Acquiring Culture

Given the Irreversible Imprint of Early Childhood, it is Hard to Ever Feel at Home Abroad

Opinion | Patrick Schmidt | April 2008

Schmidt’s guide to getting along with “Others”

In 1940, 17-year-old Heinz Grunwald arrived in New York City as a Jewish refugee from Vienna. He quickly changed his name to ‘’Henry,’’ mastered English, and ended up as a copy boy’s job at Time magazine.

For the next four decades, his life evolved around American journalism becoming editor-in-chief of Time, running the vast magazine empire for almost 30 years.

In his autobiography One Man’s America, he described how he enthusiastically adopted his new country, but pointed out how he was continually influenced by his early experiences in Austria. What he was referring to was the socializing process we all go through in our early life.

We all get socialized, one way or another. We learn "correct behavior," i.e. patterns of thinking, from our families, friends, schools, religious institutions and even from TV commercials. This cultural conditioning is most powerful in the first ten to twelve years of life, when most of our effort goes toward learning about the world in which we find ourselves, assimilating values and behavioral patterns.

According to neuro-psychologists, these "conditioned responses" not only feel natural to us, but are etched into our nervous systems, which then become part of our personality. Just as you "burn" information onto a CD, the process that takes place in the nervous system cannot be completely erased.

So, given the virtually irreversible learning patterns of early childhood, it’s extremely difficult to take on a new culture.

A British woman who came to Vienna to study and married  here may speak perfect German but is still English through and through. Although a 60-year-old Austrian-American may have arrived in Boston at the age of 15, there will always be social reflexes and non-verbal behavior to remind us that he was not, in fact, "born in the U.S.A."

But as the socialization process is not explicit, attempting to grasp and articulate one’s own cultural values is a formidable task. Patterns are so well ingrained in our minds and nervous systems that we can’t imagine being otherwise. When we’re asked to identify our feelings, we find it difficult to express specifics. Our reactions are tightly woven into all parts of our personality and control our thoughts, lifestyle, speech, how we behave toward one another...

"Culture hides more than it reveals" says American anthropologist Edward Hall, "and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants."

Whether via family, school or media, the acquisition of language is your window on the world. Your language translates internalized thought, through which you embody the "mentality," the shared perceptions of a culture. In fact, most people underestimate the pervasive power one’s native tongue has in the socialization process. Our language habits predispose and nudge us gently to certain patterns of meaning. And, obviously, our thinking is affected by the words that language makes  available.

For example, German speakers firmly believe that putting verbs at the end of sentences and clauses makes for a disciplined, no-nonsense formulation. It requires the listener to pay attention until the end in order to fully understand what’s been said. Consider the following:

Die Hauptbotschaft, die ich Ihnen vermittln möchte, lautet, dass das Lernen sowie das Verständnis von interkulturellen Unterschieden entscheidend zu dem Erfolg von Geschäftsbeziehungen im Ausland beitragen können.

"The main message, that I to you transmit would like, states, that the learning as well as the understanding of intercultural differences decisively to the success of business relations abroad contribute can."

For non-German speakers, putting compound verbs at the end of the sentence, as well as packing all this subordinate clauses inside, is unnatural and cumbersome.

Compare the thought-patterns of an American, whose language tends to be playful and opportunistic, placing emphasis on movement. If the above-mentioned German sentence were to be expressed by an American, it would be far more telegraphic. "Look, if you want to get along and make deals in a foreign country, you’ve got to know how the folks think."

Your mother-tongue structures thought and behavior in subtle ways, not consciously apparent to those using them. The linguist Benjamin Whorf summed it up by stating that the language we speak is largely interrelated with the way we think which, in turn, strongly influences how we understand reality and dictates how we behave.

"The limits of my language," wrote Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, "are the limits of my world."

Our mental constructs are primarily based on our mother tongue, making it hard to change attitudes and adopt new approaches. Although learning a second language fluently can help enormously, we will never instinctively "think" like a native-speaker unless we learned the language as a child. And, if we aren’t consciously aware of how much language influences thought-patterns, we will have a much more difficult time.

As the American communications-researcher Winston Brembeck once said, "To know another’s language and not its culture is a very good way to make a fluent fool of oneself."


This article is in large part excerpted from the author’s book In Search of Intercultural Understanding, published by Meridian World Press – ISBN 978-0-9685293-1-7, available at bookstores in Vienna including Shakespeare and Company, the British Book Shop, Schottentor Buchhandlung, or on Price 19,90

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    the vienna review April 2008