Friday, January 8, 2010

Symbols and Figures of Speech in Cross-Cultural Communications

As I was drafting my post on Lemon Pudding Cake, my thought drifted to the use of "lemon" as a symbol.

Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I find it a bit amusing that, just as many people can't introduce a madeleine recipe without invoking the name of Marcel Proust*, many feel compelled to preface a recipe featuring lemons with one version or another of the expression, "When life hands you lemons, ..."

Like I said, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that to some of us, it makes sense only because we've become accustomed to the American culture wherein "sour" has a negative connotation. I have come to understand what it means when someone describes a relationship as having turned "sour," but that took some learning through observation on my part.

Where I'm from, tartness is just as desirable as sweetness. (What would Tom Yam be without the sour flavor?) In other words, though "sweet" is universally understood to be a positive thing, "sour" is not necessarily understood across the different cultures to be the opposite of it. In the Thai culture, a relationship gone awry is described as having turned "tasteless/bland"(จืด or จืดจาง) or "bitter" (ขม) in case of animosity, but not "sour" (เปรี้ยว).

To understand the expression, "when life hands you lemons," you have to first buy into this "logic":

A. Good is the opposite of bad.
B. Sweet is good.
C. Sweet is the opposite of sour.
D. Therefore, sour is bad.

Some regard C as a priori whereas some regard C as a posteriori. I'm in the second group, and that's where things break down.

So if some of us give you a blank stare when you say, "When life hands you lemons," it's not that we're rude or stupid; we're just not sure what the heck is so wrong with the idea of being given something not only edible but also delicious like lemons.

While many symbols or figures of speech are universal**, I've found that people who have limited exposure to people outside their culture are often oblivious to the fact that a symbol that means one thing to them either doesn't mean anything or points to a completely different thing to others.

In graduate school, I was involved in a class activity where we took turns telling the stories of our lives through figures of speech and symbols. We would pretend each of us was a tree and share our stories from the perspective of a tree using tree-related metaphors. (It was a wacky class, enjoyable only in retrospect.) I once shared with a group of fellow students that when I was growing up, though my mother worked outside the home even on weekends, this seedling was never lonely as she had her grandparents around all the time. "Grandpa was like the sun," I said, "and Grandma was like the rain --"

Laughter erupted, and I paused mid-sentence wondering what was so funny about what I'd just said.

Then I realized that, at that moment, my predominantly Caucasian American audience thought that I was slyly suggesting that while my grandfather was a source of happiness, my grandmother was a source of trouble or nuisance. As the story progressed, they came to understand through the context that they had misunderstood. I simply used "sun" and "rain" as a merism. My grandparents -- the sun and the rain -- form two bookends that held my life, as a seedling, together. Together they provided the totality of the sustenance I needed.

The cause of miscommunication lies in both my assumption that "rain" means to people outside my culture the same thing it does to me and the audience's assumption that "rain" is always used metaphorically to refer to something negative. We both learned something new that day.

Rain is a positive thing -- a very positive thing -- in many cultures. It means abundance, fertility -- both in the agricultural and reproductive sense --, sustenance, divine favor, etc. Rain brings forth life. When dark clouds form and thunders roar, people rejoice. All things that have life get ready to drink deeply.

Is it any wonder that some sort of benevolent rain deity exists in the pantheon of every ancient culture where lives depended so much on agricultural yields?

Only through learning have I come to understand that a "rainy day" in the American culture is associated with nuisance, gloom, and misfortune. My audience laughed upon hearing me use "rain" to symbolize what my grandmother was to me, because they understood my use of merism as humorous juxtaposition of my grandparents' characters.

Uh, nope.

In case you're still not convinced that symbols are not universal, check this out.

This woman, ladies and gentlemen, is the beautiful lady described in the book Song of Solomon (also known as Song of Songs) in the Hebrew scriptures. Ever heard of King Solomon? Yeah, this chick turns him on.

Well, of course, I've never seen her. Geez. I'm just reconstructing this woman based on what purports to be Solomon's description of his bride. This is beauty and its related metaphors in the context of ancient Jewish culture.

How beautiful you are, my darling,
How beautiful you are!
Your eyes are like doves behind your veil;
Your hair is like a flock of goats
That have descended from Mount Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes
Which have come up from their washing,
All of which bear twins,
And not one among them has lost her young.
Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
And your mouth is lovely
Your temples are like a slice of a pomegranate
Behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
Built with rows of stones
On which are hung a thousand shields,
All the round shields of the mighty men.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle
Which feed among the lilies.

(Song of Solomon 4: 1-5 NAS)

When I say symbols are not universal, that's what I mean.

*Who meditates on Proust when making or eating madeleines?

**For example, the heart is almost universally used to represent the seat of emotions. The "bitter" flavor is connected to unpleasantness or woefulness. Mother-in-law jokes are, to the best of my knowledge, universal. Also -- have you noticed? -- the most vulgar and obscene cusses in most languages often involve someone's mother.