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Essay

Cultural metaphors

By Kip A. Cates

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We live in a multicultural world full of people with diverse backgrounds. If we want to get along, we need cultural awareness. So, what's "culture" exactly?

One way to understand "culture" is by going to the dictionary. Some dictionaries offer short definitions: "Culture is the way of life of a group of people." Other dictionaries provide a list of features: "Culture includes the knowledge, beliefs, customs and values of a country."

Another way to understand culture is through metaphors. What's a metaphor? A metaphor is a way of comparing two things using interesting images. Metaphors deepen understanding by highlighting aspects we often don't notice.

Before looking at metaphors of culture, let's warm up with another topic — life. What's life? That's a big question! Here are three metaphors to consider:

・ Life is like a roller coaster. It starts slowly, then begins to gather speed. It goes up and down, takes unexpected turns and is often scary. Each moment is intense, yet it's all over too quickly. And the best way to enjoy it is with a partner or friends!

・ Life is like a game of cards. When we're born, we're each dealt a different set of cards. Some people get a strong combination. Others hold weaker hands. To succeed, you've got to take risks and do the best with what you have!

・ Life is like a book. It's long or short, full of unusual characters and has a complicated plot. Sometimes it's boring, sometimes interesting. Each day is a different page, so you never know what will happen next. You have to keep reading to see how it ends!

Metaphors of life are fun to play with. I'm sure you can think of others. What about culture, then? Let's take a look:

・ Culture is like a fish bowl. Fish spend their lives surrounded by water but they're so used to it that they don't notice. In the same way, people spend their lives immersed in their culture but they take it for granted and don't realize it's there.

・ Culture is like a tree. It has many branches and is rooted in a specific environment. Each tree is unique yet continues to grow. In the same way, cultures have many subcultures and are rooted in specific places. Each culture is unique yet continues to change.

・ Culture is like a computer operating system. Like computers, people consist of hardware (our bodies) and software (our cultures). Just as technical problems arise between computers with different operating systems, cultural problems arise between people of different cultures.

・ Culture is like an iceberg. It consists of a visible tip (food, costumes, festivals) and a larger part below the surface (values, attitudes, beliefs). The part you can't see is sometimes the most dangerous!

Deepening cultural understanding is a lifelong adventure. Good luck creating your own metaphors of culture and life!

文化の比喩

この世界にはさまざまな文化的背景を持つ人が共に暮らしているが、そもそも「文化」とは何だろうか。「文化とはまるで〜のようだ」という例えを使って考えてみることにしよう。

The Japan Times ST: September 9, 2016

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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