British English, American English, Antarctic English: How Do Accents Develop?

A group of British researchers spent months alone on the isolated continent of Antarctica.

There, an acoustic analysis was made of their speech characteristics as individuals.

In a matter of months, changes were observed.

The acoustical study created a computational model based partially on a common accent in Antarctica to predict the phonetic changes they expected to hear from this group’s prolonged isolation.

Recorded productions of the participating individuals were then taken and compared to the model.

In some ways, the model predicted the phonetic changes in the individuals’ accents.

Published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the results suggest that the initial stages of phonetic changes in accent occur incrementally when individuals in isolation interact.

Let’s delve deeper into this example of how accents and phonetics develop across the same language.

Shared Spoken Idiosyncrasies

Defining a spoken accent as “shared spoken idiosyncrasies across a community of speakers,” the study touches upon theories regarding potential evolutionary reasoning behind the development of accents.

Some evolutionists theorize that, due to its difficulty in imitation by outsiders, the function of an accent can allow the in-group to identify imposters, while simultaneously breeding cooperation, coordination, and camaraderie amongst individuals with the same accent.

Children are more apt at developing accents than adults, because the phonetic specifications are highly dependent on precise timing and vocal organ coordination, which is more easily acquired at a younger age.

How Accents Form

In this study, communication density was identified as the primary catalyst for accent formation.

This means that who you talk to and how often you talk to them can influence the early stages of accent formation.

The Antarctic researchers’ unique position of isolation created an environment resembling a microcosm of a former colonial settlement.

There was little-to-no communication with outside groups and yet regular communication with each other.

Being inside this bubble amplified the results.

BrainStuff’s Laurie L. Dove notes that the two primary factors influencing accent are isolation and human nature.

Dove writes,

“Human nature, vague as it sounds, simply refers to our innate love of being in groups. When a human is part of a crowd, they identify membership by wearing certain styles of clothing or eating specific foods. That group of people also may speak a certain way — so distinctly so that an accent becomes part of the group’s identity.”

What else impacts accent formation?

Next week, we’ll talk about social class, migration, and invasion.

Are Facial Expressions Perceived Differently Across Cultures? Find Out Here.

Languages have shaped our genetics in terms of physiological differences in speech.

The roof of the mouth, for instance, differs across cultures.

But language isn’t the only part of communication.

Facial expressions and mannerisms are a big part of communication, and the interpretation of these types of expression differs across cultures.

The facial musculature of humans is highly developed, far more so than in any other primate species.

As such, the lips and eyes reveal a lot about human emotion.

According to Herbert Gintis’ “Gene-culture coevolution and the nature of human sociality”:

“Humans have evolved a highly specialized and very costly complex of physiological characteristics that both presuppose and facilitate sophisticated aural and visual communication, whereas communication in other primates, lacking as they are in cumulative culture, goes little beyond simple calling and gesturing capacities.”

While other primate species’ may go “little beyond,” how far does ours go?

Emotional Expression

Prior studies have suggested that the evolutionary nature of facial expressions does not differ across cultures, but at least one study has found that expressions of happiness, anger, and sadness are perceived differently between the East and the West.

According to the study’s abstract:

“Briefly stated, the universality hypothesis claims that all humans communicate six basic internal emotional states (happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sad) using the same facial movements by virtue of their biological and evolutionary origins [Susskind JM, et al. (2008) Nat Neurosci 11:843–850].”

Published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the research, led by Rachael E. Jack, PhD, of the University of Glasgow, opposes this theory.

The Study

Looking at the way in which Western Caucasians and East Asians view various expressions according to their facial features, two groups – one of Caucasians and one of Chinese participants – were selected.

The study’s participants viewed emotion-neutral faces that were altered at random using technology. They were asked to classify the faces as happy, sad, angry, disgusted, fearful, or surprised.

Researchers were then able to identify the facial features that the groups of participants associated with the emotions.

From the responses, researchers deduced that Western Caucasians focused more on the mouth and eyebrows when identifying facial expressions, while Chinese participants focused primarily on the eyes.

These differences can lead to complexities in communication across cultures, resulting in misinterpretation or missed signals of emotional expression. 

The findings support the concept of gene-culture coevolution and how culture is increasingly driving human behavior more than genetics.

We’ll talk more about cultural mannerisms and body language next week.

The Myth of Spanish King Ferdinand, the Lisping King & the True Gene-Culture Coevolution of Speech

There is a common myth in Spain that King Ferdinand was born with a lisp.

As the story goes, this speech impediment led to the Spanish pronunciation of “z” and “c” with the soft “th” sound, as Ferdinand’s courtiers imitated his lisp.

This Spanish pronunciation of “z” as “th” differs from the “z” as “s” spoken in western Spanish-speaking countries.

In reality, the “s” sound exists in the Spanish language; it is just not applied to “z” or “c” (the latter, when followed by “i” or “e”). 

Thus, it follows that the differences in pronunciation across Spanish-speaking cultures are not due to a lisping king, but rather to the natural regional differences that develop in living languages.

In the same way that American pronunciation of English varies from British pronunciation, peculiarities of living languages emerge across many groups, regions, countries, etc.

While King Ferdinand’s story is nothing but an urban legend, culture and genetics really do work together to create physiological differences related to speech.

Here’s how.

Genes & Culture Interact

Herbert Gintis’ paper titled, “Gene–culture coevolution and the nature of human sociality,” defines the gene-culture coevolution theory as follows:

“Gene–culture coevolution is the application of sociobiology, the general theory of the social organization of biological species, to humans—a species that transmits culture in a manner that leads to quantitative growth across generations.”

Cultural differences have produced changes in brain size, body size, and other aspects of human anatomy across the human species.

Last week, we talked about how genes and culture worked together to alter our diet – specifically, our ability to consume milk products – and how that ability varies across cultures according to their cultural history.

In the same way, gene-culture coevolution has symbiotically shaped human speech and communication.

Speech & Communication

Gintis goes on to explain how gene-culture coevolution is readily apparent in the physiological evolution of human speech and facial communication.

He writes that genetic alterations that improve speech are propagated due to the increasing importance human society places on communication. 

In early humans, speech production was facilitated by the evolution of regions in the motor cortex, including the adaptation of muscles and nerves in the tongue, larynx, and mouth that help produce speech.

Other physical attributes that have adapted over time in humans to improve speech include a low larynx in the throat, a shorter oral cavity, and the hypoglossal canal of the tongue, all of which both help produce sounds.

The Wernicke’s and Broca’s regions in the cerebral cortex are either absent or are very small in other primates; they’re large in humans, enabling comprehension and speech.

Human facial musculature is also more highly developed, allowing the eyes and lips to impart nonverbal communication.

Considering the development of these attributes that facilitate speech in humans, you can see that genes and culture have worked closely together to evolve the human species.

Next week, we’ll talk about how these physiological aspects of speech differ across cultures.

Cultural Bodyclock: How to Adjust to Polychronic or Monochronic Time Perception

Research by Harvard Business Review found that

“between 10% and 20% of all U.S. managers sent abroad returned early because of job dissatisfaction or difficulties in adjusting to a foreign country.”

One of the primary adjustments to make as a manager in a foreign country is adjusting one’s bodyclock to the culture’s time perception.

As we’ve learned these past few weeks, polychronic and monochronic cultures operate according to clocks that have been set very differently – not just in two different time zones, but more like in two different space-time continuums.

Polychronic cultures have a more fluid view of time, while in monochronic cultures, time is linear.

If you’re sent to manage a company in another country, you might need to acquire – or at least adjust to – their view of time.

But you can’t just reset your watch, so how do you make these adjustments actionable?

Being a Monochron

For those coming from a polychronic culture into a monochronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception:

  • Punctuality and organization – both the manager and the staff know their schedule in advance and are expected to be prompt at meetings. Punctuality is key to keeping everything else on track, like a well-oiled machine.
  • Time management tools – many countries in monochronic cultures use time management tools to keep joint calendars as a team and stay on task. Tools like Scoro, Asana, and Trello come to mind.
  • Linear activities – monochronic time systems move one step at a time. Once one task is completed and accounted for, an employee can move onto the next, ensuring focus and efficiency.
  • Individual drive and achievement – individual successes are celebrated, both personally and by the company (think “employee of the month”). This motivates personal drive and performance.
  • Meeting deadlines – deadlines in monochronic cultures are hard stops. Work is expected to be completed promptly by deadline in a task-oriented fashion.

If you, as a polychron, can tune into these time- and motivation-related aims, you will be a more successful manager in a monochronic culture.

Being a Polychron

For those coming from a monochronic culture into a polychronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception.

  • Interactionrelationships and personal connections are a normal part of the workday. While tasks are set, personal interaction with colleagues and clients is expected and often prioritized.
  • Integrated activities – multitasking is common, and tasks are completed in an integrated and often leisurely fashion, with those who have finished their tasks pulling in to help others.
  • Group effort – as mentioned above, tasks are more often a group effort, as polychronic businesses often have a flat management structure where peer support is encouraged. Thus, individual recognition isn’t so important as group recognition.
  • Flexibility – there is a more flexible agenda in polychronic cultures, with employees not worrying too much about a hard deadline.
  • High context communication – all crucial information is shared, along with background information, and often in a manner where tone and visual cues are emphasized and interpreted.

When stepping into another culture’s time perception, making pointed actionable adjustments will help you adjust your bodyclock in a concrete way to a foreign culture.

I am a Third Culture Kid: Here’s What I’ve Learned

Third Culture Kids grow up in more than one culture.

Like Barack Obama or any other child who wasn’t raised in their parents’ homeland, I was expatriated and embedded in a foreign culture from a young age and learned how to adapt.

In fact, I grew up in three cultures.

My family was Swiss. At home, we had Swiss behaviors and traditions.

My school was French. I learned the French language, learned about French history and geography, and befriended my French peers.

My surroundings were African. The market, the neighborhood, the people, the culture – the reality of life all around me was that of the Mossi tribe.

I learned how to alter my body language and my behavior. Even my sense of humor differed depending on the audience.

This is what a TCK learns early on, which many only learn later in life:

Adapting is a necessity across cultures.

Perspective and Behavior

TCKs are in a specific cultural group all their own.

They are in a unique position where they are made to value various cultures, placing relatively equal importance on the behaviors and norms of them all.

The “rights” and “wrongs” that are culture-based and learned through primary socialization vary, and so the TCK learns that hardline views differ from group to group.

This allows some flexibility when navigating contradicting norms and values of the cultures into which the TCK is placed.

In this way, TCKs develop specific interpersonal behavior and standards of perspective that a child raised in a single culture does not, as they are not so exposed to opposing worldviews. 

A TCK’s lifestyle is different. Their communication is different, not only in its multilingual nature, but in its style, nonverbal and otherwise.

The complexity of their firsthand experience with multiple cultures produces in them distinct characteristics that enable their positioning as the perfect zookeepers.

Here’s why.

Zookeepers Know Different Species

Due to their knowledge of and relationship with multiple “species” in the “zoo,” TCKs have developed a natural understanding of various perspectives.

They can see through the eyes of the elephant, the eyes of the penguin, the eyes of the giraffe.

They can even see through YOUR eyes: the eyes of the monkey.

While those who have grown up in one culture develop firm values and norms rooted in that single culture, this can often hinder the acceptance of contradicting values and norms.

Those growing up in single cultures often view other perspectives as wrong, rude, forbidden, or even illegal.

Instead of seeing the whole picture and trying to understand the rationale behind another culture’s beliefs, their perspective becomes emotional, biased, and they tend to stonewall understanding.

TCKs, on the other hand, have learned how to monitor emotions about differing perspectives.

They are more adept at registering social cues and norms and more practiced at cultural sensitivity.

Just as they switch fluidly from one language to the next, they are able to fluidly adapt to behaviors of one culture or another.

To them, it is a way of life.

And this natural empathy allows them to be more understanding of YOU, the monkey, as you have “monkey moments” in a foreign culture.

In this way, they can help serve as a patient teacher between the two worlds, if you should be so lucky to secure their friendship.

The Zookeeper: Your Intermediary in a Foreign Culture 

As a foreigner in another culture, we are caged monkeys in a zoo.

This is a common theme in my blog and particularly in my book, I am the Monkey.

As monkeys in the zoo, we look outside our habitats and wonder at the strange animals called “humans” – i.e. the local people whose culture we’re living in.

Why are they staring at us all the live-long day?

The noises they make are odd. The fur they wear is multicolored. Their actions are diabolical.

But of all the humans who gather around our cage, there is one that we can identify with: the Zookeeper.

How Zookeepers Behave

Unlike the human spectators who throw peanuts at you, the zookeeper gives you real food.

More than that, she knows when you’re hungry.

Instead of making strange noises and pulling faces at you, she approaches you normally, she moves naturally.

As a monkey, you don’t fear the Zookeeper, because the Zookeeper doesn’t cause confusion.

Though she is not a monkey, she understands monkeys, and you understand her.

This is the type of person you need when integrating into a foreign culture: a local who understands you and who you understand too.

You may not speak the same mother tongue, but you are still able to communicate well enough to get by.

Cultural Food

The Zookeeper can feed you the cultural food you need to help understand their culture.

Good zookeepers understand both cultures well enough to hash out any differences and help explain their own culture in a way to which you can relate.

Knowing both monkeys and humans allows the Zookeeper to build bridges, providing explanations for behaviors and mental models to aid understanding.

Zookeepers can tell the humans, “You’re making too much noise and scaring the monkeys.”

They can tell the monkeys, “The humans don’t mean to alarm you; they’re just excited to meet you.”

They can tell the humans, “Don’t feed them; they just ate.”

They can tell the monkeys, “I know you’re not hungry but feeding guests is part of the human culture.”

Through understanding and effective communication, the Zookeeper is the intermediary between the two worlds, aiding both the monkey’s integration and the humans’ ability to help this foreigner integrate.

Next week, we’ll look at an example of a genuine zookeeper in action. 

Making Friends: Following the Cultural Rules of Relationship-Building

Is it easy to make friends in your culture?

In the category of “making friends” in the 2020 Expat Insider survey, conducted annually by InterNations, Switzerland ranks at the bottom end of the list at 53. 

Only Japan, Norway, Sweden, Kuwait, and Denmark offer tougher friend-making odds. 

The Local describes making friendships in these countries quite aptly:

“The way to their hearts can sometimes feel as long, dark and cold as the Nordic winters.”

And considering the Swiss concept of friendship and aversion to small talk with strangers, it’s easy to see why this would be the case.

An outsider might find it difficult to gain the trust and loyalty of lifelong friendship from the Swiss…particularly, as an expat, who is more likely to leave the country at some point.

So, how do you build friendships in countries where it’s notoriously hard and where your expat status makes it more likely that your time is fleeting?

Take Your Cue from Locals

Differing concepts of friendship can be a struggle, but some cross-cultural understanding will help ease the transition.

An American in Switzerland should be considerate of differences in communicational comfort.

Because the most important thing to keep in mind in countries that have a more restrictive definition of friendship is to hold back, as your own cultural approach will come across as overbearing.

Refrain from small talk with strangers in grocery stories. When with colleagues, speak in generalities and don’t get too personal too quickly.

And on the other side of the pond, a Swiss expat in America should brace oneself for discomfort when it comes to communication and friendship.

You might choose either to be open to adapting to the norm of small talk and practice sharing your personal life, bit by bit, or you might accept being viewed as closed and reserved by your American colleagues.

If your goal is to make friends and integrate, the first choice will obviously gain you more ground in a culture that’s more sociable than your own.

And remember: when you’re a foreigner, making friends is more than just socializing; a local friend can greatly aid you in understanding and navigating the culture.

Speaking in Generalities

As with everything, these generalities are not inclusive of every American and every Swiss.

You’ll find some Americans to be private and reserved and some Swiss to be more open to friendship.

You must always take stereotypes with a grain of salt and know that each and every person is an individual case.

Regardless, an awareness of your host culture’s general approach to human-to-human contact will help you avoid overstepping the common social boundaries that the culture deems agreeable.

Know the Rules: Understanding the Local Concept of Friendship

“True friends are the ones with whom you shared a sandbox.”

This is a Swiss saying, and it summarizes how the Swiss feel about friendships in general.

Friends are the people they grow up with. This is the general Swiss view.

They view foreigners’ concepts of friendship (particularly, Americans) as superficial.

They may also view certain areas of discussion with friends or social groups as taboo.

Because of these values and norms surrounding friendship, Switzerland might be one of the toughest places in the world to make friends as a foreigner.

In fact, many expats give up and stick to themselves.

But before throwing in the towel when it comes to cross-cultural friendships, learn the rules.

You might find it’s easier to make friends when you know what the local concept of friendship is to begin with.

Local Concept of Friendship

The definition of true friendship differs across cultures, as does what is considered acceptable in social settings. 

Simply put, to make friends according to local standards, you must know what friendship means to that culture.

The rules of forming a friendship in another culture are three-pronged.

They involve knowing the:

  1. Approach to Human Interaction
  2. Socially Acceptable Discussion Topics
  3. Pace by which Relationships are Expected to Progress

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

Approach 

One culture’s approach to human interaction – i.e., tone and delivery – may be very different than that of another culture.

The way in which we speak to each other – whether politely or jokingly – might be considered too uptight in one culture or too abrasive and disrespectful in another.

Knowing the tone and approach to communication that is culturally expected at different stages of a budding friendship can help you in forming cross-cultural friendships.

Discussion Topics

What can you talk about? What is off-limits?

While you might come from an open culture, some cultures are much more generally private than others.

They might see sharing private thoughts and feelings as oversharing, particularly if the relationship is new.

While talking about the weather might sound boring, being too intrusive or intimate in another culture upon first approach is a surefire way to be friendless.

Pacing

As with any developing relationship, there are typical steps to increasing intimacy in friendship and communication, no matter which culture.

Beginning with the basic level of personal communication, greetings are socially acceptable (and expected) to form common bonds during the initial stages of communication.

Next, you might engage in small talk about the workplace (if this is a situation in which you work together) and then non-work-related small talk.

If the relationship progresses, factual personal information might come next: sharing where you live, what you like to do in your down-time, etc.

As you move into true “friendship” territory, more intimate communication will be shared. Whether that’s a sharing of feelings, fears, dreams, the meaning of life, etc.

While most friendships develop along this curve, the pacing across cultures often differs.

For instance, you might move through all four stages within one plane ride. Or it could take you a year to reach this point.

If both participants are from the same culture, their pacing often aligns. They feel completely fine and comfortable becoming “fast friends” on a redeye.

If the participant is from a different culture, they might be uncomfortable with the pacing.

They might feel their boundaries are being intruded upon too quickly, and this invasion of privacy will be turn them off to friendship.

All cultures have different expectations of how and when to progress and intensify communication toward friendship. We’ll talk more about these rules next week.

English as the Lingua Franca: Is Knowing English Enough to Succeed in Business?

English is the lingua franca – i.e., the common language often spoken when people of mixed native languages gather.

This might make native English speakers consider avoiding learning another language and falling back on their English competency.

While communication may no longer be the most important part of learning another language (see last week’s post), there are many reasons you should.

Here are a few…

The Lingua Franca Shifts

The ancient powers of Babylonia, Persia, and Assyria all spoke Aramaic.

The Hellenistic empire spoke Greek.

The Romans? They spoke Latin and so did other cultures outside their own, in order to communicate in a common language with the empirical power.

The Spanish and French languages have also held their own as the lingua franca during their empirical reigns.

This is why in many former colonies, Portuguese, French, and English often remain as official languages.

French was even the primary language in Britain for three centuries, with the motto, “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”), on the U.K.’s royal coat of arms still written in French.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, half the world was learning Russian as a second language. The fall was a victory for the English language, as this shifted the paradigm.

English was only adopted as the unofficial universal language of business in the last century, which goes to show how this trend can – and, likely, will – naturally shift.

Considering countries like China are becoming important trading partners, making Mandarin a key language to learn, English may not continue to hold this position as universal language for long.

“English Light”

In his book, Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One, Edward Trimnell provides another reason for broadening your linguistic skills.

He notes that “global English” is usually “English light,” meaning that oftentimes non-native speakers are minimally fluent and have not mastered the nuances of the language.

In order to negotiate with and sell to those who speak “English light,” language skills of your own are required.

The transition of global companies to communicating in various languages is prevalent in the shift of English web content over the years.

While in the late nineties, 90 percent of online content was in English, this has dropped to 25.9 percent as of 2020.

According to Trimnell, this is partially due to the mantra, “Buy from the world in your language, sell to them in theirs…” which is why international company websites are now available in dozens of languages.

Considering what we discussed with the Daewoo CEO last week, selling in a foreign language in a foreign market is clearly important, not only in regards to communication but also in demonstrating respect. 

The bottom line: the times are a’changing, and the skill of language learning should not be underestimated.

3 Vital Reasons to Learn a Language

“Hola!”

“Bonjour!”

“Ni hao!”

“Zdravstvuyte!”

While there are many reasons to learn another language, the below BIG THREE are vital.

1) Understanding Each Other

Communication – a vehicle to understanding – is of course one of the main reasons to learn a language.

English is the official business language of many international companies. Most managers, even of foreign companies, speak fluent English.

In this regard, successful management may not be entirely dependent on learning another language if you look at it purely from a communication perspective.

However, if you’re meant to feel at home in a foreign culture, better understanding will only be had once you know the native language.

2) Learning the Culture

As we talked about in last week’s post, language and culture are intertwined. 

Learning the language will teach you how the culture‘s people think – including your colleagues. 

One personal example of this: 

My father wrote the dictionaries for the tribe of the Mossi, whose language spellings weren’t standardized in the ’70s.

In writing these dictionaries, he learned not only about the language, but about the values of the culture, due to the importance of certain words and phrases.

Greetings, for instance, were many and varied.

When meeting a group of people in a field, you’d extend a different greeting than that of a group congregating under a tree.

Not only does the location impact the greeting, the response is also standardized.

Asking after one’s health is important, as are formalized responses to these greetings.

Even the Mossi are aware about how difficult these greeting customs are to master.

They have a saying, “Saan puusem yaa a ziibo,” which means, “The greetings are a heavy burden for foreigners.”

My father became fluent in the Mossi language and began to understand conversations and idioms.

“When the crocodile is sick, then the buffalo can drink,” for instance, is an optimistic statement meaning there is always an upside in life.

When you learn the language, you learn the culture.

It’s as simple and complex as that.

3) Demonstrating Respect

As my father did with the Mossi, learning another culture’s language demonstrates your respect for the people.

When a Walmart CEO announced that English would be the official company language in Germany, his actions weren’t taken well.

In fact, this – at least in part – led to the conglomerate withdrawing from the German market and to a billion plus-dollar loss.

Instead, handle language as the British CEO of Korean automaker, Daewoo, did. 

When it became apparent that General Motors, the U.S. company that bought out the failing motor company, Daewoo, was viewed as an outsider in Korea, Daewoo’s British CEO, Nick Reilly, took this to heart.

What did Reilly, known for his policy of “putting people as No. 1,” do?

Unsurprisingly, he put people first by way of appearing on a Korean television commercial.

When the people saw Reilly himself speaking the language to show his – and, more importantly, the brand’s – respect and commitment to Korea, they were colored impressed.

The result: the commercial resonated with Koreans, and the Daewoo company – although reorganized and rebranded in many places – saw a dramatic recovery.