University of Iowa

Cultural Knowledge

February 4th, 2014

I was reminded the other day of how deep cultural knowledge goes, so deep in fact that it remains in part inaccessible even to individuals who have excellent English language skills and who can be understood without effort by native speakers.  Hitting a lull a few days ago, I posted the following on Facebook: “Feeling like chile con queso. It's the jet lag, I guess.”  Now, for me, chile con queso is quintessential comfort food.  It has that cheesy, fatty essence, with a bit of spice admittedly, that comes in all-too-handy when you feel like you need it.  Maybe that’s because I grew up in Texas.  Anyway, the point is that this was a statement about how I was feeling, and about getting a quick fix (in fact, you don’t even make it – just mix a couple of cans together), going for the satisfying feeling that only eating chips and chile con queso can offer.  One of my FB friends commented that I probably looked a little bit like a chile con queso after a long flight.  OK, point taken.  I probably did.  Another FB friend, an international student, wrote:  “it’s too classy for me to understand this feeling.”  The English comes across without a hitch; but the comment miss-construes my post.  Not having tasted chile con queso, or maybe not knowing that’s what the stuff is called, the student saw the Spanish language as a marker for the education that comes with speaking a European language, or indicating an attitude that I felt could only be expressed in another language.  I was not feeling classy; I wasn’t trying to convey an exotic idea.  I was a bit down and wanted instant gratification.  Cultural misunderstandings can come from a variety of sources, perhaps most often from the use of slang or from a reference to individuals or activities that are relatively unknown outside the U.S. but who would be known by the vast majority of American native speakers of English (Babe Ruth, for example).  In my particular case, the cultural misunderstanding came from the use of Spanish in English, a use that would come naturally to most American-born speakers.

Why is cultural understanding important?  A recent study done by the British Council, entitled Culture at Work, stresses the importance businesses see in the global abilities of their employees.  Businesses understand the importance of going global.  Going global diversifies revenues, offers opportunities to broaden product lines, protects domestic markets from international competitors, and creates new opportunities to maintain or expand the workforce. Job seekers, the report argues, “would benefit from presenting evidence of strong communication skills, foreign language abilities and international experiences when competing for jobs.”  The research behind the report demonstrates that employers value the things that intercultural knowledge positively impacts: the ability of individuals to work in teams, concluding transactions across borders, and developing long-term relationships with customers and suppliers. In short, intercultural understanding impacts the bottom line.

Aside from the practical reasons cultural knowledge is important, it is also rewarding to be able to circulate comfortably in a variety of environments, have access to internet and print publications and literature in other languages, and to develop meaningful relationships with others who do not share your linguistic or cultural background.  In short, there is also a dimension of personal fulfillment in expanding one’s knowledge of the world and its people.  We should not neglect that.

Downing Thomas