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Exploring languages and cultures
Exploring languages and cultures

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1.5 What about you?

As you have seen, a culture may seem unfamiliar to you for a variety of reasons. Nation and language may be the most visible sources of cultural differences, but there are many more such as religion, gender, profession, or age. Some of these are very obvious, whereas others are more subtle but no less meaningful.

Activity 10

Think about two specific intercultural encounters involving yourself and a person from a context that is different from your own. (They could, for example, be from a different country or different region or differ in terms of occupation, age, sexual orientation or religion.) The encounters should have been significant or unusual, for some reason. One of them should have been unsuccessful or challenging, and the other one successful.

Describe each of them in 100–125 words, explaining what made it significant or unusual and why you think it was successful or unsuccessful. Record your answers in the box below.

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Here are two examples drawn from the experiences of one of the authors of this course as an amateur musician.

An unsuccessful encounter

Some years ago I joined a weekly folk music group in north-east England. Being Spanish, I was hoping to make some English friends and learn some English folk music. Unfortunately, the director insisted on talking to me as though I could barely understand English, perhaps because I had to keep translating guitar chord names from ‘C–D–E’ to ‘do–re–mi’. Despite my best efforts to demonstrate that I was able to give perfectly articulate responses, he would simply fail to notice that I could actually speak English. To make matters worse, other group members did pretty much the same and I never understood why. After a couple of months I just left and found myself a local singing group, where I was finally allowed to hold a normal conversation.

A successful encounter

At the end of a dinner party at home, a few of us started to play the Paraguayan harp. One of my colleagues, who was Korean, fell in love with the instrument and asked me to teach her how to play it. We met every week until I taught her all I knew, which was not much. Eventually she decided that Latin-American music was too alien to her and she switched to the clàrsach (Celtic harp). By then we had become very close friends, so much so that I asked her to be my daughter’s godmother. We visit each other regularly and often end up comparing our experiences as foreign residents in the UK. She is now a proficient harpist; I am not.

The two examples provided above show that not all intercultural encounters necessarily revolve around nationality (British meets Spanish; Spanish meets Korean) as the main source of cultural differences, and show that other aspects of culture are important too.

In the first example, differences in musical traditions and practices were probably just as important as, if not more important than, national or linguistic differences. Once the Spanish musician moved from an instrumental folk group to a singing group in the same town, she no longer experienced communication problems despite the fact that in both cases all the other group members were British. Perhaps something about her behaviour did not meet the unwritten rules for interacting with others in instrumental folk groups, whereas the same behaviour was regarded as normal in a singing group. Another explanation could be that she was more assertive or proficient as a singer than as a folk guitarist, and this competence made the other singers perceive her as more linguistically competent too.

In the second example the encounter may have been successful because the two participants shared an interest in harp music and the relationship developed around one person helping the other.