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What is Culture?

What's for Supper
Formatting the Communication Event
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I walked into the restaurant for supper. Noting there were no other light-skinned people in the room, I chose one of the poorly lighted tables, so I would be less conspicuous. When a waiter came, with no menu, I inquired what they had for supper.

The Menu
He recited a list of options, some meat, some vegetables. I asked, "How do you order them? Do some things come with others, or do you order each one separately?" He answered, "You just order whatever you want." I asked about the price and he gave some prices. The chicken was a little higher than the beef stew.

The Order
So I said, "I'll have the roast chicken." "The chicken only?" he queried. "Yes, that's all, I answered. "I'm sorry," he responded. "That's not possible. You cannot have only the chicken."

I looked at him while furiously reviewing the possibilities. What am I missing here? I thought, "I just asked 'Do some things come with others?' You just said, 'You just order what you want.'  ????  OK.  That's what I thought I was doing.

So I said, "Tell me again how to order." He started again with the beef stew and roast chicken, and then listed the vegetables, then added, "and some salads." Well, that was the same list, so I'm OK so far. But I thought I would only need one salad.

I tried again, asking about the rice and stuff. "If you want rice, you can order rice. If you want potatoes, you can order potatoes. If you want nsima, you can order nsima." (Nsima is boiled corn meal, and is also called ugali, sima or sadza in certain places.)

We negotiated a little more and I finally understood I could choose between rice, potatoes and nsima. "So I can order chicken with rice or potatoes?" Yes, and some salads." "OK, I'll have the roast chicken with rice." "And some salads," he insisted. I acquiesced, "Very good."

My dinner finally came. He gave me a big plate of chicken, rice, boiled potatoes and salad. Hmmnnn. "Interesting," I thought, "Where did the potatoes come from? I wonder if I'll be charged extra?"

Just after that, a whole table of lighter-skinned people came in, so I thought I'd observe their experience. They got the same waiter, "What do you have?" Similar list. "How does it come?" Mumble mumble. One man said, "I'll have the beef stew. "With rice or potatoes?" Hmmnnn. Well, why didn't he help me like that? That customer chose rice, another asked for nsima.

I waited eagerly and tried to eat nonchalantly until their plates arrived. The man I had observed got a big plate of beef stew, with rice and boiled potatoes -- and some salads. Hmmnnn!? Everybody got rice (or nsima) and potatoes. Rice and Potatoes? Hmmnnn!? And some salads.

Moment of Truth
When my bill came, it was the price for roast chicken. So the rice and potatoes -- and some salads -- were included. Hmmnnn!? Isn't traveling fun?

This happened in Zambia. It has happened in many other places. This happened to me. Has it happened to you?

Culture, Not Language
This was a cultural communication problem, not a language problem. We were using the same language (more or less) but there were some problems in the format of the communication event.

Differing Expectation
I expected all the information so that I could make an informed choice from the options. I did not know what he needed to know in order to get my order. I thus expected him to tell me all the information he needed to know. I did the best I could with the limited information I could mine out of the situation. But alas, it was not enough!

Information Orientation
I was information oriented; he was not. He answered what I knew to ask, but was not troubled when some details were left unmentioned. I did not know the cultural requirements, the expectations for this communication event.

He did not know how to tell me, or did not think it mattered. We often find ourselves talking on different levels, using different logic, operating on different assumptions.

Cultural Format
Cultures vary in how communication events are handled. Each culture has its own format for various communication events. Though they may not identify it in these terms, this is what sociologists study. Sociolinguists focus on these social aspects of communication events.

The more similar the cultures, the more similar the formats and structure of the communication event will be. The greater the difference, the harder communication will be -- even when using the "same language."


Original version of this article published as the lead article titled "What's for Supper?" in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, December 1993
This version posted 07 August 2001, on Orville Jenkins Thoughts and Resources

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright 1993, 2001 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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