Tranquilo, Maktoob, and Hakuna Matata: Words to Live by in Different Cultures

Each culture perceives the meaning of life differently.

This can come across in its turns of phrase.

Last week, we discussed a cross-cultural study about well-being and how the term isn’t universal.

Like many complex terms, well-being means different things to different cultures, based on each culture’s values.

Today, I’d like to take a look at how our language – or our turns of phrase – often exemplify our cultural values.

Tranquilo in Colombia

“Tranquilo” – or “relax” – is a bit of a mantra in Colombia.

In a Washington Post article, James Bargent describes it as:

“a refrain which can drive you into an impotent rage, or it can remind you that life’s troubles are rarely terminal.”

Often ranking as one of the happiest nations in the world, Colombians generally live by this maxim, which may partially be based upon the uncertainty of life in the country.

If you don’t build up great expectations, you don’t become upset when your plans are upset.

Instead, the culture wraps itself up in family and friends and appreciates life slowly at its own pace.

Maktoob in Arabic Cultures

Meaning “that which is written,” maktoob translates to destiny or fate.

In Arabic culture, when something goes right or wrong, you might be told with a shrug that it is “maktoob.”

With our destiny already pre-determined by God, things happen to us and are out of our hands.

This external locus of control allows Arabic cultures to attribute both their successes and struggles in life to God’s will.

Such a perspective can give one comfort that everything that happens was meant to happen.

Hakuna Matata

What a wonderful phrase.

You may know it from Disney’s The Lion King, but the phrase, “hakuna matata,” was taken from Swahili culture.

It roughly translates to “there are no troubles.”

The phrase is often used as a response to a greeting or as a condolence.

“Hakuna matata” highlights the laidback attitude of Swahili culture but also its emphasis on personal and societal well-being.

These three turns of phrase show us a deeper aspect of each culture and where their values lie.

Can you think of a phrase in your own language that exemplifies your culture?

The Meaning of Well-Being: A Qualitative Cross-Cultural Study

What does “well-being” mean to you?

Back in 1984, the World Health Organization defined health and well-being as follows:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.”

This universal definition of well-being differs from subjective well-being, which is how one evaluates one’s own quality of life, how one feels in it, and how one feels they function in it.

Research and literature surrounding subjective well-being focus on happiness, positive affect, and life satisfaction.

Social well-being is more in tune with social behaviors: how one interacts with social institutions and mores, how he/she interacts with others, and how others react to him/her.

Considering these differences, this study comparing well-being constructs between German and Chinese students looked at social support as an indicator of social well-being, and happiness and satisfaction with life as indicators of subjective well-being.

Well-Being Study

It can be assumed that the definitions of the above terms might differ between these two groups, based on their differing cultures, as might the objectives to accomplish each.

Via focus groups and questionnaires, the study assessed perceived social support through rated statements like:

  • “I experience a lot of understanding and security from others.”
  • “If necessary, I can easily borrow something I might need from neighbors or friends.”
  • “I have friends and family who will simply just hug me.”

Similarly, satisfaction was measured through statements like:

  • “The conditions of my life are excellent.”
  • “In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.” 
  • “I am satisfied with my life.”

And, lastly, happiness was measured via statements like:

  • “Some people are generally happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything.”
  • “Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be.”

The Results

Happiness

Both groups defined happiness criteria as including social contacts, positive emotions, and quality of life. Where the two countries differed was in social contact.

Social contact was the most frequently mentioned aspect in China and the least in Germany.

Another interesting aspect of the way each group viewed happiness was in the angle they took. 

The Chinese groups saw happiness as pursuing a dream/goal and/or seeing it fulfilled, while the German groups saw two types of happiness: uncontrollable (which is designed by luck or fate, for instance) and controllable (as in achieving something). They also specified that happiness is subjective and brief.

Life Satisfaction

Both groups noted different kinds of satisfaction.

First, an individual realistic standard; second, an ideal standard that’s changeable. 

Lastly, they mentioned one’s perception of current satisfaction.

Quality of life was seen by both groups as a significant factor of life satisfaction, but the Chinese students focused on good living conditions (like high salary and economic conditions), while the German students focused on basic needs fulfillment (a home and food, etc.).

The researchers concluded that these differences may be based on the economic focuses of the two countries.

The Chinese groups saw contentment with one’s situation and a positive attitude about life as major contributing factors to life satisfaction, while the German students noted that satisfaction can come with comparing one’s current situation with the social norm or an individual standard.

Perceived Social Support

Chinese students focused on societal support, like charities, companies, and government policies, when discussing sources of perceived social support, while German students focused more on direct social networks.

German students mentioned financial and material support more frequently than their Chinese counterparts.

Both groups mentioned emotional support, while only the Chinese groups talked about “asking for help” indirectly, such as by posting on social media to gain empathy.

This study shows that though the themes of well-being may be universal, the contributing factors to well-being differ across cultures, often depending on cultural values, perspectives, and expectations.

Diary-Keeping & Language Learning: How Adults Learn Language

Did you know that analyzing your own language learning can significantly boost your results?

I’ve talked about how to learn a language with an old brain.

Recently, I’ve come across new research into tactics that can help adults learn language.

And it all has to do with how adults learn, which is explicitly, rather than implicitly.

Explain, Please…

Adults require a certain clarity when they’re learning, especially when it comes to the elements of a new language.

They tend to lean heavily on their native language to help them understand the mechanics of a foreign one.

Therefore, one useful technique to learning language is to keep a diary that enables the adult student to write down the connections they’ve made during their language lessons

Remembering and replaying these connections is what locks vocabulary, sentence structure, and one’s overall understanding of the language in the memory’s vault.

The Research

A study into this technique looked at a group of language students at a Scottish university studying Spanish as a foreign language.

Using their native language (English), they were asked to explain the new language they were learning, including its characteristics, their focus, and what links the language had to English.

Diaries were introduced to three classrooms of 38 students, and after each lesson, they were asked to write out what they’d learned in the lesson and what similarities and differences they’d noticed compared to English.

According to a focus group interview after a period of time, it was found that the analysis and reflection of each lesson’s substance boosted student performance and gave them confidence.

They were able to better recognize language errors, articulate how each language worked, and identify and understand the different grammatical rules and other distinctions between the languages.

Not only this, but the written accounts of each lesson helped students memorize what they’d learned.

Personalized Language Learning

Another interesting takeaway from the study was that the answer to the question, “What did you learn in today’s lesson?” differed widely amongst students.

Each lesson had specific learning objectives, so it was expected that there would be similar answers, but that wasn’t the case.

This goes to show that each student progresses at his or her own pace, and language learning is particularly personalized, with each student learning something different from any one lesson.

Holistic vs. Analytic Thinking in Culture

How would you describe your living room?

Would you say it’s a space to commune with your family and entertain your friends? Would you describe it as a welcoming area to offer your guests food and drink?

Or would you list its working parts? Would you explain that it has two sofas, a coffee table, an entertainment center, and a 65″ flat-screen TV?

If you’d describe your living room the former way, you’re thinking holistically; if you’d describe it the latter way, you’re thinking analytically. 

Last week, we discussed how cross-cultural research might take a more positive approach to cultural differences.

In seeking out the positive, researchers took a look at Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview with renowned cognitive social psychologist, Richard Nisbett, who authored The Geography of Thought.

In the paper, Nisbett analyzes these two dominant cultural thinking styles – holistic and analytic thinking – and outlines some pros and cons of each.

Before we get to his analysis, let’s take a closer look at these two thinking styles.

Holistic Thinking

The holistic thinking style is characteristic of East Asian cultures.

This thinking style perceives everything as interconnected.

It sees the whole, and specifically the relationships between objects.

The style of thinking relates to the broader philosophy of East Asian cultures with their focus on balance, harmony, and cyclical change.

Holistic thinking also blends with the values of these cultures, which are collectivist in nature.

The understanding of the world as an interconnected whole has its benefits, as we will discuss shortly.

Analytic Thinking

As you may have guessed, the analytic thinking style is characteristic of Western cultures.

Analytic thinking identifies separate objects and categorizes them according to their attributes.

This style of thinking relates to the broader philosophy of Western cultures with their focus on individualism and personal motivations

Analytic thinking corresponds to the values of Western cultures, which are individualist in nature.

The understanding of the world’s moving pieces in isolation is valuable as well, as Nisbett will explain.

Nisbett’s Analysis

In Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview, Nisbett examines each thinking style.

He notes that holistic thinking allows one to notice a great depth of the physical world and context, enabling one to accept contradictions.

Whereas analytic thinking is more black-and-white, holistic thinking allows shades of grey.

Due to the lack of universalistic rules in this style of thinking, however, Nisbett concludes that one is more vulnerable to potential abuse.

As for analytic thinking, it is scientific.

This logical type of thinking has given the world all of the advantages of modern science and technology, taking us leaps and bounds.

However, its “hyper”-logicizing can give way to disconnecting from the phenomenon itself. 

Rather than suggesting that one thinking style is better than the other, Nisbett concludes that the best thinking lies in between these two ways of thought.

It’s the attempt to understand the different cognitive and intellectual styles that can help us improve our own method of reasoning.

Cross-Cultural Research: How to Leverage the Benefits and Positive Dynamics of Cultural Differences

Are we Debbie Downers when analyzing cultural differences in cross-cultural management research?

That is, do we look at the negative side of these differences over the positive to our own detriment?

That’s what researchers for this paper determined.

Authoring, “The upside of cultural differences: Towards a more balanced treatment of culture in cross-cultural management research,” the team of researchers encouraged scholars to “explore how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness create value for global organizations.”

And this is what they discovered.

The State of Cross-Cultural Management Literature Today

More often than not, CCM literature looks at the negative when discussing differences in culture and management.

The paper highlights regularly used terms in such research, like “foreignness,” “cultural distance,” and “cultural misfit,” saying they reflect this emphasis on the negative.

These terms suggest incompatibility, conflict, and friction.

To counter this, the authors suggest an emphasis on the upside of cultural differences, instead seeking the “positive role of distance and diversity across national, cultural, institutional, and organizational dimensions.”

Endeavoring to seek out the positive, they argue, will balance the treatment of culture in CCM research, the goal being to leverage the benefits and positive dynamics of cultural differences in various contexts.

So, how does one do this exactly?

International and global businesses reap the benefits of cross-cultural labor and management, so the authors suggest the focus in CCM research and literature can be placed on those benefits.

A Double-Edged Sword

One example outlined in the paper is the following research submission:

Pesch and Bouncken’s paper, “The double-edged sword of cultural distance in international alliances,” shows how examining positive outcomes of cross-border interactions can benefit international businesses. 

Their findings suggest that the positive effects of cultural differences involving knowledge combination and task discourse outweigh any issues with trust-building that can occur by perceived distance. 

Moreover, cross-border alliances lead to improved innovation and joint product development. 

The research submission clarifies that these positive effects occur mainly in non-equity alliances, whereas M&As or joint ventures might run into more cross-cultural conflict, due to communication issues and social categorization processes.

Still, the above benefits are often overlooked in CCM research.

The authors conclude:

“Explicitly considering positive phenomena can help better understand when and how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness can enhance organizational effectiveness and performance at multiple levels.”

The paper also took a look at Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview with renowned cognitive social psychologist, Richard Nisbett, who authored The Geography of Thought.

We’ll dive into that next week.

World Central Kitchen: How Chef José Andrés Uses Culture to Address Rapid Food Response

During the devastation of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, the blast that destroyed Beirut, the bushfires that tore through Australia, all the way on through the Covid-19 pandemic, World Central Kitchen has made efforts to address food crises all over the world.

Last week, we talked about Hurricane Katrina and how different communities responded to the trigger crisis.

We also discussed how a community or country’s culture can predict its response and how this can be used by organizations to address such crises.

This is what Chef José Andrés has done with his organization, World Central Kitchen.

To Andrés, Hurricane Katrina was a tipping point.

The disastrous response regarding food relief during the natural disaster – especially what went on in the super dome – is one of the reasons he and his wife, Patricia, sought a way to address rapid food response in the wake of a disaster.

Andres told Anderson Cooper on CNN that when it comes to leadership, the most important thing in a crisis is the ability to adapt

This is because not all crises are the same and not all cultures are the same

Being prepared, with a plan in place, is essential. But even more essential is the ability to be flexible.

The Cons of Airdropping

Many organizations and governments supply humanitarian aid in the form of airdropping food packages, but this tactic has long been criticized by aid workers.

Some see it as a public-relations stunt that serves only as a temporary bandaid to a food crisis.

Moreover, this response can put lives at risk.

When the US government air-dropped emergency rations into Afghanistan in 2001, aid workers called the stunt dangerous.

An article in The Guardian reports,

First, because the food will never get to those who really need it. More dangerously, those who run out to retrieve the packets risk being blown up by landmines.”

Additionally, although the food packets served vegetarian meals in line with Muslim dietary law, according to some, the contents showed a level of “cultural ineptitude.” 

The first humanitarian airdrop into Syria by the UN’s World Food Program in 2016 reiterated the limitations of this type of aid.

According to an article by Vice, there was no accountability for the airdrop.

It was uncertain as to where the 21-ton package landed, into whose hands it arrived, or how it would be distributed.

Food is Comfort

World Central Kitchen addresses these issues and more, not only in the face of natural disasters but in the face of war.

Andrés and his team of local and international volunteers are currently on the ground in the war in Ukraine.

One of the most effective aspects of the organization is its focus on the micro – on “locally-led solutions” to crises.

In World Central Kitchen’s story, Andrés writes,

We don’t just dump free food into a disaster zone: we source and hire locally wherever we can, to jump-start economic recovery through food.”

Andrés’ understanding of the importance of food in culture is what has made his organization such a success.

He explains that after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, he joined local cooks to help feed displaced Haitians at a camp.

He recalls:

I found myself getting schooled in how to cook black beans the way they wanted: mashed and sieved into a creamy sauce.”

Andrés sees that food culture is comfort. 

He knows that comfort in a crisis is paramount to a community’s morale. 

Food can feed that sense of hopelessness and instability that results from displacement and disaster.

He writes:

Food relief is not just a meal that keeps hunger away. It’s a plate of hope. It tells you in your darkest hour that someone, somewhere, cares about you.

This is the real meaning of comfort food. It’s why we make the effort to cook in a crisis.”

Following Andrés lead, other nonprofit organizations should consider losing the umbrella approach and taking up his template.

Adopt an adaptive outlook and address crises on a local level with consideration of culture.

Culture in Crisis, Part II: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

We’ve discussed how cultural values can predict how a community will respond to crisis.

In a continuation of last week’s post, we’ll look at the conclusion of the 2007 study by Melinda Rene Miller, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions.”

Hurricane Katrina

With the crisis of Hurricane Katrina as the backdrop, the study looked at two communities within the disaster area and their responses to it.

The values of the New Orleans Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast communities differ, and the study sought to draw strong correlations between these preexisting cultural values and corresponding reactions to determine if community crisis reactions can be predicted based on culture.

The study examined each communities’ demographics, communication styles, association with authorities, relationship to the environment, group unity and community roles, amongst other aspects, to infer their values regarding each category.

Key Differences in Response

The study found key differences in response to Hurricane Katrina between Louisiana’s Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Let’s look at Louisiana’s Ninth Ward:

  • Community Roles Analysis: A community roles analysis showed preexisting beliefs in the inefficiency of leaders, which led to internal disputes and an inability to make unified decisions. This resulted in mixed messages, distrust, confusion, and an inability to execute a crisis plan. Additionally, many police and emergency services officers reportedly abandoned their posts.
  • Demographic Analysis: Evacuation plans failed to include segments of the population, including the ill, those with pets, and those without vehicles or places to go. The demographic analysis showed 30 percent of the Ninth Ward was disabled and over 30 percent didn’t own a car. Many lived below the poverty line and so had no emergency savings to evacuate. Further, personal relationships (even with pets) and fear of change were ingrained in Ninth Ward culture. The paper deems that the culture in the community was “every man for himself”; the onus was on the government to fix things and building back the community together was not considered a personal responsibility.
  • Communication Style Analysis: Many in the ward ignored the evacuation order. The communication style analysis showed that though the community values orders to some degree, having been repeatedly given this evacuation order before unnecessarily, they did not believe authorities and thought the storm would blow over. They also feared looters more than the storm.

Those in the Mississippi Gulf Coast:

  • Community Roles Analysis: Although the government response to the Mississippi Gulf Coast community was equally slow, the people began cleanup on their own. Their values include a can-do attitude, resulting in community rebuilding that was 21 percent more expedited than in the Ninth Ward.  The police force and firefighters were on duty around-the-clock, as dictated by the local government.
  • Demographic Analysis: In the study, there is little mention of the impact of demographics on the response. It would be interesting to see these differences fleshed out, as the wealth and health of the community significantly impacts its ability to respond.
  • Communication Style Analysis: To prevent looting, the local government controlled supplies and resources, in order to distribute them equally to citizens. In rebuilding of the area, the government asked the community to be mindful of elevation maps and received support and excitement about the restructuring rather than the resistance experienced in the Ninth Ward.

The study explains why knowledge about cultural values is valuable in this context:

“Being able to make the claim that a community’s culture has a greater effect on the public’s reaction to a crisis trigger event than the event itself, will aid future research in focusing more on creating a list of cultural aspects that match with crisis response strategies.”

The Way Forward

The conclusion drawn from this study is that knowing a culture and its values provides a wealth of information that can be applied to a crisis response strategy customized to that culture’s values. 

Consider the most recent global pandemic.

Culture influenced the various outcomes of different countries and communities around the world during the COVID crisis.

The reactions to supply rationing, the degree of adherence to face mask rules and social distancing, the acceptance of or reluctance to vaccination – and the resulting outcomes of such actions/inactions – all of this has roots in each nation’s culture and its values.

Cross-cultural research into the varying cultural responses and their outcomes to the COVID crisis, and other similar large-scale crises, could greatly aid organizations and governments in creating more effective response strategies customized to different cultural pockets in a nation – and to the nation as a whole.

Culture in Crisis, Part I: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

Fight, flight, or freeze: these are three common human responses when one is under threat.

Each individual will respond to crises in a different way.

But does our culture influence how we, as a community, respond?

Think NYC’s response to 9/11 or Japan’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

From terrorism to natural disasters to global pandemics, communities and nations often respond in different ways to trigger events, based on their own cultural values.

Let’s take a look at one example.

The Amish

A school shooting occurred in an Amish community on October 2, 2006. Five young girls were killed.

Amish values include forgiveness, living righteously, and hating the sin and not the sinner, and this was reflected in their response to the trigger event. 

As Melinda Rene Miller’s paper, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions,” notes, revenge is not a part of Amish culture.

In mourning the victims of the tragedy, the community also mourned the shooter and embraced his family

They donated money to the killer’s widow and children and attended his funeral.

Sociologist Donald Kraybill who co-authored a book on the tragedy spoke on the power of Amish forgiveness, saying, 

“Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance [at the killer’s burial service], and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer’s family.”

Other cultures might respond to this type of crisis with a need for action, through new laws or regulations; a need for revenge or justice, through an investigation and public trial; and/or a plea for monetary donations for the community to recover.

None of these approaches would have lent themselves to the values of Amish culture.

The response of unity and emphasis on religion and humanity’s purpose on earth correlated with their values.

Behavioral and Attitudinal Reactions

As mentioned in the intro, everyone reacts to crises differently. 

Miller’s 2007 study set out to determine if, and to what degree, cultural values impact group response to trigger events.

The paper’s abstract proposes:

“While each individual person within a given community will react to a potential crisis situation in their individual ways, as a whole, their reactions will never vary too greatly, as their behaviors and attitudes are largely based upon their learned cultural values.”

Next week, we’ll delve into the results of this study, surrounding varied outcomes in communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Scientifically-Proven Tips on Learning a Second Language

Learning a language can be difficult.

But it will rewire your brain.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve discussed how the brain grows when learning a second language.

We’ve talked about how the left and right hemispheres process language and how the best approach to learning a language with an old brain is by dropping perfectionism.

This week, we’ll go over some practical tips and tricks for learning a language and improving your memory.

Vamos!

Sleep On It

Language learned just before bedtime ensures better long-term retention, according to a 2016 study in Psychological Science.

The study took two groups, each studying a foreign language 12 hours apart.

One group learned foreign vocabulary – practiced to perfect performance – in the morning and again in the evening.

The other group learned the new vocabulary in the evening, slept on it, and relearned it in the morning.

The study found that not only did the second group demonstrate better retention, but the amount of practice required was reduced by half.

The study concluded:

“Sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but sleeping between two learning sessions is a better strategy.”

Spaced Repetition 

Online language learning sites, like Duolingo and Memrise, are so successful due to their algorithms involving spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is a memory-strengthening method by which words or phrases are learned at intervals ideally spaced for retention. 

The intervals are small to begin with, reviewing new words several times in a single practice session until they become familiar, and reviewing them again the following day, mixed in with newer words and phrases.

Then, a day, a few days, a week will go by, and you review the word or phrase again.

Soon, you won’t forget them.

Research has proven that spaced repetition can lead to “a nearly threefold improvement of vocabulary learning gains.”

Now, that’s worth repeating.

Test Comprehension Through Content

When you’re comfortable with your basic language skills, incorporating some content into your learning will boost your abilities.

This can be anything from watching a movie in the foreign language to listening to a podcast or reading a news article.

A 2008 study published by Cambridge University Press showed that learning content in a foreign language, as opposed to strictly learning the language itself, can significantly improve the speaking part of language learning.

The study followed two groups – the control group, which studied French via traditional methods, and the experimental group, which studied a civilization course in French – and looked at four aspects of language learning: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

While the experimental group outperformed the control group in speaking, the control group outperformed the experimental group in writing.

So, if speaking is the area you want to target, mixing in some media in the foreign language you’re studying will enhance it.

Learning Language with an Old Brain: Leave Perfectionism Behind

We all know that language learning ability deteriorates with age.

Early language learning is ideal, as we’ve discussed in past posts, because of the plasticity of the brain in infancy.

A baby’s brain maps out language with greater ease, making it more effortless and pliable in these early stages of life.

Old brains are generally more stubborn and rigid.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn a foreign language, even with age.

Let’s take a look at a couple studies that show how we might help our old brains learn.

First Rule of Older-Aged Language Learning: Don’t Be a Stickler for Rules

The best way to learn a foreign language as an older person is NOT to be a stickler for rules.

Grammar and punctuation should take a backseat to communication.

This is largely because as an older person, you’ve long passed your peak language learning abilities and shouldn’t expect to achieve native fluency.

This level of fluency actually ends as early as 10 years old, according to an MIT study.

Boston College Assistant Professor of Psychology Joshua Hartshorne, who conducted the study, explained:

“We don’t see very much difference [in native-like knowledge of English grammar] between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that.”

However, the study also found that adolescents remain skilled at learning grammar up to the age of 17 or 18.

After passing this critical period, your focus should be placed on “accomplishing something” rather than on rules.

Leave Perfectionism Behind

Many older language learners focus on the wrong things when learning a language, which can easily make one frustrated.

Lycoming College Assistant Professor Andrew Stafford advises that his French students focus more on a hands-on approach to language learning, rather than on grammar.

In an article by Albert McKeon in NOW, Stafford is quoted as saying:

“In the end, language is used for communication. Whether it’s perfect pronunciation or grammar, if you get your meaning across, you’ve accomplished your goal.”

Considering the plasticity of your old brain, communication should be the ultimate goal of learning a language.

So, leave your perfectionism behind, and have fun with it!