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Uniform Material Culture

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American Cultural Domination (Except When It's Not) "The world is moving toward a uniform material culture, dominated by mostly material American influences: technological innovations, fashion, Hollywood and the celebrity culture it promotes, hip-hop, and rock 'n' roll. But the pervasiveness of the trappings of American culture obscures the central cultural paradox that lies within the globalization process: Although people around the world may wear, eat, and listen to American products, they continue to maintain their deeply ingrained values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions." - Chronicle of Higher Education 12/08/06 - Posted: 12/06/2006 7:11 am

By Luis Martínez-Fernández


Growing international competition from the European Union, China, India, and other countries has created urgent challenges for the United States. How well this country will fare in the new global reality will no longer depend on American political influence, military might, or capacity to expand economic productivity. Instead, leaders of American institutions and business organizations will need to acquire, develop, and master international cultural fluency.

The world is moving toward a uniform material culture, dominated by mostly material American influences: technological innovations, fashion, Hollywood and the celebrity culture it promotes, hip-hop, and rock 'n' roll. But the pervasiveness of the trappings of American culture obscures the central cultural paradox that lies within the globalization process: Although people around the world may wear, eat, and listen to American products, they continue to maintain their deeply ingrained values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions. They may embrace the material products of modernity, but they cling tenaciously to their underlying cultural cores --which remain vibrant and resiliently distinct.

For example, an Andalusian businessman may purchase the most precise Swiss watch on the market, but that does not mean that he will be bound by the notions of punctuality --rigidity, if you ask him --that regiment the lives of northern Europeans. Conservative Islamic individuals may welcome Western technology but also reject secularism, Western democratic practices, and notions of gender equality.

In fact, new forms of cultural hybrids have surfaced as the bedrock values and beliefs of the world's cultures sport the veneer of an increasingly visible --and audible --North American material culture. For example, a person whose native language is not English can adopt the English language as a means of communication for a variety of reasons, including the desire to reach a broader audience or the need to use a more precise language with a richer vocabulary. (English has about 900,000 words, while French, for example, has fewer than 100,000.) Yet that same person will most likely retain his or her own cultural identity as a writer. Thus a Cuban author, like me, may write in English while maintaining a Cuban voice, working with a particular palette of symbols, themes, rhythms, forms of irony, and humor that is characteristic of Cuban literature.

Another example: Four Spaniards may have lunch at the McDonald's in Madrid's Gran Vía. They may consume Big Macs, French fries, and what passes for milkshakes. But at the same time, they will probably practice the various rituals and meanings associated with eating out in Spain. They will eat as a social, rather than an individual, activity. They will have a later, longer, nonrushed meal, perhaps followed by a siesta. The person who invited the others will pay for the meal. They will never go Dutch, and rarely will they let a woman pick up the check. And they will never, God forbid, take out a calculator at the register to divide the tab equally.

The same phenomenon occurs with music. In the United States, the Walkman and the iPod are the symbols and technologies of an individualistic enjoyment of music. In contrast, a middle-class Angolan teenager may purchase a CD of American rock 'n' roll yet probably play that music in a communal fashion, with several people listening, dancing, or singing along.

The assumption among Americans that people from other cultures are becoming "just like us" simply because they use the same products or wear the same clothes is leading to many cultural misunderstandings. Almost everyone knows that saying "Can you please pass the jelly?" (instead of "jam") while having tea in London may lead to faintings among one's table mates. But are we aware that if we are invited to dinner in an Arab home and bring food or a bottle of wine, it will be offensive --not only because Islam condemns the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but also because the gift implies that the hosts cannot afford to provide the meal? Or that while direct and assertive conversations are generally used while conducting business in the United States, that style is deemed inappropriate and rude by Japanese businessmen? Or that Hispanic people are less likely to say no to an invitation, because refusing it --regardless of whether or not they plan to attend --would be discourteous?

Even with the United States' success in spreading its material culture throughout the world, such underlying values, mores, and habits persist. Being unaware of that --that is, lacking international cultural fluency --will hurt Americans both individually and as a country, whether we are trying to seal a business deal with Mexican executives, penetrate the Vietnamese consumer market in Los Angeles, or build a real coalition for war or peace in the Middle East.

What's more, the majority of Americans lack basic foreign-language skills. In past decades, the nation's government, business, and intellectual leaders were ill prepared to face the linguistic challenges of having Russian-speaking foes and of sharing the hemisphere with Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking neighbors. More recently the grave scarcity of fluent Arab-language interpreters and translators in the FBI, the military, and the State Department has cost the nation dearly, hampering its fight against Islamic terrorists and Iraqi insurgents.

The extent of geographic illiteracy among American students and the general population is notorious and embarrassing. Survey after survey have demonstrated that students and people in general in the United States rank near the bottom compared with their counterparts from other industrialized countries. This year the National Geographic Society released the results of a survey showing that only a quarter of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could identify Iran or Israel on a map, only 36 percent could find England, and, incredibly, 6 percent could not even find the United States.

How do we prepare the United States and its citizens for continuing and growing challenges of globalization? The voting booth might be a good place to start. We should reject political candidates and leaders who cast their opponents' cosmopolitan experiences and sensitivities as almost unpatriotic. During the 2004 presidential campaign, for instance, Republicans painted the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, as dangerously Europeanized because he had studied abroad, spoke several languages, and played classical guitar.

We should also seek to reform our schools and colleges. Unfortunately, students in elementary and secondary education are taught to pass standardized tests but are not prepared to pass life tests that require communicating across cultures. Our K-12 and higher-education systems should do a much better job of producing graduates who are not only multilingual but also fluent in cultural and geographic literacy.

While English is the world's lingua franca, the mastery of foreign languages is essential for the international exchange of products and ideas. As I recently heard someone put it, "If you want to buy anything from anywhere in the world, you can manage with only English; if you want to sell something abroad, you'd better learn the language of your targeted customers."

In these times of marked --perhaps obsessive --emphasis on math and science education, colleges should strengthen their language requirements to produce graduates who can communicate and function effectively in an increasingly globalized world and a multilingual country. We should, for example, start teaching Chinese in school and college, and expand opportunities for students to master the Spanish language, spoken by close to 40 million Hispanics and Latinos in the United States.

Likewise study-abroad programs should be democratized and made more affordable, so that more students can include such experiences as part of their higher education. Paradoxically, and unfortunately, as the importance of multilingual skills and international cultural fluency expands, the role of the humanities and social sciences continues to erode within most American colleges as resources are redirected toward the hard sciences, engineering, and the health sciences.

American institutions --whether the State Department, Wal-Mart, The New York Times, or the local community college --can also do their part by hiring and further training internationally fluent decision makers, skilled at navigating the challenging waters of our diverse nation and globalized world. College graduates with degrees in the humanities and social sciences, and people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, are best suited to play the role of interlocutors and cultural translators. Ignoring or underutilizing their skills and knowledge will hurt the nation in the marketplace of goods and services, as well as in the global marketplace of ideas.


Luis Martínez-Fernández is director of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino studies at the University of Central Florida.

The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated December 8, 2006
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