The culture of a given society has several layers. Firstly, there are the arts and the achievements, symbols, the figures who represent the nation’s history and contemporary circumstances. A deeper layer, requiring consistent engagement with the culture to understand, encompasses everything from common worldviews and attitudes, to humour and mannerisms. Language is somewhere in between. Objective meanings of words and phrases can be learnt from any textbook. However, exposure to how the language operates within the culture and social interactions reveals its emotional dimension. The connotations of words, their flavour and the pictures they paint, must be felt and cannot be formally taught.
I am familiar with the character of two countries, far removed from each other in geography and culture: immigrating as a nine year old, I’ve retained a strong memory of my native land, the Russian Federation. British teenage years followed a predominantly Russian childhood. Acquiring a a second citizenship at a lively ceremony in 2012 symbolised my assimilation of everything from the South-Eastern dialect to the manners and customs of my new compatriots. Nowadays, I think, speak, and write predominantly in English. During my annual visits to Russia, I receive a few laughs from loved ones at my odd manner and accent. For sure, a different person would have emerged from the absence of an immigration experience, but through bilingualism I have retained ties to my ethnic origin. My soul combines hues from both countries and I am profoundly aware of their disparities.
I’ve learnt that submerging yourself into a second culture or language reveals facts that can seldom be conveyed through a secondary account.
Humour, for example, gives translators more nightmares than laughs. Jokes have roots in history and the intricacies of a given language. A whimsical anecdote from Russia may receive blank stares from a British audience if it depends on the historical resonance of a particular word or character. Likewise, my mum still scolds me for self-deprecating quips, which translate into Russian as a deliberate and cruel effacement of oneself.
Similarly to humour, emotional experiences are lost in translation. After trying to explain to said mother why I find certain situations awkward while feeling ‘in British’, I recognised they may not stand at odds with Russian norms and customs. Russians, in general, don’t experience awkwardness to the same degree; the act of cringing at a cheesy joke does not have a Russian equivalent. Likewise, translating certain Russian words, like ‘toska’, is a matter of sentences. ‘Toska’, which implies a visceral, intractable melancholia at one level and restlessness at another, was said by Vladimir Nabokov not to have ‘a single English word’ that ‘renders all the shades of [it]’.
Easily-translatable language covers experiences and objects recognisable across borders. Words like those mentioned above, however, arise from a multidimensional cultural backdrop. History, tradition, common experience all explain the hardship of translating words with cultural roots, not to mention moving from one country to another. They build the characters of nations. And what I mean by ‘character’ is mostly the set of values possessed by a state and its corresponding society, in the form of anything from ideology to moral convictions. They need not be identical – in fact, the more a state imposes a set of values onto and clashes with the traditions of a skeptical population, the more they are likely to diverge. Further sets of core values are shared by sub-groups, like religious organisations and political parties, within the broader society. Many borrow heavily from their nation’s governing values, or what they are assumed to have been before the invasion of a corrupting influence. For an example, let’s look at the Slavophile movement in nineteenth-century Russia. Their line of thought idolised tradition and autocracy, denouncing Western ideas as incompatible with the Russian psyche and therefore responsible for its ills. Countercultures create an alternative. In the same time period, ‘Westernisers’ saw the country as inherently backward and argued for Westernisation as an antidote.
Countless other instances illustrate how core values and sentiments exist everywhere: overtly, in political manifestos and company slogans, or symbolically, in the undercurrents of words as opposed to their explicit meaning, the overall mentality of a given society or organisation. Our conscious mind registers the former, but the latter registers somewhere between the intuition and our emotional intelligence. At the start of this article, I brought up bilingualism because language, more than anything else, is a window into the tone and spirit of nations. For instance: Russian people often say things as they really are. Words, therefore, need not carry multiple connotations and the language as a whole lacks euphemisms. Russians appear harsh at first impression, but soften in circles of family and close friends. The language, in turn, can fluctuate from gravelly and abrupt to endearing with a nostalgic touch.
Core values exist from the international down to the individual level; how far the former resembled the latter varies from person to person. What’s certain is the strength of the link between the manifesto of our inner selves and our purpose in the world. Things like our political leanings and taste in literature shape our outward identity, but originate from a deeper level of ourselves, a bigger picture of who we are and what we admire, things which pull us to those books and political parties in the first place. Trying to enunciate their defining values, most people struggle. Everyone, after all, can taste the ‘zeitgeist’ of a given historical age on the tips of their tongues, but the organisations and individuals thriving within its framework can vividly describe the flavour. As we mature, we must therefore think harder about what overarching principles constitute our persona.
It’s easy to assume that you must know your purpose and goal in life to identify the values needed for these to come to fruition, yet this need not be the case. Values in themselves can have a grounding influence and in times of uncertainty, resemble a lighthouse. Are you content with your ‘personal ideology’ and thus wish to shape the future you around the values you hold at the present moment? Conversely, in possession of a long-term goal, question the extent to which your inner workings are compatible with the person you want to be in five or ten years’ time. Practice honesty with yourself, and skepticism towards external pressure – a barrier which hinders many from living in accordance with what they, deep down, believe to be correct.
Some people unconsciously use core values to structure their approach to life, but removing ambiguity, breaking through layers of doubt and debunking illusions imposed by society requires hard work. Don’t fear asking yourself difficult questions. Acknowledge what you associate with as a person. I’ll give some examples, but keep in mind that an infinity exists to choose from:
- Do you value integrity? Are you quick to acknowledge bitter truths where others sugarcoat?
- Are you a meticulous planner? Or do you prefer a spontaneous approach to your daily endeavours?
- Are you a risk-taker by nature, or inclined towards security?
- Does your life thrive on velocity, or quieter moments, or a balance of both?
- Are moral concerns central to your decision-making?
Due to the constraints of abstract language, fearlessly use images, similes and metaphors to paint your deeper identity. Find analogies in nature and science. I liken (with a touch of humour) pivotal occasions in my life, that in some way refined my inner principles, to historical events. Whatever you discover, be sincere. These principles can’t be quantified by vague personality tests and the ill-evidenced opinion of others, comparable to a novice asserting familiarity with all the nuances of a foreign language. They echo deep self-reflection and an honest, ongoing internal dialogue.
Evolution is perpetual. The global stage evolves, societies and individuals evolve too. New evidence (in the form of events, books, people) may come forward and challenges your worldview and approach to life. If compelled, you should feel at ease in tweaking your core values, while keeping them compatible with who you are as a person. In my relatively short existence, I’ve leapfrogged through several identity crises and revised my long-term goals countless times. I’ve mistook traits enshrined by society and/or my bygone mental illness for core principles, living in denial of me as I actually am. Now, nearing the end of my teenage years, I am happy not in a superficial way, but in attuning to my inner compass. Conceding to and even reworking who we are has a bittersweet flavour, often impalpable to society and our past selves, but certainly illuminates the road ahead and the destination to which it leads.
I must re-emphasise the importance of flexibility in response to both external circumstance and natural shifts in your internal landscape. Entities without core values lapse into disarray and capriciousness. However, if unresponsive to change, blindly tied to outdated philosophies, they stagnate and collapse as the world moves ahead. Empires have faced this. Clinging onto incumbent practices within a dynamic environment, businesses drive themselves to bankruptcy on a daily basis. Good core values without doubt transcend centuries, but how they translate to action depends on context. They are, by implication, not tied to a specific instance of time and space, but adaptable to an array of situations in which we find ourselves. A large portion of identity is fixed; some of your core values may be unwavering. The rest, however, is accumulated as we progress through life. Embrace such a proliferation of yourself, even if using those steadfast values in selecting which new ones to absorb.
Media outlets don’t shy away from propagandizing an archetype of success, a specific person holding a specific set of core values destined to fulfil their purpose at the expense of everyone else. We are faced with conflicting information, unsure whether we must be a fourteen-hours-a-day workaholic or a minimalist yogi to achieve greatness. However, variety nurtures progress. And history has shown numerous times that the prettiest rhetoric or theoretical appeal need not equate to results within the constrains of the real world. Moreover, if everyone was the same, if everyone thought the same and believed in the same thing, such a monolith of a world would hardly be able to function. The question of whether individuals shape societal values or societal values trickle down to the individual is beyond the scope of this blog post, but what can be said is that individual decisions and the values of people operating on different wavelengths shape nations and the world as a whole. For this reason, treasure your inner narrative, understand what values characterise you (while remaining open to change) and unapologetically use them in chasing your purpose, referring back to those core principle when directionless.
Let me know in the comments: if you speak two or more languages, what has this taught you about the cultures in which they are used? And what would you consider to be your defining values?