by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, PhD Anthropology
About twelve years ago, a friend yelled at me for what he saw as constant interruptions. “You never let me finish talking,” he said.
I was confused. When had I ever interrupted him?
After much discussion, I finally figured it out. What he considered an interruption — saying “right” or “yes” while he was talking — was the only way I knew to listen politely. In my experience, remaining completely silent while someone else was speaking meant you were checked out.
We were both from the same country — he’s from Minnesota and I’m from New York — but the difference between us was a cultural one.
How big or small, exactly, is a culture? Is the U.S. a single culture? Certainly there are some large commonalities shared by everyone in the U.S. You’ve probably heard people talk about “corporate culture,” but is an office too small to be a culture? The thing about culture is that it operates on many different levels at once.
Even though there are very good reasons to talk about U.S. culture as a whole, there is also tremendous cultural variability within the U.S. Many scholars, journalists, and others have attempted to draw these borders. For example, journalist Colin Woodard’s recent analysis argues that the U.S. can be divided into eleven geographical “nations” or cultures, each with its own set of values. Others have proposed varying types of divisions, and still others have resisted dividing the U.S. into any specific number of regions.
In addition to regional differences, we can also talk about ethnic and religious cultures within the U.S. All of these levels interact, and they help to explain things like the communication breakdown between my friend and me.
Take me as an example: I’m a Jewish-American New Yorker who lives in Los Angeles. There are overall differences between New York and Los Angeles — from their ethnic makeup, to the layout of each city, to the industries in which people work — but both are enormous cities that differ from the rural parts of the country in important ways.
Beyond the city, Jewish-American culture also differs from Anglo-American culture. For example, studies have found that Jewish-Americans engage in playful argument more frequently than others. We disagree, contradict, and deny things others say — and that’s when we like each other! (Members of many other communities, notably the Black community, engage in ritual insults — and again, that’s when they like each other!)
If you’re from one of the many American cultures that sees arguments as impolite, you probably find this behavior confusing. Maybe you even thought we were being deliberately unkind. The stereotype of New Yorkers, and Jewish New Yorkers in particular, as pushy and aggressive comes largely from these cultural differences. We argue, we contradict each other, and we talk over each other. That’s why my friend got so angry all those years ago.
It’s not that we’re rude, though — it’s just the opposite. That’s how we show that we like you. That’s how we show that we’re engaged in the conversation.
For more on American regional cultures, see:
Lieske, Joel. 1993. Regional Subcultures of the United States. Journal of Politics 55(4): 888-913.
Woodard, Colin. 2011. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. New York: Viking.
For more on Jewish-American conversational culture, see:
Blum-Kulka, Shoshana. 1997 Dinner Talk: Cultural Patterns of Sociability and Socialization in Family Discourse. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schiffrin, Deborah. 1984. Jewish Argument as Sociability. Language in Society 13(3): 311-335.
Tannen, Deborah. 1981. New York Jewish Conversational Style. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30: 133-150.
For more on Black culture and language in the U.S., see:
Alim, H. Samy. 2006. Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture. New York: Routledge.
Smitherman, Geneva. 1977. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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