Surface Culture vs. Deep Culture

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Hello World!

The following is a response to a series of questions I was asked in one of my certification classes. Surface culture is essentially the cultural norms you can easily identify in a foreign country. Deep culture are the cultural norms not easily detected unless, in fact, you are born and raised in that specific culture OR you spend an extended amount of time in the foreign culture. Below you’ll find an excerpt of what I have experienced recently in Argentina & Ecuador. These are the sorts of experiences I often reference when I am teaching second language learners.

Some “surface culture” attributes of my Mexican-American background includes kissing family and close “Latino” friends on the cheek as a greeting, eating tamales during Christmas, and cracking eggs shells on family members heads during Easter. I guess the surface culture is more reflective during holiday celebrations. In “mainstream” America, we hand-shake someone if we don’t really know them and hug them if they are close friends. One of the challenging experiences I faced as a foreigner in Argentina was kissing students on the cheek, though I do it with my family and close “Latino” friends; I would never do it with the students I teach. In addition, they would always want to kiss me (all 13 of them) as they walked into the classroom, whereas I was focused on getting the props ready for my lesson and each time I had to kiss one of them I had to stop what I was doing. Eventually, I made sure I was prepared before they came and would “make time” to kiss them with a greeting.

Some “deep culture” attributes of my Mexican-American background are interesting because they include a “Latino” side and an “American” side. For instance, being part of a close-knit Mexican family we are very warm and welcoming with “anybody” that any member of the family brings to our home (whether its my home, my grandmas, or my uncles). Its not something we’re explicit about we are just that way. Another unspoken attribute of American culture is that we say what we mean and we mean what we say, along with being somewhat punctual. For instance, when I was in Ecuador visitng my husbands family (his other half) we planned a dinner-date with his cousin and wife at 8PM. They didn’t arrive until 9:45PM this is even after we called to make sure everything was ok!!!

I think the “deep culture” is harder to adjust to. We spent a month in Ecuador and I eventually learned that 8PM really meand 9:30PM approximately, BUT I could not get used to the fact that people couldn’t just say the truth, like “8PM sounds great, but I usually can’t leave the office before 9PM, so lets shoot for 9:30PM”, hence my we mean what we say and say what we mean. As the definition of “deep culture” states these are customs that we’re raised with, so they’re almost difficult to be aware of them.

Interestingly enough I experienced the “no line” factor in Ecuador. Initially, it drove me crazy! It was like that at the movie theatre and at bars. Eventually, I took on the same strategy as the locals. I just made my way through the “conglomerate line”, if you will. I did judge locals a little. I wanted to share with them the concept of how a line works and how fair that would be, but I didn’t let that thought verbalize by any means except to my husband. I think its natural to make judgments, but I also think there is a time and a place to share those judgements with the intentions of trying to understand the local culture.

The greatest benefit of teaching abroad was the experience of working in a totally different culture than what I have worked in as a teacher. I felt that students and the people at the organization we were at valued the teaching profession and what we had to offer more than the people in the U.S.A. As I mentioned before one the biggest challenges for me, yet minute in retrospect, was setting time aside to kiss each student everday before and after class.

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About suzannemateus

I write about my bilingual life on my blog, Interpretations of a Bilingual Life: http://suzannemateus.com/ I am also a monthly contributor for http://www.spanglishbaby.com/ where I write about my attempt to raise a trilingual baby. I have written (and am interested in continuing to do so) for other blogs focusing on my experiences about nursing my baby and about having an amazing intervention-free and med-free birth.

6 responses »

  1. I’ve never responded to one of these; I hope I am responding to the above chronicle. I found the deep culture judgment of “waiting in line,” an interesting one. I would have trouble not reacting to the situation as being treated rudely. Did anyone try to explain why this a practice? I know it is rather innate to them now, but how do they maintain order and not end up with mob scenes. If I were there first and then someone walked in front of me, I’m not sure how I would react? I would like to think I am patient, but this obviously triggered a reaction from me just by reading your writing.
    I do think it would be great to have such an opportunity to be exposed to other cultures on some basis anyway.

  2. Hi Lisa,

    I can’t believe I never responded to your post. I hope you get this. I don’t really know why this is a practice. The only conclusions I have made are that it is just that, a different culture. I experience the no line factor this past summer in Italy and it drove me crazy and I got all competitive. I really had to laugh at myself.

    Thanks for your comment.

    • In Brazil this is the norm also. DEEP culture bred into Brazilians, the strong survive, the weak will just fail. Driving is the same mind set. Get out of my way, because you are slowing me down. From my experience many or most of the Brazilian population seem to think as an Individual, they are the only ones existing on earth, therefore when an opening occurs, they only care about themselves being served. Busses, a prime example of this philosophy. I feel sorry for the Elderly because some never get a chance to board a bus due to the mindset of “I must survive at all costs”.
      I am an American living in Brazil for 5 years and am experiencing some very different ‘deep culture” events as compared to my American culture.
      Also, much of a Brazilians mindset is due to not having Policemen all over the country. It is the “wild west of American Culture” mindset so if you remember your Western movies of North America past, all I can say is Bem vendo ao Brazil!
      I am now accustomed to driving all over the country after being scared to death for the first year. I am accepting much of the surface and deep culture after being very judgemental toward the locals. I had to leave my “American way of thinking in America” and try to understand the thinking behind some of the what I conside “deplorable” cultural habits of Brazil. I Still don’t like them but I have accepted the fact that I cannot change them.

  3. some times it is difficult to learn some one’s culture if we are new for that cuntry. I belive it takes time to learn deep culture.

  4. My husband’s family does the egg cracking on Easter, the first time I participated my head hurt for the rest of the day from all the kids pounding my head. His mother saves all of the cracked eggs throughout the entire year, and then towards Easter they fill them all with confetti and then glue them, and color them. Very different from just coloring eggs and finding eggs with candy in them. A tradition I hope to uphold in our family.

  5. I know what you mean by the fact that other cultures appreciate teachers & the educational process than we traditionally do in the US. When I spent three weeks in Germany several years ago, I noticed that people in general from the young school child to the elderly seemed to receive more respect. I went with a friend to see his niece off to her first day of school. The teachers were treated with the utmost respect & the older students who had returned to school days before the younger were prepared to make the younger feel welcomed. In public school the day began in a church with a pastor giving blessings to each child. The older children performed a program to welcome them. Each child was matched with an older child to help them become adjusted. Each child was given a large cone filled with all sorts of treats, toys & other surprises. When I returned to the US, all I could say is, “Why don’t we show our children & their teachers that kind of open armed respect? What’s wrong with us?”
    A few years ago, I was approached by a Chinese family in my neighborhood who owned a restaurant & were desperate to learn fluent English. They asked me if I as a teacher would help them learn English over the summer. I was thrilled to help them & gladly excepted. The only payment that I cared about was the thrill of watching them learn & grow in their English skills, as we deepened our friendship. They came to my house everyday at the same time, were on time, addressed me as “teacher,” although I would never require it, & constantly showed me how grateful they were. At the end of about almost 2 months, we were finished & my husband & I left for vacation. before we left, they came to the house & presented me with $600 in cash. I tried ti refuse it & assured them that I benefited as much as they did. I had helped them learn English as a friend & good neighbor. When I saw that not excepting the cash would insult them, I graciously thanked them.

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