Monthly Archives: January 2016

Levels of culture

This post is about culture learning. Aside from linguists, most people study language to get at the underlying culture. LCP wants to support culture learning as much as we can—our new name reflects that desire (Language & Culture Programme, rather than just Language Orientation Program).

How can we learn more about Afghan culture? There are lots of ways; you can google “ethnographic field methods” if you need some concrete suggestions and methods. The Exploring Culture web site also gives a lot of concrete activities. Let’s take a step back though, and think about culture quite generally. I found two “onion” diagrams about culture online, which I’ll share here.

The Bunkowske diagram offers seven layers of culture, in three groups: the actualizing level (lightest), the evaluating level (medium), and the foundational level (darkest).


The outer shells of culture are artifacts (i.e., things people make) and behavior. The artifacts of Afghan culture are in the outermost layer for two reasons. First, they are there for everybody to see. Second, they depend on the next layer in: behavior. So you can read this diagram several ways:

  • Artifacts depend on Behavior, which depends on Feelings, which depends on Values, which depend on Beliefs, which depend on Worldview, which depend on Ultimate Allegiance.
  • It is easier to get information about Artifacts than about Behavior, which is easier to get information about than Feelings, Values, Beliefs, Worldview, and Ultimate Allegiance (in that order).
  • Ultimate Allegiance determines Worldview, which determines Beliefs, which determine Values, which determine Feelings, which determine Behavior, which depend on Artifacts.

The shape of the diagram implies (to me) that one has to burrow through the outer layers to get to the inner layers. I think there’s something to that. It is easy to observe the artifacts and behaviors relating to naan in Afghanistan, for example. It’s harder to come to grips with how people feel about naan: the respect they show it at meals, why it can never be thrown away, etc. It’s harder still to understand the connections to the deepest beliefs, which perhaps related to faith in the providence of God, for example.

This diagram challenges me to think about how deeply I have gone in Afghan culture. I’m not doing too badly on Artifacts and (most) Behavior. But how much do I trust my intuitions about Feelings, Values, and Beliefs? I’m on much shakier ground there.

The Hofstede diagram takes a more conceptual approach, encouraging us to look at symbols, heroes, rituals, and values.


I call this diagram “conceptual” because the relations are logical. Values may determine rituals, but it’s a lot easier to observe rituals than values! I also like the inclusion of Heroes as an explicit category. As I was recently reading Dari schoolbooks, I was impressed by the selection of heroes: how people are commended and for what.

I also like that in this diagram, Practices (i.e., Behavior) cuts through the diagram. Occasionally we have an experience that gives us a deep insight into the culture. An offhand remark, or an emotional reaction, gives us the angle we need to understand something, “Ah, so that’s what this was all about.”

Where are you in your cultural learning? What would you like to know more about, and how can you get where you want to go? Surely the answer will involve talking to people. Some of the links above can give you concrete ways to start.

Indirect communication

In a recent discussion the issue of indirect communication arose. A widespread observation among Westerners is that Afghans communicate more indirectly than do Westerners. (There is great variation in among Western nations of course, and even between regions of America and Germany, for example.) The purpose of this blog post is to show that indirect communication is not necessarily unclear communication; it is simply communication that asks for the listener to think things through.

In August 2002 I visited my grandparents in Maine (in the northeastern United States), and at the end of the visit I flew out of a small regional airport. This was after 9/11, so security was tighter, but this small airport hadn’t had all the upgrades yet, and it was a one-person airport anyway. After checking me in, the woman behind the counter said, “I’ll need to look through your bag.” I said, “All right.” She was older and small of frame, so she said, “You have to carry it down to the inspection area yourself.” So I carried the bag down and waited. She put on a pair of rubber gloves, and gave them a little snap at the wrists. I feigned nervousness and said, “You’re only going to check the bag, right?”

Now maybe you’re chuckling right now, or maybe you’re offended. (In the event, the woman laughed politely at first because she could tell I was making a joke, but then she got it and laughed a lot more.) But the point is: my joke was perfectly clear, even though it was also completely indirect.

Understanding the joke requires some background knowledge. You have to understand that rubber gloves refer metonymically in our culture to a certain examination, and that a very thorough security check might involve something similar. And of course you’ve got to realize that it’s a sort of ridiculous for someone to fear that sort of thing in a routine airport check.

Do you notice how I have told the joke, explained it, and still I have said nothing? You, as the reader, have filled in all the gaps. It’s indirect communication. I offered the spark, but the fire kindled in your mind. Note how I unambiguously invoked a fairly complex scenario with the phrase, “You’re only going to check the bag, right?” Even if you see the joke as inappropriate to begin with, imagine how much worse (and unfunny) it would have been for me to say, “I sure hope you’re not going to [blankity-blank-blank-black].” You can say a lot indirectly that you can’t say directly. You can also make a message more powerful by speaking indirectly.

Indirect communication works because of shared cultural knowledge, and an expectation that listeners will draw appropriate conclusions from what’s been said. Can you think of a situation in which that might break down? That’s right: when you’re in a new language and culture. (If you’re not familiar with much of Western culture—if indeed the relevant background knowledge is common beyond America—you’ll be confused as to why I think I just told a joke.) That’s why it’s important to learn as much culture as you can. In fact, although language is indepensible in culture-learning, culture learning is really more important. One linguist observed that, for him, it was common for him to understand what was said, without understanding why it was said.

Here is a final story, which is a kind of baby example of me learning to process indirect communication in Afghanistan.

When I was new in LOP—it was LOP back then, not LCP—I brought a pair of chaplaks to the school just to use there, and wrote my name on each shoe. About a week later, I was with an LOP teacher and a staff member, and the latter casually asked me, “So, in your religion is it okay to write your name on your shoes?” I quickly gathered that it was not in his! I asked him a bit more about this, and he explained that in Afghanistan no one would ever write their name below the level of the waist. I quickly blacked out my name on the shoes. I think this story has spread around, because now even people who were not there at the time and never saw my name on my shoes, will still refer specifically to these shoes (“Your shoes aren’t there..”) even though I’ve long since donated them to the school!

Budgeting your emotional energy

The New Year means different things to different people, but for many of us it means being grateful that we have another 12 months before we have to worry about budgets.

This post is about a different kind of budgeting: budgeting our emotional energy. Emotional energy is the cash we need to purchase work from our bodies and minds, that is, it’s the key to motivation.


Unfortunately, robots will not be learning how to learn languages any time soon.

Language learning is a slog, and we need to make sure that we have the emotional energy to do it. Now wouldn’t it be nice if we could just learn the right way to do it?


The reality is that life happens. Our emotional energy ends up looking more like this:


Since we’re living in the real world, we need to plan for variation in our emotional energy. When you’ve got energy and are motivated, you’re golden. The problem comes when we’re feeling down. Here are some tips to keep your energy level high.

Make your language time enjoyable

At the risk of losing my position, I make this confession: I don’t particularly like language lessons. When it’s time for my language lessons, I usually pour myself a cup of tea, put my feet up on my desk, and read a Dari book. That is how I relax. That’s the kind of learning I enjoy.

If you’re more extroverted, spending time getting to know people might be more enjoyable. Know thyself. If thee dost not know thyself well, thee might want to take our Learner Profile.

“Enjoyable” might mean “productive” for you. My preferred way to spend time with a teacher is in working on a real-world task, such as preparing for a talk, or revising something I’ve written.

Think about your personality and what feels good, and make your language study time reflect that.

Plan for success

Keeping your emotional energy high will mean planning positive experiences—times when you succeed in using your language. For some people this will mean taking a walk in the bazaar or visiting in a private home. Receiving positive feedback in your language is encouraging, and Afghans love to encourage people who speak their languages. It might mean doing a work-related task in Dari rather than English, and enjoying that sense of accomplishment.

The key here is to plan positive interactions in your week, so that you can enjoy the sense of having made progress.

Celebrate success

When you have a successful interaction, focus on that. The discouraging interactions are bound to come, so we need to pay special attention to when things go well. Every three months or so I can pull off a joke in Dari. I replay it in my head for weeks afterward. (That may be an extreme example.)

The converse is to downplay your failures. It’s good to learn from our mistakes when we can, and even better to be able to laugh about them. Your reaction to failure is probably largely a function of your emotional energy. At the same time, perhaps there are patterns of negative thoughts that you need to break out of.