5 Universal Experiences That Are Different In Other Cultures
Despite our many differences, there are certain things we humans can collectively agree upon: Brussels sprouts are gross, nobody should put honking horn sound effects in songs, and if Donald Trump tasted like something, it would be a withered 7-11 hot dog. But it turns out that some of the human experiences we regard as universal are definitely not -- for example, some people enjoy Brussels sprouts. (We call those people vegans, and we speak of them in hushed tones, lest they bake us something they promise 'tastes real!')
How Well You See A Color Depends On Your Language
The esteemed Roy G. Biv taught us the basics of color perception back in grade school: Light enters your eye, the rods rod, the cones cone, and your brain translates the ensuing signal into a Led Zeppelin black light poster. It's purely a biological process. But if that's the case, why do both Greek and Russian languages have several different words for light blue versus dark blue? Do they actually see those colors differently than English speakers do?
Does this look like a rainbow flag to them?
The best way to answer that question is to examine a culture that actually has fewer color words than English -- namely, the Himba people of northern Namibia. They group colors into just five categories: most dark colors (from red to green to purple) are zoozu, white and yellow are vapa, blue is borou (and also some greens, but not those described by zoozu), and dumbu is reds and browns (and also some greens, but not those described by zoozu or borou). Now, watch how this limitation affects their actual perception of color:
Seem like all the same color to you? The Himba man in the clip could, without a moment's hesitation, tell you that the upper-right square is dumbu, while the rest are borou.
How about this one?
You probably picked out the blue square instantly, while someone of the Himba tribe would be much slower to distinguish it. Because, while infinitesimally varying shades of green have been delineated by their culture, their language (and, in turn, their brains) tell them that certain shades of blue and certain shades of green are one and the same.
Just imagine all the historical nastiness we could have avoided, if only our stupid language combined all shades of white and brown into one word. Why, we'd have to learn to hate each other based entirely on personality traits! A utopia!
Cultures That Place An Emphasis On Scent Actually Develop Stronger Senses Of Smell
Even when it comes to identifying everyday scents, such as peanut butter, coffee, chocolate, or buttholes, humans only get it right about half the time. Yep, your sense of smell just plain sucks ... if you're an English speaker.
A team of Dutch anthropologists and psychologists, led by Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson, traveled to remote corners of the world to submit the natives to a scratch-and-sniff test. And they discovered that, much like color, sense is only limited by language. For example, the Malayan Jahai were "about as good at naming what they smelled as what they saw." Did you know that bat shit and ginger root share a common, basal scent? The Jahai do. Remind us to never accept cookies from the Jahai.
The dude on right's face says he isn't sure which he just tasted from that ladle.
That's because the Jahai culture places a huge emphasis on smell -- their language is overflowing with terms to describe even the tiniest variations in scent. And they're not alone: The Ongee people of the Andaman Islands off the coast of India employ a smell-based calendar, dependent on when flowers bloom throughout the year. Western cultures, meanwhile, treat smell like the redheaded stepchild of senses. Telling someone they "smell" is never a compliment, while no such derogative connotations exist for the other senses. In fact, in some Arab nations, social gatherings are capped with a sharing of fragrances -- a good host ensures that guests leave smelling better than when they arrived. American parties, however, usually end with guests smelling like schnapps and shame (which the Jahai could tell you are actually the same thing.)
American Babies Cry Way More Than Other Babies
Babies cry. It's what they do. It's estimated that the average child will log a whopping 4,000 crying sessions before they turn two. Try telling that to a Sioux mother, however, and she'll gesture to her perfectly calm, serene little baby. As if to rub it in your face. Sioux women vocally criticize the American hospital practice of immediately separating a baby from its mother, because it makes them "cry like a white baby." Hear that, white mothers? You had a racial stereotype all along, and you didn't even know it! Congrats!
"So ... That makes us even on the Trail Of Tears thing?
In fact, in most other cultures -- from Africa to Asia and beyond -- babies simply don't cry as much. When shown videos of a typical American diaper change (rife with squirming and shrieking and urine streams with sniper-like accuracy), Kenyan Gusii women were aghast at the Westerners' utter inability to soothe her baby. A study of Mexican babies found that intensive crying was virtually nonexistent, while researchers who traveled to South Korea to study colic had a bit of a rough time doing so, because colic didn't goddamn exist there.
Rumors further speak of the Ndruni tribe, whose babies do not poop.
Your Environment Dictates Your Depth Perception
Back in the early '60s, anthropologist Colin Turnbull went out to study the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo's Ituri Rainforest. Presumably disappointed that they weren't hilariously tiny, as cartoons had led us all to believe, Turnbull luckily discovered something else: That depth perception, much like bigotry and enjoying the taste of olives, is a learned trait.
Super disappointingly, that's not because they are a race of badass cyclopes.
While driving with Kenge, Turnbull's young Mbuti assistant, the pair spotted a herd of buffalo in the far distance. Kenge, having lived his entire life within densely packed vegetation, lacked the concept of size constancy, and asked Turnbull what type of insects they were. He even accused Turnbull of witchcraft when they drove closer and -- to Kenge's eyes -- the beasts rapidly grew in size. Kenge, quite literally, couldn't see the forest for the trees.
Kenge wasn't stupid -- he had depth perception down within days of his buffalo mishap -- it's just that much of what we consider innate about our perception of the world is actually, at least to some degree, subjective. Kenge had never seen anything farther away than his bow and arrow could reach, and thus his brain hadn't yet downloaded the size constancy app. It's not like we Westerners aren't without similar visual deficits -- ever seen the Muller-Lyer illusion?
If so, you know that the two horizontal lines above are, in fact, the same length. But because we grew up in a world of cubic buildings and right angles, our brains tell us that the top line is longer. Just like the Mbuti, our environment defines our perception. We laughed at Kenge, and in turn, somewhere out there is a race of round people, laughing at us and our inability to distinguish simple lines.
Kissing Is Not Universally Sexy
Why do we kiss? Theories range from it boosting our immunity, to it being a leftover behavior from when our mothers passed us pre-chewed food from mouth to mouth (hot), to "well, we gotta do something with our lips." But not every culture regards it as a sexy practice, and to some, it's downright disgusting.
"That's one of the two filthiest parts of the human body!"
A recent ethnographic analysis found that, of 168 cultures studied, less than half of them practiced romantic kissing. And in spite of what Mentos commercials may have led you to believe, North America is not the world's kiss capital (well, Detroit notwithstanding). That distinction belongs to the Middle East, where a full 100 percent of cultures are practitioners of first base shenanigans. Asia comes in second at 73 percent, North America (despite our ample make-out points and roomy back seats) slips into third at 55 percent, and tailing the list with a big fat zero is Central America.
The Costa Rican tunnel of love ride is this basically.
And not all kissing is the same: The Oceanic kiss, for example, involves moving open mouths near one another without actually touching, like they're all saying "I'm not touching you; you can't get mad." Still other cultures, from the Tsonga in southern Africa, to the Melanesian Trobriand Islanders, to the Brazilian Tapirape, simply don't kiss at all. They regard it as a puzzling -- even silly -- behavior, and when they first witnessed European kissing they were appalled, wondering why people would want to "suck each other," and "eat each other's saliva and dirt."
Nobody tell them about the internet.
For more things that get lost in translation, check out 5 Innocent Gestures That Make You Look Like A Dick Overseas and 7 Innocent Gestures That Can Get You Killed Overseas.
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