A couple weeks ago a student at the acting class I help out with asked me what the differences were between Brazilians and Americans, and I told her that I didn’t know enough Brazilians to know.
Then last week one of my co-workers, André, asked me a very similar question – what are the differences between the US and Brazil? This time I really wanted to give him an answer, because he wasn’t just making talk or having fun with the gringo, but was seriously thinking about the interactions of cultures. Unfortunately, I could not. I did not know what was different between the two countries. I only had a few, meaningless anecdotes to tell him, like Brazilians leaving the door open all the time and wearing shoes inside the house. I realized that I had been so cautious to not make uniformed judgements of the people, country, and culture around me that I had not made any judgements. I had escaped generalization at the cost of not learning how things differ generally.
So when can I start, in good conscious, to extrapolate from my limited experience broader meanings? I have been in Brazil for a month and a half, and will leave after I have completed seven. When can is my sample size of experience large enough to be statistically significant? I know that I have lived in the US for 18 years and two months, and I still wouldn’t, with any certainty, generalize Americans. Maybe at this point I have known to many. Whatever generalization I care to think of a dozen counter examples pop into my head. How can I possibly encapsulate in a few broad, sweeping remarks, the breadth of experience, of culture, of people, contained in the US? Over 18 years of experience does not feel like it makes me enough of an expert to know what ‘Americans’ are like. I have been in Brazil for a month and a half – how am I supposed to know what ‘Brazilians’ are like, let alone make statements about how they differ?
However qualified I feel to point out what the differences are, it is clear that there are differences. By clear I mean very, very, obscure. It is not something I have seen, or noticed really. More a general feeling. I can’t point out one thing that would have been different in the US but I can feel things would have been. It is like an optical allusion where something is only ever there out of the corner of your eyes, and disappears as soon as you try to look at it. My bet is that it is because each difference is minute. Each difference is so much smaller than the variations within countries. For example, right now I am living in a single income, un-educated lower class urban household with a divorced mom and little brother. I came from an upper-middle class, well educated, rural household with a nuclear family. Within the US, that could cause some culture shock, so it is hard to say that any one thing I see is because I am in Brazil. It must be the minute variations that build up and eventual give the general air that I am not in Kansas anymore.
But it is important to understand these differences. If I can not understand the differences between the US and Brazil I will have failed my goal of learning the culture of Brazil. Knowing how the countries differ is imperative to making connections between them, from the personal to the political. Understanding why one thing worked here, and did not there, or if something that worked here will work there, is based on understanding what changes between the countries. To learn what a culture is, a need to know what it is not.
This also brings up a problem. As I established earlier, I have enough of a feeling to convince myself that Brazil is different than the US. But as I also established earlier, I am not sure how to characterize the US. I almost feel unprepared in coming here. In science, to find the differences between two case studies or two trials it requires careful observation in each one. However, if I never made careful observations of the first, what meaning will the observations of the second maintain in isolation? When I was in the US I was living as most people live. To wit, I was not paying much attention to what I was experiencing and what was around me. I was riding the roller coaster, enjoying the rush of adrenaline, the wind in my face, and the view from the top of the hills, not analyzing the physics behind the coaster. This meant that when I arrived in Brazil I did not have the necessary background knowledge and bank of observations about my own country, and instead have had to make do with retrospective analysis.
Still, I am reticent to make statements about ‘Americans’, the US, or their Brazilian counter parts. Any statement besides the tautological would be by necessity a generalization. Either I make a statement that generalizes and so gives a false impression or I stuff the statements so full of qualifiers that it becomes meaningless.
At the bottom of the problem is I believe this: the objective is meaningless, and it is our interpretation that gives an objective observation meaning. However, inherent in interpretation is the possibility of error and miscommunication. Take a recent example: we were told to pick a ribbon of our favorite color and talk about it in language class. When I started talking about why I liked orange my classmates were confused, asking me why then I was holding an orange ribbon. This example illustrates how both myself and my classmates made the same objective observation (ie. we saw the same wavelength of light), but the wavelength was meaningless, and it was my interpretation of that wave length as being orange that made me choose the ribbon and my classmate’s interpretation of it as red that led them not to pick it. At the same time, it was my interpretation of the wavelength as being orange that introduced a level of error into the system that, when coupled with the error introduced with the error introduced by my classmates interpreting the wavelength as red, that led to our disagreement.
This dilemma manifests itself in André’s question about what the differences are between Brazil and the US. It does not seem possible for me to tell him anything meaningful without it being an interpretation of my experiences. By the way, generally when people interpret other people in means they are making a judgement. So, for me to tell André a meaningful difference between the cultures of the US and Brazil I would first have to a) make a judgement of the people and things I have experienced in my life and b) generalize my judgement from my own experience to the entire nation. (Yes, I could preface my statement with a phrase such as “In my experience [Americans do…]” but while this technically saves me from generalization what the listener hears is “Americans do…”) For those of you who have never taken a boot camp for becoming culturally open on a bridge year, the first two things you are told not to do are a) judge and b) generalize.
I have come to terms with the fact that eventually I will have to do both. After all, the phrase we were taught at pre-departure training was “curiosity before judgement”, which does imply judgement comes eventually. Up to my conversation with André I know I was definitely in such a hard-core curiosity mode that I wasn’t even making judgements as to what to focus on, just trying to live and absorb. I think the way forward is to start making hypotheses, the testing of which will help target my observations in a productive way. Hopefully, when I return, I will be able to tell everyone in the US how Brazilians are different.