a citizen of the world. I am learning that foreign countries don't have to be foreign to us, and America doesn't have to be culturally ignorant and insensitive.
Wars result when Americans don't know their way around in the world. Once we study the map, we may well decide to head in a different direction.