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The Influence of Culture and Language on Thought and Behavior

When one looks at a nation, what does one see that sets it apart from their own? What do

people do there that is different from what is familiar? These differences across all aspects of

life create a culture, and although one cannot definitely define culture, people have been noticing

differences and have been comparing them for centuries. But, there are practices, beliefs and

ideas in cultures that cannot be compared to others because they are totally unique to the culture

at hand. One often finds this amusing and difficult when one wants to translate language. But

how do language and culture influence the way people act and think? Cultures can be compared

along cross-cutting cleavages between them, most noticeably the location, food, language, non-

verbal communication, and religion. With careful examination, it is easy to discover that culture

and language have a dramatic effect on the way its constituents behave and think.

The first, most obvious, difference between cultures is their location on the globe.

Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, through his various cultural studies, found that

nations closer to the equator, whose weather is more constant and reliable, have informal

communication, a lower rate of heart disease, and a relaxed pace of life. This leads people to

have what he calls a “present hedonistic” take on life. In northern countries, such as Germany or

Sweden, the weather changes with the seasons and people have a “future oriented” mindset.

They constantly prepare for the future, have higher GDPs, and consequently a higher rate of

heart disease (Zimbardo). It comes as no surprise that people in colder climates have a faster

paced life than those in warmer climates. A joint study between the University of Michigan and

the University of California found that the nations with the fastest pace are Switzerland, Ireland,

Germany, and Japan, with the slowest in the study being Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil (Levin).

Where the people are located heavily influences the pace of life in their culture. The pace of life

one would have no need for a Taco Bell and a little north you will never lack a pancake topping. the needs of the people are not met. Visiting Japan. such as sub-Saharan Africa. much like in the United States. but had “a healthier vegetarian diet and were keen . the Irish worship the potato as much as Indians add curry to everything. he found that the diets were healthier. leads to an obesity epidemic. “This. the culture can reach for higher goals and attain higher standards. is more deeply impacted by the scarcity of food and the threat of violence. unhealthy snacks. Food is also linked heavily with the development of a person and their idea of what makes “home” for them (Kingsley). Nothing in Germany goes down better than a bratwurst and a mug of beer. So. Alongside the psychological mindset that location can have on a culture. 2 and the possible abundance of food can change the ideals of the population. although rich. a nutritionist from The Ohio State University. coupled with few choices in healthy foods.” (Klatka). In fact. and satirize it. poor families drank Coca-Cola. This leads to behaviors such as laziness and discontent. the food of a culture must logically be an important part of a culture. and the culture. one must be a fool not to drink the wine and taste the cheese. its location also changes what they eat. while in France. They still had the unhealthy snacks. Stereotypes take a noticeable and important part of a society. Eddie Klatka. he found that with most meals. Studying Mexican culture and diet. people usually eat high calorie breads and have cheap. Once Maslow‟s needs are met. In poorer Mexican culture. Going south of the American border. For example. In countries where location is not as prime. A culture can be identified by its food and many common stereotypes of foreign cultures in America regards food. enlarge it. makes the assertion that food also shapes behavior. people who experience culture shock often rank the change in food as a major contributor (Kingsley).

If the diet is national. healthier body image. The way in which a culture counts can have an impact on the lifestyle and ability to learn mathematics. and preparing the many vegetarian ingredients.” (Stigler and Baranes). the joy of cooking perceived by the culture and the benefits of sharing a traditional meal. the foods [a culture] eats can affect the entire country. “Traditional diets that preach moderation. These include numbering systems. Mrs. 3 on drinking green tea. But.S. “Cultures differ in counting methods and numbering systems… these differences are thought to contribute to differences in math achievement between the U. Nations that identify with healthier foods and follow vegetarian diets are healthier than those with unhealthy traditional foods. a character in one of Lahiri‟s short stories. Sen. and enrich it deeply. all of which impact the thought process and behavior of a culture. Language in and of itself has depth to match that of the culture. all can have the side effects of clearer thinking. Most characters are of Indian culture and the eating and sharing of a meal is very important. and higher self-esteem. add a unique quality. how exactly would she compliment the cook? That person would need to speak. is commonly found sitting on the floor. She goes into detail about the time used to prepare the meal as well as the healthy ingredients. language structure. Cultures with healthy diets consistently show more altruism (Matsumoto).” (Klatka). less meat. the perception of time. but there are certain points of comparison that all languages can be compared against.” (Klatka). and Asia. if someone was at a dinner party. listening to Indian music. explores this aspect of culture in many of her stories. such as the culture of the . which has many beneficial side effects. in her fictional story anthology. more vegetables. The foods that a culture holds dear further identify the culture. Jhumpa Lahiri. The need for a people to communicate has found a solution in the spoken word. Interpreter of Maladies. and the extent of its vocabulary.Some cultures. using one of the largest identifiers of a culture: its language.

a present and a future to adequately describe events and communicate ideas. in a row. in an article for New Scientist. Thus pointing to language shaping what is important in a culture and what needs to be thought about by an individual in that society. including batteries. 4 Pirahã tribe in the Amazon. and wrote: “„There are not really occasions in their daily lives where the Pirahã need to count. and having a language may be a universal solution to this problem.‟ explains Gordon. deviating more from the correct number as the row got longer. The Pirahã were supposed to respond by laying out the same number of objects from their own pile. in some cultural dialects. two. In the simplest. he sat opposite an individual and laid out a random number of familiar objects. two and three objects. “The need to have language may be a pancultural universal problem. Gordon set seven Pirahã a variety of tasks. The perception of time in a language is also very important in a society. have an underdeveloped numbering system consisting of the numbers one. interviewed Peter Gordon. Most languages have a past. even though it is often unnoticed. But the specific way in which each culture solves this problem – that is develops its own language – is different in every culture.” Numbering systems in general are taken for granted in many languages. sticks and nuts. a psychologist at Columbia University about an experiment he conducted with the local tribe. But for four and five and up to ten. and.” (Matsumoto). tenses may be missing or even . they could only match it approximately. CelesteBiever. members of the tribe consistently matched Gordon's pile correctly.In order to test if this prevented members of the tribe from perceiving higher numbers. and many. but in some it is not needed.For one.

there is no will be! That‟s why nothing gets done!”This is unique to Sicilian culture and has a definite influence on the behavior of those who live in it. “in Sicilian dialect. There was. the Indian influence on time is felt and expressed through the actions of the characters. The structure of the language is shown by research in various studies to shape the thought process of its speakers (Matsumoto). 5 more plentiful than the observer‟s native tongue. They live for future promises and their culture is shaped around such. can be influenced by location. She embellishes her stories with the past being better than the present will ever be. the most influential aspect of a culture. Finnish on the other hand has no past tense. They tend to be. there is. and therefore behavioral influence. Boori Ma. In “A Real Durwan” the main character. are related. and the Sicilians in the south with a more constant. This persistence on the past and present show the influence a equatorial culture and a language that favors a “past positive” reflection of time has on a person of that culture and how they behave and look at life. as Zimbardo calls it. which leads the Fins to be progressive thinkers who plan their futures.” as that is the way in which their lingual dialect tells them to think. the Fins in the north being future oriented and their language matching that trait. is a refugee from Calcutta. Once again. The German language is very methodical and logical in structure and therefore is more likely to produce logical thinkers than say Afrikaans which does not need to distinguish as many thoughts to convey an idea. All patterns in cultural influence. Guy Deutscher of the New York Times writes on the subject: . “past or present oriented. India. She spends her time telling stories in her language to all who will listen and essentially lives in the past. in JhumpaLahiri‟s anthology. there is no future tense. Language. They rejoice in tradition and seek to meet their needs. but are less likely to plan. regulated Mediterranean climate (Levin). Zimbardo shares.

and its language creates a word for it to be used in common communication within the said culture. but also vocabulary. and things relevant and important to the culture itself. Cultures place value on specific ideas. which they interpreted as reflecting different cultural ideas of self and others. 6 “Suppose I say to you in English that „I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor. which lead to what is stressed in a certain culture. which places a higher importance on the flow of ideas in the culture. but I have the right to tell you politely that it‟s none of your business.” Certain language structures may help the flow of ideas more than others. but the what. (Matsumoto).The Chinese language does not require any time element and does not distinguish from past. because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine. but there are many cases in which there is no equivalent. of 39 languages examined. Not only does structure influence thought. Not the who. One example is the German word schadenfreude. This is where humorous translations arise. The English language is proven to provide speakers with better critical thinking skills than most other widely-spoken languages (Matsumoto). These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern.‟ You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female. Language also affects feelings and attitudes of a culture and a people. events. when and where. But if we were speaking French or German. I wouldn‟t have the privilege to equivocate in this way. cultures whose languages allowed for pronouns to be dropped from sentences tended to be less individualistic. present or future. But what happens when another language and culture is interested in the idea? It is likely that there is a word for it. Nachbar or Nachbarin. This leaves the important part of the message as the idea. although it can be determined. For example. which has no .

what their language allows (Matsumoto). There might even be words for bodily actions unique to that culture that have no equivalent in any other culture.” Another would be mamihlapinatapai. She raises the fact and shares that there are thousands of individual languages in India. In a fit of road rage. People use gestures to communicate and help share their ideas when words are not enough. each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin. whose meaning is “a look shared by two people. from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego. The words used can be used to peek into the minds of people to see how they think and why they think that way. and their thoughts are shaped by what they commonly communicate. while in English. 7 equivalent in English. There is no equivalent in the English language. These are words used to describe foods such as hariyali and profanity such as Chinaal and Banir among other things. Pirzada Came to Dine. when an American would not be able to effectively insult another . creeds and spheres of influence. there are a few and the ones made by Crayola. but the existence of the word in the Tierra del Fuego culture shows that the idea is part of the culture in some way. not adjectives in their own right (Biever).” (Biever). all with their own rich heritage and shows how they can create conflict in “When Mr. Body language is a global trait common to all cultures of all sizes. which are based off examples of the color. In the Gaelic language of Ireland. both to show the diversity of immigrants coming to America as well as to show the depth of a culture. there multiple words for many shades of green. but the closest Webster translation comes to be “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” The vocabulary of dialects of a language and of the language themselves proclaim to the world the ideology of the culture. Lahiri uses many examples of different Hindi words that have no equivalent in the English language. The actions of people are shaped by their thoughts.

it means that one wants sex. however. fear. “the American A-OK sign. In a study reviewed by researchers at the University of California “the spontaneous expressions of Americans and Japanese were examined as they viewed highly stressful films in two conditions. cultural differences emerged.” (Matsumoto). While the Americans continued to express their negative motions. transactions take place face to face with at most a foot or two away from each other. Lahiri illustrates the body language of Indian culture through many of her specific stories. Culture shapes the physical behavior of its population and the way behavior is interpreted. sadness. when one wants to conduct business. first alone and then a second time in the presence of an older. and anger. transactions are held at arm‟s length and standing that close would be interpreted as anger. Placing both hands at the side of your head and pointing upwards with the forefingers signals one is angry in some cultures. In America and Western Europe. The couples rarely make eye contact and physical affection in “Sexy” is minimal. She leads readers to the conclusion that culture can shape the reactions people have in certain situations. leading to both partners feeling unfulfilled. having sexual implications. is an obscene gesture in many cultures of Europe. In the first condition the Americans and Japanese were similar in their expressions of disgust. male experimenter. It is not only gestures. Another study by Stanford University found that when Chinese and American children were asked if they would fight back if someone punched them. however.” (Matsumoto). In “Sexy” and “Interpreter of Maladies” she shows the dominating presence men can have in that society with women acting defeated in some regard. In the Middle East. in others. the Japanese were more likely to smile. the American . The interpretation of gestures changes culture to culture as well. For example. a suggestive gesture can get the point across without the use of words. for example. but also body behavior in general. in the second condition. 8 driver.

But the surprising part is that when actually in the situation. such as in America or Europe. such as in India and Japan. is religion. This plays a large part in Lahiri‟s anthology. alongside a common language. but the older parents. What better to establish values and adherence than religion? This further strengthens the bond between all measurable aspects of culture. and in the case of “Interpreter of Maladies. This shows a complete adherence to the beliefs that a culture holds dear. This shapes ideology of inferiority and superiority. certain rules are to be followed. People in each class are supposed to act in a certain fashion. though processes and behavior between groups of people in a culture (Matsumoto). and thus a stronger adherence to the social guidelines. how we prepare it. Culturally. In cultures with a stronger hierarchy. the clothes we .” others watching from an outside perspective. Religion dictates “what we eat. but still feel bound by the informal caste system that was never really abolished. All behavior and thought is influenced by a variety of interconnected influences common to all cultures. there is a loose adherence with most people being occupied with how they are being perceived with only little regard of social class. 9 children stated they would fight back wholeheartedly. the Chinese children were more likely to fight back and with a greater ferocity than the American children (Sanford). as all of the characters who have moved to America understand that they are free individuals. there is a larger amount of respect. and when interacting with other castes. One may turn their nose up in disgust or be indifferent based on the values placed upon it by the culture itself. Possibly the largest. The younger generations feel less constrained as they shrug off older cultural values. there is an unspoken social hierarchy which shapes the nonverbal behavior of people. whereas the Chinese children were unwilling to claim to fight back. Body language shows what is morally acceptable in a culture. In social structures where the hierarchy is less prevalent.

their reactions. and in each culture there are the misfits that hope for something better. mixed with the terrified adherers who actually follow the peace prescribed in their religion (Smith). both of which have strict dietary guidelines. Currently. Their actions. 10 wear. location. most of the characters are of the Hindi of Islamic religion. The Hindi influence on the characters leads them to find peaceful means to their disagreements. a culture is the partition of a person‟s identity which they cannot control. It prescribes what meaning comes from existence and experience of its adherers. They shape the society. Pirzada Came to Dine” the clashes between religions are seen as well as the compromise and fellowship that people can show despite the differences. But no matter what. and even our willingness to adopt new products. The religion of the culture influences how violent or peaceful it is as well as the amount of social outreach there is. As they develop. Works Cited . hair styles and body styling.” (Smith). Muslims refrain from pork while Hindis refrain from beef. In general. our personal grooming. and the society shapes them. In every society there are the round people that will not fit into the square pegs of society. one can see the chaos in the Middle East with the clashing of religious zealots of different beliefs. and food all lead to who that person will become. the society they are born into becomes an intrinsic part of that person. Many authors try to make this point. In “When Mr. and the compassion shown is striking. the people will be influenced by the culture they are raised in. and Jhumpa Lahiri makes it well. their judgments. There are obvious differences between cultures. Religion in culture is seen as a major influence on thought and behavior almost everywhere (Smith). and their view on the world all relate and are affected by the society of which they are a part. Religion. language. behave and apply morality to situations. Religion controls how people think. In Jhumpa Lahiri‟s anthology.

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