Sunday, March 29, 2015

SΩ7 - Culture Talks: Digi-Comm & Laughter

Drumroll, please…the winner is ‘Difference in Communication Between Cultures’! Thanks to all that voted. The main page poll had twice as many votes as the poll on ‘You: The Reader’. New poll coming soon and suggestions are welcome!

It’s my belief that learning about someone’s culture is key to understanding one another. To spark cross-cultural conversations, I offer insight of cultures most familiar to me: American, Swiss, Spanish, and Chinese. I’ll do my best to refrain from creating or supporting stereotypes.

I’ve been contemplating for a while, which differences to share. There is a wide scope of differences: from typical topics in each culture, body language, cultural habits/norms, and much more! For this post I will focus on just two: forms of socializing and humor. In future posts, I’ll discuss other differences.

Cell, Web, or Bar
The advancement of technology has given us many diverse forms to keep in touch. With just a smartphone one can socialize using any of the following: emails, calling, texting (SMS), and more. It’s been my experience that both American and Chinese have embraced digital communication, especially texting! Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say most people prefer talking in person.

When I returned to Switzerland, I was surprised how few Swiss used social networks, texting, and emails. In Switzerland friends generally meet for lunch or dinner to socialize. Calling is also fairly common.

On the other hand, in Spain meeting in a bar to socialize is the norm! If you walked for 2 minutes from almost anywhere in Barcelona, you’d find a bar. Spanish typically send text messages to arrange a meeting at a bar. I’ve found that Spanish rarely use social networks and emails.

Here’s a rough graphic to illustrate which form of communication is more common in each culture. If you find any factual evidence that disagrees with this, please tell me!

Sunshine & Laughter
We humans invented a nifty way to spice up talks, by using humor! When used correctly, it creates a warm vibe filled with laughter. If it fails, it can lead to misunderstandings and provoke unpleasant emotions. Through the evolution of humor, many types have emerged, such as: wit, play on words, double entendre, sarcasm, slapstick, ‘bathroom’ talk, and other forms. Due to this complexity humor rarely translates well.

Besides the differences in humor, I believe there is also a general difference in how much humor a culture uses on a daily basis. It’s my belief that this is loosely linked to climate. More exposure to sunlight induces higher level of serotonin, which in turn means a ‘happier’ mood. The following graph illustrates the mean annual sunlight in selected major cities from each country.

Regarding the style and topic differences of humor between cultures, some prefer more formal or informal humor. Enclosed is a graph illustrating this, the opposite ends of the spectrum are Spanish and Chinese humor. In Spain people are full of laugher and joke about every topic. I’ve even heard 10-year-old children make sex jokes with their parents! 

Chinese humor tends to play on the complexity of the language, how certain characters sound similar, but have different meanings. Also, due to the complexity of the language, I fathom humor is limited to prevent misunderstandings. Usually, jokes about sex, death/violence, and politics are uncommon.

American humor also tends to be informal. This is fairly evident in American TV shows. Although the topics are diverse, sexual and political jokes are rather popular. In my opinion American humor often has rather simple structure and content. This is perhaps why American TV shows are so international, since the humor can be easily translated. 

For me Swiss humor is the most difficult to understand. Many jokes rely heavily on German grammar, which requires a native understanding of the language. Although jokes can contain informal content, the topics shy away from controversial topics. 

There is one style of humor that seems fairly unique to English and German speakers: sarcasm. Perhaps due to my cultural background, I tend to use a lot of it! However, would recommend using it sparingly, especially with people from other cultures. It can be extremely easy to misunderstand and even worse be taken offensively. In my experience Chinese rarely understand English sarcasm.

As they say: ‘Laughter is the best medicine.’ Just be aware of your audience, so they can share in the laughter! Also, lets all learn Chinese so we can understand their jokes as well! ;)

Your Turn!
This post only explores differences between four cultures. Would be great to learn more about other cultures. Feel free to share about your own culture! Also, I ask you to kindly correct me, if I’ve misspoken.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

SΩ6 - Global Kindness: Cultural Tales II

This post includes two combined concepts. From my last post, I wanted to give examples of how to ‘nudge’ and support other people’s dreams. Also, many people liked my previous “Cultural Tales”, so figured I’d use that style.

Small gestures of kindness can be quite valuable and take a mere few minutes of effort. Every month we are awake for over 30,000 minutes. How about using a few for a gesture of kindness?

Good Samaritan of Lost Valuables
In my previous post I gave a short preview of Tokyo, Japan. Let’s start from there. There are plenty of good things to say about Japan, for now I’ll focus on Japanese culture. I believe Japanese tend to be honest and courteous people. I’d like to share one event, which I hope will convince you as well!

My first trip to Japan I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. Now I can’t imagine traveling between these cities, without the Internet. The public transport system is effective, yet can be rather intricate and overwhelming. During a subway transfer in Kyoto, I just had enough time to buy a drink from a vending machine. After a few stops I realized my luggage was rather light. I had my backpack, but had left my other bag at the vending machine! When I returned to the previous stop, my bag was gone; the subway employees were unable to find it. Later, a Japanese friend called various stops and offices to find it. It soon became apparent; my bag was lost for good!

With only a few days left in Japan, I did my best to forget my loss and bought some replacement clothes. 
A few weeks later, I received a mysterious package with foreign writing. To my surprise, it was my bag! Everything was there and my clothes were clean and neatly folded. Seems my bag ended up at the local police station and my Japanese friend had successfully tracked it down. His wife even went the extra mile to clean the clothes and pack the bag nicely. I can only imagine all the effort my friend and his wife invested to return my bag. Alternatively, if you ever find a wallet, phone, or other valuable, it’ll likely take less than an hour to return it. Be a Good Samaritan and return it!
Befriend a Traveler
Usually, I travel solo. This lets me plan my trip the way I like and encourages me to meet new people. I tend to meet fellow travelers in hostels and spend a day or two together. What’s even more exciting, is meeting locals! Yet that’s rare, since travelers are mainly viewed as business opportunities.

My experience in Istanbul, Turkey was extraordinary. The first day, a local teenage boy approached me on the beach. First, I was skeptical…maybe he wanted to scam me!? Yet what started as skepticism ended in a pleasant walk through the city as the boy explained the history and buildings to me. Even to this day, we still stay in touch.

A day later the excitement continued! I was visiting an Island close to Istanbul. On the ferry ride there, I sat across from two teenage couples. Suddenly, one of the girls smiled at me and offered me a piece of fresh pretzel. As we got to the Island they invited me on a bike tour of the Island and lunch! I’ve probably told this experience 100 times, since it’s rare that travelers are shown such kindness. Make travelers feel welcome in your city.
Encourage a Friend
Have you ever hit rock bottom? This is how I felt, when I returned to Switzerland. Reality had knocked me down and I was a stranger to myself. While I sorted through the pieces of my identity, my only comfort was escaping reality to travel the world. Traveling introduced me to many amazing places and I asked myself, why was I in Switzerland?

Eventually, a mentor of mine encouraged me to move to Barcelona. This push has definitely helped me turn my life around. Before, leaving Switzerland, I had lunch with a dear friend. We had a lengthy discussion about the world and plenty more. Towards the end of lunch he said: “You should write a blog”. This was the 'nudge' I needed to get my blog rolling. Life is full of uncertainties and difficult choices, so encourage your friends towards greatness. 

Key Message
There are plenty of ways to support and help others, here are just three examples: 
“Be a Good Samaritan and return it!”
“Make travelers feel welcome in your city.”
 “Encourage your friends towards greatness.”

All pictures  © Mario Christiner 2011, except picture of Simit (Turkish Pretzil) from