It’s not just food and music

The waitress came over. I had made up my mind to try meatloaf, which sounded very American to my ears, and a pale lager.

“What did you say?”

I repeated it.

She stared hesitantly, almost despondently, at me.

Peter intervened to help us out. The waitress gathered up the menus and disappeared.

The same thing happened nearly every time I had ordered something in the past week. The waiter or waitress would look questioningly at me and ask me to repeat myself. Every exchange of information was piecemeal, chopped into bits, full of misunderstandings and repetitions. It wasn’t that I didn’t speak English, it was that I stood on the outside of the flow that made things glide along easily and without friction, where everything said and done was as expected. I was in command of the content, but not of the form, and form is always the most important aspect of human communication. I experienced the same thing when I moved from Norway to Sweden, all those suddenly blank stares and silent nods, which meant either that someone didn’t understand what I was saying or that what I was saying was preposterous. In those early years, every time I met people from Norway, I felt relief. They only had to say a few sentences, and at once I could place them geographically and socially and address them accordingly. When I was still living in Norway, I wasn’t even aware that this kind of knowledge existed, it was entirely intuitive and obvious, just part of what being Norwegian entailed, and my easy access to this whole subconscious mountain of implicit knowledge and shared references was probably what it meant to have a national identity.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard (source)

A fleeting glimpse of the obvious in the pages of the New York Times. But what follows is weaker.

Once, I mentioned this to a Swedish woman. She looked indignantly at me. “But those are just prejudices!” she said. “You’re judging people before you’ve even spoken to them! It’s much better not to know all those things, so that you can make up your own opinion about them. We’re individuals, not representatives of a culture!”

That is the most Swedish thing anyone has ever said to me.

What is culture, if not a set of prejudices? A set of unformulated and unconscious rules and ways of behavior that every member of a given society nonetheless immediately recognizes and accepts?

Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home.

Even though I grew up with American music and films and read about American politicians and celebrities practically all my life, I was still an outsider. I didn’t understand all these TV sets with their bright smiles.

Knausgaard didn’t see all of America; he drove from Maine to Minnesota, through small towns, suburbs, and Detroit, mostly avoiding the native population on his way. The differences he could have seen, whether on his route or elsewhere, might seem small to someone from a continent with dozens of different languages, but it must be remembered that America didn’t completely settle on English until after WW2.

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3 responses to “It’s not just food and music

  1. Pingback: It’s not just food and music | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/03/13) | The Reactivity Place

  3. Anonymous Coward March 27, 2015 at 2:39 am

    The English word culture comes from the Latin word cultus. Cultus means “religion”.

    The English word cult also comes from the Latin cultus. Cult means “a religion I don’t like”, or a “false religion”.

    But back to the first point. The English word culture comes from the Latin word cultus. Built right into the English language is the truth that you can’t have culture without religion. It isn’t possible.

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