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?

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.

How Languages Signify the Importance of Family to Culture

When you want to know the importance of large families to a culture, take a look at the language.

As we discussed last week about two-generational and multi-generational families, the definition of what constitutes a family differs across cultures.

This week, we’ll talk about how language reflects this.

The Bloodline

Bloodlines are not of much importance to Western culture.

However, they are to others.

The Yanomami – an indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforest – have four different words for cousin, all dependent on the specific relationship.

  • Amiwa – daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Eiwa – son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Suwabiya – daughter of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt
  • Soriwa – son of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt

Each cousin has a distinctive name, because the bloodline is so important to the Yanomami.

Turkey, as well, has familial vocabulary that distinguishes between bloodlines.

Your father’s brother and sister would be called “amca” and “hala,” respectively, while your mother’s brother and sister would be called “dayı” and “teyze.” Both mean “aunt” and “uncle,” but the terms are distinct to differentiate between bloodlines.

Moreover, the Turkish language also designates between younger and older siblings, in this way signifying the respect shown to elders in their culture.

Younger siblings call their elder siblings not by their names, but by either “abla” or “abi,” for an elder sister or brother, respectively. You can even address elder people in informal settings as such.

The Bloodline Loses Importance

The funny thing is Old English once differentiated specific relatives in a similar fashion; the language for such familial relations has simply gone by the wayside, since such distinctions are no longer important to many English-speaking cultures.

For instance, in Old English, a father’s brother was called fœdra, while a mother’s brother was called eam, a word that survived the 19th century through other dialects in the word “eme,” which generally means “friend” or “uncle.”

So, while someone from an English-speaking culture might find all of this specificity about the bloodline to be overkill, know that in generations past, your own culture did the same. As cultures evolve, and values change, so do norms.

This is one of them.