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Understanding Culture Through Proverbs

By Breidi Truscott Roberts

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My dad used to tell me that sometimes you have to "stick your neck out."

What value do you think he was teaching me … Risk-taking? Taking action?
Values tell us a lot about a cultural group. Idioms are an accessible way to learn what a culture values and passes down through the generations. My dad and I are both U.S. American.

Now consider a Japanese proverb "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." I hear the importance of adhering to the norm–quite contrary to sticking one's neck out. The U.S.A. is by and large considered a risk-taking individualistic culture, whereas the Japanese culture tends to be more 'collectivistic,' in which the group is generally valued over the individual. Thus, you're more likely to hear this phrase in Japan than in the U.S.: "A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle."

As I lead intercultural workshops at I-House, I ask participants to look deeper into the values underlying proverbs as a way of getting to know one's own and other cultures.

I'll ask you to do the same: What expressions did you hear growing up? What do they say about the values of your culture? Ask your friends, especially those from other cultures, and learn what messages they received. My hunch is you'll learn quite a bit about your similarities and differences, for as the old Yiddish proverb says: "Everyone is kneaded out of the same dough but not baked in the same oven."

Do you have a proverb from your home country or culture?

Share it with Breidi at breidi@berkeley.edu.


Breidi has a Masters in Intercultural Relations from the School for International Training, is certified in Emotional Intelligence and Diversity instruction and the Cultural Detective methodology. A fellow at the Institute for Intercultural Communication's annual summer institute (SIIC), she serves on the Board of the Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR).