Saba Safdar: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Culture (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Psychology professor Saba Safdar’s TEDx Talk: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Culture at TEDxGuelphU conference.


MP3 Audio:



Saba Safdar – Professor of Psychology

A colleague of mine wants to start his talk by saying if I were American, I would start by telling a joke. If I were Japanese I would just start by apologizing. Given that I am English I would start by apologizing for not having a joke.

In my case, I am Iranian Canadian, so I thought to represent my Iranian side. I start with widely exaggerated claim as you see on the title.

And then I apologize for it to represent my Canadian-ness. Clearly you are not going to learn everything there is to know about culture in the next 15-20 minutes that I have.

But I’m going to talk about two aspects of how culture demonstrate itself, manifest itself in our everyday life, through communication and through a specific one, communication in terms of insult and humor.

So what is culture? It’s a fuzzy concept. It’s like water to fish. We have difficulty defining it, especially defining our own culture because it’s all we know.

There are dozens of definition that has been offered by social scientists in defining culture and this definition that I usually use it is given by one of the pioneers in the area of cross-cultural psychology Harry Triandis. He talks about it in terms of human made part of the environment. It is the tangible aspect of our environment is what we can see, the classroom we have built, the parks we have, the highways. That’s the material aspect of our culture but it’s also the subjective aspect of our culture.

It is how we perceive our social environment, how we function in our families, how we perceive our notion of self, the social norms, the marital laws, the educational framework, the legal system. We learn our culture through socialization of course. You are not born with a particular culture.

There are multiple ways of looking at examining culture and one of the best ways is, or one of the ways that have been studied quite extensively is through looking at cultural values. Values are preferences and the tendencies we have in our life and again it is instilled in us at early stages of our life.

It tells us what is important, what is valuable in a culture. There is a very significant value dimension that has been studied and is quite powerful in terms of examining cultural issues, and that’s the notion of individualism collectivism suggested by Geert Hofstede, a Dutch cross-cultural psychologist.

On one hand, we have individualistic societies, Canada is being one of the top five individualistic country we know of in the globe. And between these societies we find that the notion of ‘I’ is highly emphasized. The way we talk about — the way individualism is understood is that — very loose social framework where the person the individual is considered to be very important. We look after ourselves and our immediate family. The ‘I’ is highlighted, the connection that we celebrate or the notion that we celebrate is the notion of the individuality. The uniqueness is valued and autonomous is valued and preferred.

On the other hand of this spectrum, we have the notion of collectivism where it is a very tight social framework. The ‘we’ is highlighted. The preference is for the individual to contribute to the notion of family obligation, and family connection is highly preferred and expected.

I thought in order to illustrate this notion of individualism collectivism, I would talk about two aspects of communication where we see how culture plays a role in terms of social interaction we have, everyday social interaction. Two of those types are an insult and humor.

So in terms of insult, examining verbal abuse is quite revealing in terms of, it tells us a lot about the culture. Because when you look at verbal abuse we know what aspect of a person is highly emphasized in that culture, that by denying it we are stripping the person from those characteristics.

So in an individualistic society where a person is highly valued and emphasized and unique — we would expect a different individualistic abuse or insult, verbal abuse than in collectivistic society.

I have a study to illustrate that, but before I talk about that classical study, I would like the audience to just shout out some insult that they have heard of or they use or they are aware of as a Canadian. Could I hear a few insults please?

What is it? Slacker. Thank you. And anything else? Moron. Fantastic. So we have slacker… these are… things like that, so look at some of these individualistic insults we are aware of and to a large extent, it is used in our culture, Canadian culture – idiot, cruel; what we are saying here we are stripping the person from psychological characteristic that we consider to be important.

We have – we are denying a person physical characteristic: ugly, fat, that again we celebrate in our culture. We are denying a person a notion of civility, lack of manner by saying person is rude. We are talking about the blurring the difference between human and animal like a pig, dirty, and of course we have sexual insults as well. And then these are some of those activities that our culture looks down on or we consider it not appropriate.

This is precisely what two researchers, Italian researchers started looking at in Italy. They looked at three different regions of Italy, the southern part Catania which is considered to be very collectivistic region of Italy, and, Istria northern eastern part of Italy and again the northern part is associated to be the individualistic part of Italy, generally in Europe the norther you get the more individualistic you are or the more individualistic values you hold.

And they looked at Bologna central Italy where they had — it is not specifically either associated with either individualistic or collectivistic. What they did they asked participants to write a page of any insult in Italian language that they are aware of or they use, they have heard of.

In [Thriyas] what they found was that the individualistic insult that you just saw and a couple of them you mentioned, it was highly used; it was more used than another type of insult that they refer to as relational insult. This is mostly used in southern part and would be something like this: you are queer and so is your father. It is a sexual insult that is attributed to the person and others who are also highly important, as the notion of who we are and the connection the person has. ‘Wish a cancer on you and all your relatives.’

ALSO READ:   Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on The Learning Revolution at TED Talk Conference (Transcript)

In fact, there was an insult saying that wish illness on you and 36 members of your relatives. So there was a number inserted in there. Insult — sexual insult to the family members rather than just the target person.

Talking about the blurring between an animal and humanity – individual, but then associating the person’s relative to an animal. And of course, incestuous acts which is again considered to be quite offensive.

Subsequently we know from other studies that is not just people in collectivistic societies that they use these more so than individualistic insult. They also find them more offensive. In a study in Hong Kong they looked at participants and these participants through various tasks they were given different types of insult — insult that was to do with individual insult, ‘you are stupid’ and some of the other insult was: ‘you are stupid and I suspect all members of your department are stupid’.

And these participants they found the second insult much more frustrating and insulting than the first one. People even show higher physiological reaction when we make that distinction.

The second concept that just shows this notion of importance of culture in our social interaction is humor characteristic and it’s humor. And the characteristic here of humor it has been due to its characteristic, it has been argued that it’s one of the most challenging forms of communication. Most of you probably, if not all of you, probably are aware that generally jokes don’t translate across culture very well.

That’s not to say there are no international jokes. There are some humor that translates internationally and they have gained international acceptance. Mr. Bean is one of those, the visual physical type of humor. It works cross culturally.

But there is something about characteristic of humor that makes it difficult to go from one culture to another. It has been suggested that the key characteristic of humor is the notion of incongruent elements. The more the two elements that in a joke we have are incongruent from what we expect to find, the funnier it is.

So generally in a joke we should expect two scripts. If these scripts go against our expectation, we find that’s funny. But what is interesting here is what is incongruent depends on culture. Let me illustrate this in a cartoon, a far side cartoon that I have.

Here is, we find this mildly funny. We find this mildly funny because here is, there is one script, that there are group of scientists, they’re all looking pretty nerds, wearing glasses, white coat lab in this kind of working environment where it’s just a bunch of them with all these test tubes there.

And the second assumption in the script that is going on is that there is a breakthrough, there is a celebration and let’s toast for that and let’s have a drink. But what is funny is just the scientists drinking out of lab tube. But we are all aware of that. These are the cultural assumptions we have. We don’t discuss this and that’s why it’s partly funny, we all know what is going on.

But both of these assumptions it’s questionable, don’t translate well in a different culture. The first assumption that scientists are nerds but that’s something gets pretty much in most Western societies we are aware of but that doesn’t exist in, for example, Taiwan. In Taiwan, scientists don’t have the stereotype of being nerds rather the group who is considered to be nerd are officers whose task is to measure hair lengths of high-school students if they are violating the regulation for it. So already we don’t have that concept here. So this doesn’t translate that.

The second aspect is when you are celebrating, when you are having — you have a breakthrough, what you do, you open a bottle of champagne. You drink. This is also questionable; in some culture you kill a goat. You don’t necessarily have a champagne. But it is also even more interesting when we are talking about human, that is to do with language.

So the language found aspect of humor that makes it even more complicated than the visual humor such as this. I have a one-minute video to show you.

[Video clip: (Voice over)… the Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop… yes, pizza shop and says can you make me one with everything.]

Of course, it’s funny even – and the level that a newscaster is telling a joke about Dalai Lama, to Dalai Lama, that’s one aspect of this is — anyone find this funny but the reason that the joke is not working when it is translated to Dalai Lama, it’s because again there are two scripts here. One is we are talking about going to a pizza shop, various specific contexts using a specific language ‘one with everything’. Every topic but we are all aware of that, we are coming from pizza culture.

But then also there is another script going on. This is about spirituality and enlightenment, and it’s just when it is translated that doesn’t work. Yet Dalai Lama we know he’s highly intelligent person. He would get that but it’s just the funniness of it. It tends to disappear.

So in conclusion the way people communicate with each other, it reflects a cultural orientation. What we find offensive, what we find funny, what we find important in our life, what to say and what not to say, reflects what culture we come from, which we learn at a very very early stage of our socialization.

And it is this cultural diversity that’s worth exploring because diversity is not something that is going to go away tomorrow. And the good news is we are capable of understanding that diversity.

Thank you.