In this audio recording, graduate student Margherita Berti describes how an ordinary encounter while studying abroad gave her a new outlook on cultural differences, practices, and perspectives.
My Humanities Moment goes back to when I was an exchange student in high school in 2008/2009. I lived for a year in Indiana with an American host family and we did everyday stuff together. So for example, going to a supermarket or going out to eat. They would drive me to school and I remember that one day I was in the supermarket with my host mom and we were by the cashier checking out and the cashier said to me, “Hi, how are you?” and I didn’t answer because I felt that it was, in a way, inappropriate, that a person that I didn’t know was asking me, “How are you?” And my host mom said to the cashier, referring to me, “Oh, she’s not rude. She’s just not from here.”
And of course I understood why my host mom said, and she didn’t mean it in a bad way, in a rude way. She was just justifying the fact that I didn’t answer a simple question to a stranger. And in that moment I reflected about how I have been studying English since I was 6, and at that time I was 16. So for 10 years that I studied English, I still didn’t know how to interact with speakers of the language in a culturally appropriate way. That was because when I studied English in the past we focused so much on grammar, on rules, on vocabulary, and not so much on pragmatics and ways to speak to other people in a way that is appropriate in their own culture.
And this experience just made me more interested in learning about other cultures and also understanding how we teach culture in foreign language courses. And there is a citation that particularly spoke to me in relation to my experience, and that is a citation by Bennett, Bennett, and Allen, 2003. And it says, “The person who learns language without learning culture risks becoming a fluent fool.” And that’s how I felt, a fluent fool who knew language, knew how to speak to people, knew how to use English with other people, but just didn’t know how to use that same language in a culturally appropriate way.