Language and Culture

Someone walks up to you and says “hello”. Someone else walks up to you and says “how do you do?” What do they look like? What do they sound like?

“Hello” is a greeting so generic as to evoke nothing. When you tried to think of someone who would say “hello” to you, you probably just thought of someone very normal. But when you think of “how do you do”, you probably think of Victorian nobility, and even if you’re not British, you probably imagined it spoken in an English accent. Now imagine someone who says “howdy”. Now imagine someone who says “yo”.

So much information is deeply embedded into language, beyond the actual meaning of the words. Simply the way someone says something can tell you where they’re from, and what their background is like. Someone who uses “fixin'” where most English speakers would using “going” (e.g. “I’m going to leave”) might be from Texas, and someone who insists that “mediums” is not a word and the correct plural of “medium” is “media” is probably a well-educated person from a well-to-do background, and kind of annoying.

I would argue that these same kinds of phenomena occur between languages, and often on a much larger scale. Languages divide people. They identify groups of people who talk to each other, to the exclusion of people who don’t speak their language. And just as people of different backgrounds speak to each other in different ways, people of different languages speak to each other in different ways.

In Chinese, the way to say you’re not feeling well sounds kind of ridiculous when translated directly. It’s 身体不舒服, which is “body not comfortable” (side note: Chinese doesn’t really have an un- prefix, so it just uses “not” where English might add “un-“). It’s a pretty weird phrase. 舒服, or “comfortable” as dictionaries generally translate it, really just refers to things that feel good. A massage is 舒服. Sex is 舒服. In that light, it’s not far off from the English, “I don’t feel so good.”

But when I hear that phrase, I interpret it in a Chinese context, as Chinese people saying it, who live and work in Chinese culture. From my time in China, I felt that feigning illness was quite a bit more popular in China than it is in America. This isn’t to say that Chinese culture is more dishonest per se, rather, it arises out of a need for an excuse when a problem arises. When you don’t show up for class, your friends say you were sick to cover for you. When my boss at a new job asked me to do overtime on the first weekend after I started and I declined, she angrily asked why, because “I don’t want to” wasn’t good enough.

When at any occasion where alcohol is served, a good host will insist that you drink, despite your protests. A generic excuse would be “我肚子不舒服” (我肚子 being “my stomach”), but I’ve also heard people say they would get diarrhea if they drank. I once asked someone who said that, “really?”, which led to an awkward pause. That’s because these excuses aren’t really all that serious. These are just pleasantries people exchange out of habit. Likewise, the clerk at the store isn’t really concerned for your welfare when they ask “how are you?”, and they don’t really care how your day goes when they say “have a good one”.

When I hear Chinese, I change gears. I stop expecting people to act like Americans and I start expecting people to act like Chinese people. Even if you’re monolingual, you’ve probably had this experience. Maybe you tried to be friendly when sitting down to a job interview but the interviewer turned out to be cold and stiff in their professionalism, and you immediately switched to a more formal tone. As a perhaps less comfortable example, I was talking to someone one time who used the construction “you is”, but then immediately “corrected” himself to “you are” (he was black, I’m white, and “you is” is grammatical in African American Vernacular English).

One of the most interesting opportunities I have open to me as the designer of my game is deciding what gear you’ll shift to when you read my language. What are your expectations in conversation? What is your implicit understanding of your social situation? Are some phrases empty, or is everything said in earnest? If I can get you to think about these questions, and finish the game with interesting answers for them, I can certainly make – maybe not the best game – but at least a very special one.

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Creator of Sethian. My personal email is grantkuning at gmail. Kickstarter: Facebook: Twitter:

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