The atrophy of cultural selves

This is a guest post by Ulkar Aghayeva. To submit a post, see our Archives page.

There is a tension between linguistic notions of identity and communication1 that I think extends beyond language per se. Identity 2 has to do with expressing one’s internal state, one’s thoughts and feelings, as precisely as possible, and in that it is speaker-centric. Most people can come closest to this ideal in their native language. Yet when we speak, we usually have recipients in mind that we’re addressing, and if our respective native languages differ, we resort to a vehicular language, one that we both have a command of, at least to some extent. This choice is audience-centric, and is referred to in this context as communication. All our utterances are found on an identity-communication continuum where we try to express ourselves as accurately as possible while making an effort to be understood correctly, and this dynamic can also exist within a single language. Gordin considers it in the context of scientific communication:

Where communities fall on the spectrum between identity and communication is historically contingent; different tensions are tolerated differently at different times, but they have not gone away, even if scientific communication happens in a single language. It is, in fact, an omnipresent feature of all interchange, strongly dramatized in the case of science by its prominent intellectual creativity (identity) and its social organization (communication), and that allows us to see how creativity and social organization interact within the spheres of language and language choice.

I want to analyze this dynamic with regard to interpersonal communication that involves people of (vastly) different cultural backgrounds. It may be yet another story of immigrant experience, yet another account of East vs West encounters, with their frustrations and epiphanies and moments of cherished closeness in the background of unyielding distance. But what prompted me to write this essay is the undeniable realization that parts of me, broadly a person of the East, often don’t have space to blossom or else have to be curbed/suppressed/attenuated lest I cross the default fine lines of social acceptability in a Western country that is the US of A. These fine lines often have to do with the expression of care toward others, and I want to specifically focus on it in the context of friendships.

There seem to be different cultural baselines with regard to how much care you’re allowed to express toward another without it being perceived by the recipient as too much”, at any arbitrary level of closeness. The amount and quality of care that in one culture is considered something that could only exist in the context of a romantic relationship is a normal part of friendship in another. And when there’s an encounter between those cultures in the context of friendship, it often results in defaulting to the lowest common denominator/safest option, which is more distant and gingerly than what one of the parties may want to express. One could say that the person from a more care-intense culture thus exercises meta-care: caring for others in a way that is acceptable/desirable to them and not to the person him/herself. Of course, one can muster up one’s courage and take the leap towards more”, and I’ve done plenty of that, usually with positive outcomes. But the default mode of communication often remains at a more distant level.

The only work of English-language literature I know of that describes a model of friendship that is closest to my heart is Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Reading it, after living in the US for a couple of years, was like taking a hot shower after being rained on on a chilly November day (ok I’m dramatizing, but it’s pretty close to how I felt). That recurring phrase, for you, a thousand times over”, is what I wanted to tell some of my US friends but didn’t feel like I was allowed to. I wonder if for people of the West the devotion of Hassan to Amir seems like subservience, and if my hesitation in saying those words and doing more for my friends was because I didn’t want to be perceived as subservient to them. I think this is one of the main conflicts in intercultural friendships.

Another one is a framing problem: seeing acts of care as something one owes” to another vs as a part of a natural way of things, that which one can’t help but keenly do for another. The owing” frame is deeply alienating to me, it’s a part of the all too self-aware analytical disposition towards interpersonal relationships. I also object to self-interest as the main driver of human behavior”. I see a lot of value in losing oneself in caring for another, and it therefore saddens me that this part of me atrophies with time, rarely finding an outlet. Not just that, it’s nearly pathologized in Western societies.

With all that said, I do think that over time I’ve become more comfortable with expressing care in ways that resonate with my identity and am happy to adjust its intensity depending on circumstances. As Gordin notes in the context of languages,

The richness of metaphor and quickness of thought in one’s native language enable creative work; identity should not be sacrificed without a fight.

  1. Gordin, Michael D. Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English. University of Chicago Press, 2015↩︎

  2. I want to distinguish this term from identity as in identity politics”. In the present context it has to do with personal expression rather than group membership.↩︎