L'auteur : Joe Lurie
One of the pleasures of reading literature is the discovery of how much alike we humans are in our universal needs, desires and fears; consider the writer's mantra: the more specific you make it, the more universal it is. However, messages from the news and social media, TV and movies seem to belie such shared universality. Citizens of a world tied together in a global economy, across a planet whose borders are disappearing, seem to be locked in a death-grip of cultural identity crises that doesn't seem to be loosening anytime soon.
Arguably, no education is complete without the learning of cross-cultural communication skills. The business of cross-cultural studies does indeed exist, fulfilling the necessity for understanding the niceties of cultural differences as nuanced as the focus of one's eyes during a conversation. Joe Lurie is a cross-cultural trainer who has spent decades studying, training, speaking and observing these intricacies. He serves as Director Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley's International House, is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, where he says it all began for him, and has directed programs in France, Kenya, and Ghana for the School for International Training.
He has written an aptly titled book: Perception and Deception, A Mind Opening Journey Across Cultures. A slim book of just six chapters, it is crammed with anecdotes and proverbs to prove his point that "seeing can often be deceiving," and "that by relying on one's experiences and filters, a perception can often be a deception."
In his first chapter, Lurie goes back to his first immersion in the culture of Kenyans during his beginning days as a volunteer of with the Peace Corps. After hosting dinner at his house for three African friends, he was perplexed that not only did they not thank him after an evening of food and lively conversation, but they also didn't reciprocate his hospitality. He later discovered that Kenyans' doors are always open and invitations weren't considered necessary. Joe also learned he was mistaken in asking if they would like something to eat or drink (always declined by the guest), only to discover Kenyan guests never wanted to appear greedy, so food and drink should automatically be served by the host.
A young African would address even a newly introduced female elder as grandma out of respect. If a teenager in this youth obsessed Western culture presumed to call a strange older woman grandma, he would likely be met with indignation for daring such a put-down.
The University of California, Berkeley's International House, a residential and program center for students from around the world, promoting intercultural experiences and leadership skills, is the setting for many of Lurie's anecdotes. Their alumni include ambassadors, political leaders, royal families, Nobel Laureates and UN staff and officials.
For the past 85 years many young people were given their first exposure to people not only outside their own cultures, but also beyond the barrier of their socio-economic classes. A Mexican student whose father swept floors in a shoe factory had never before mingled with people rich enough to discuss ski trips to Switzerland and beach houses; Turkish and Armenian students socialized, a shocked student from Hong Kong had his first encounter with an African-American from Detroit when they were assigned as roommates; Asian students ate together in the brightly lit section of the dining room and not the more softly lit area, not, as it was later discovered, because they didn't want to mix, but because they considered seeing their food as an important part of enjoying a meal.
Food plays a major role in emphasizing cultural differences and biases: A physicist from Shanghai was dismayed that turkey was being served, claiming that it was an animal kept in zoos; two women from Kuwait were upset because there was a dog under the adjoining table in the dining room because for many Muslims dogs are unclean and not welcome inside the house.
The section of the book that Lurie devotes to culture through the prism of language slows down enough so that one can pause and absorb the power of the role it plays. The amount of violence in the US media and the ease of purchasing guns is shocking to many foreigners. "With only 5% of the world's population, US Americans now possess about 50% of the world's guns," he says.
He examines how US history with guns and violence has permeated their everyday language in ways often taken for granted. Most speakers are unaware when they say they value the "straight shooter," are wary of those who "shoot their mouths off," caution colleagues to avoid "shooting themselves in the foot," and counsel not to "shoot the messenger." Friends should "shoot us an email," give it "your best shot," "stick to your guns," and "do a bang up job."
As a contrast, the importance of food in the French culture is reflected in the language: Francois Hollande has been called "fragile strawberry," a "wobbly flan," a "marshmallow" by his opponents. C'est pas la fin des haricots (it's not the end of the string beans) is the French way of saying, "it's not the end of the world." A nice person in French is c'est une crème (it's cream). Lurie's buffet of wide offerings using the full array of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy drives home how infused a culture's language is with what it values.
If, like me, you find yourself growing impatient for him to address today's far-reaching threats facing cultures slamming up against one another, you will be pleased with Chapter Five's Minefields and Mind-Openers in the News. It begins with common marketplace mistranslations in world-wide products to demonstrate the linguistic challenges that face global products. The launch of a British company's Bundh curry sauce means "ass" in Punjabi; Microsoft's Bing search engine sounds like "illness" in Mandarin Chinese, but can also mean "pancake;" Honda's Fitta car means "female genitalia" in Swedish, while Ford's Pinto translates to "small penis" in Brazilian Portuguese slang.
From there forward, this chapter covers serious diplomatic cultural issues caused by cultural misunderstandings; faux-pas are made by President Obama, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, as well as diplomats around the world, even while those people have at their fingertips, experts to coach them in these areas. Tragically, a few Afghani Army soldiers serving with NATO troops killed more than 50 Western soldiers in 2012, in part due to the lack of cultural knowledge that created distrust; brochures in their language became available to help understand troubling Western behaviors.
The time Lurie devotes to the kinds of cultural differences posing an existential threat to our world is well-spent. Here, Joe Lurie's illustrations are mirrored in today's tragic headlines, and we can only nod with sad recognition. It's only in retrospect that I consider that perhaps it was wise of him to first spend so much time on the micro, often amusing cross-cultural differences, so we can better appreciate how small gradations of ignorance left unattended can mutate into catastrophic proportions.
By the same author: Bicycling in the Yogurt: The French Fixation