If I were to be asked to name a common theme running through our modern times, I would probably say polarization. In today’s global society, while individuals may be aware that the world is made up of many countries – with diverse cultures, languages, and religions – many of us fail at the job of understanding the other.
Social sustainability is defined by the World Bank as being “about inclusive and resilient societies where citizens have voice and governments respond.” It builds on a framework of inclusion, justice, and resilience and seeks to support growth and reduce poverty levels. Becoming a socially sustainable society hinges on people understanding and accepting one another. What I aim to do is explore our many cultures and illuminate common themes and different features so that we can more easily appreciate each other.
Of people, places, and languages
Relatively speaking, the Earth is a small planet. But it’s home to nearly 7.9 billion people, according to the Worldometer website (May 24, 2021). The website shows China as the most populated county: nearly 1.4 billion people call that nation home. India has roughly 1.34 billion, and the US stands at a distant third at about 333 million. Indonesia has about 129 million. Mexico houses the tenth-largest population with over 127 million people.
The same website also lists populations in percentages. China accounts for more than 18%. India’s right behind, with just over 17%. The US stands at slightly over 4%.
The number of countries shifts somewhat according to what is counted as a country. The World Atlas registers 194 recognized countries but also counts 197 overall. The difference centers on what you consider a separate country. Taiwan, Kosovo, and Palestine are deemed sovereign nations by some but not all countries. The Holy See, or the Vatican as it’s otherwise known, and the state of Palestine are not considered sovereign nations but do have non-member observer status in the United Nations. (Ellen Kershner, August 2020)
There were more than 7,000 spoken languages in 2019: Indonesia has more than 700, Nigeria over 525, and India 454. India also has the most official languages, counting 22. There are a total of 347 languages spoken by United States residents. China’s inhabitants speak in more than 300, according to the World Atlas.
But what of cultures worldwide?
Measuring cultures is not so easy, but many experts use languages as the deciding factor. Is it any wonder that with so many languages and so many distinct cultures that misunderstandings arise?
Exchanging conversations with those from another culture can be rewarding in that you can learn new ways of seeing things. But be careful – much of what you say or do may not be acceptable to someone from a different country.
Take gestures for example:
- Did you know that the US symbol for A-Ok, the circle made with thumb and forefinger, is viewed very differently in other parts of the world? To both Brazilians and the French, for example, the gesture is offensive.
- Embracing another can also land you in trouble, depending upon where you are. While it’s customary in many countries to embrace a friend as a form of greeting or farewell, don’t embrace an East Asian. And don’t pat a Buddhist on the head – they consider it an insult. Don’t hug someone in public in Qatar: embracing one of another gender is forbidden.
- Foot-pointing and showing another the sole of your foot is considered disrespectful in many Muslim countries.
The above mores were taken from Study Abroad: Most Common Cultural Misunderstandings Around the World.
- Do you point someone or something out with your index finger? Common but not always acceptable in the US, the gesture is taken to a whole new level of offense in Malaysia or Indonesia. You might consider the more acceptable pointing with your thumb instead. And in some African nations, a pointed finger is only used for indicating something inanimate.
- The Japanese slurp up their noodles as a sign that they’re enjoying their food.
- If you’re to avoid offending many Middle Eastern residents, use your right hand for eating, greeting others, or giving money. Use your left and you risk highly offending many.
The above customs were taken from Culture Trip: “11 Surprising Customs from Around the World, Lily Cichanowicz (April 2018).
The Pew Research Center conducted a 2012 study, “The Global Religious Landscape.” In it, they state that eight in ten people worldwide identify with a religious tradition. That was 5.8 billion or 84% of the 2010 population. Christianity claimed around 32% of the world’s population, Muslims more than 23%, Hindus 15%, and Buddhists just over 7%. Around 6% practice traditional or folk religions, while Jews account for 0.2% of the world’s population.
How we celebrate around the world
The translation service Tomedes has a great article on their blog. Read the enlightening “Different Cultural Traditions Around the World” by Ofer Tirosh (May 2020) for more than 20 examples of celebrations you can find globally.
I’ve selected a few:
- It’s strictly tradition that brides in the West wear white. Chinese and Hindi brides wear red.
- Speaking of red, residents in the Valencia region of Spain have quite a messy tradition. La Tomatina is a yearly festival where participants throw tomatoes at each other.
- One bewildering tradition that’s hard for Westerners to accept is female genital mutilation, which occurs according to custom in some African nations, parts of the Middle East, and a few Asian countries. The practice occurs in 30 countries worldwide, where more than 200 million girls and women have been affected. (World Health Organization, Female genital mutilation February 3, 2020)
Translating word for word may prove difficult but some cliches sound remarkably familiar.
While cultural differences abound, there are some conversational expressions found across multiple languages. The Tomedes Translator’s Blog: “Cultural Connections Across Figures of Speech” by Ofer Tirosh, February 2020), https://www.tomedes.com/translator-hub/figures-of-speech provides some examples:
- In English, you often hear the cliché, “it is what it is.” The Italians have their own version, which translates as “to how it comes, it comes.”
- The Italians share more than one cliché with English speakers. “The grass is always greener on the other side” mirrors “The neighbor’s grass is always greener.” The Portuguese translation, although different, still shows the same meaning: “The neighbor’s chicken is always fatter.”
- The English cliché “dirt poor” translates to “without land or roof” in Portuguese.
- And where English speakers “kill two birds with one stone,” Germans “kill two flies with one swat.”
Languages and customs worldwide probably hold more differences than similarities. The diversity of cultures and traditions bring much for us to celebrate and learn from, but they can also cause significant misunderstanding. Americans don’t usually greet acquaintances, coworkers, and strangers with a kiss. A handshake does the trick. (Or an elbow rub in this day of the coronavirus.) But the French greet one another with a light kiss on each cheek.
Today English is the international language of business. However, when you deal with people from unfamiliar cultures, languages, religions, and traditions, even when your conversation partner speaks English, be careful to observe the other’s actions and mannerisms. And it won’t hurt to share your relative lack of knowledge of the culture and our language from which the other comes. Otherwise, you could end up leaving a quite different impression than what you intended.
Traditions, languages, political allegiance, religions, developed versus developed nations: is it any wonder that there’s so much misunderstanding in today’s global society? Deny credibility to cultures other than your own, and you risk creating further division. By acknowledging diverse cultures and embracing their differences, we can all move a little closer to understanding those different than ourselves.