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CULTURE MATTERS: Creating harmony with a smile

IN THE RECENTLY published Spectacular Slovakia the general director of the Slovak Philharmonic, Marián Lapšanský, made an interesting claim. He said one reason his orchestra would do well on their tour of Japan and the lucrative Asian concert market in general was that the "Slavic temperament is just right for Asia because our musicians exhibit a perfect balance of emotion and precision".

IN THE RECENTLY published Spectacular Slovakia the general director of the Slovak Philharmonic, Marián Lapšanský, made an interesting claim. He said one reason his orchestra would do well on their tour of Japan and the lucrative Asian concert market in general was that the "Slavic temperament is just right for Asia because our musicians exhibit a perfect balance of emotion and precision".

Such a claim is hard to refute or verify, but there may be some truth in it. The Slovaks are a pretty balanced lot; and so, reputedly, are Asians. The "harmony" for which the Japanese sacrifice their individualism can perhaps be compared to the quiet, undemonstrative modesty of many Slovaks. Certainly, Slovakia lacks the raucous displays of ego so prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon West, thankfully.

So, maybe Lapšanský is right, and the Slavic and Asian temperaments are mutually compatible.

I mention this by way of introduction to a sweeping statement: culture matters. It matters because, for the purposes of this "biweekly" column (sorry, British readers, to use an Americanism but, you know, they really are taking over), culture is everything: it is the food we eat (mainly junk), the books we read (trash), the TV programmes we watch (a mix of junk and trash).

Culture is also the beliefs and customs we observe (if we do at all), the way we speak (increasingly homogenized) and the gatherings we attend (reluctantly). We, dear readers, cannot escape culture. Just like the dead in The Sixth Sense, culture is "all around you".

Perhaps I am too cynical, but any success the Slovak Philharmonic had on its tour of Japan in June 2005 would have been achieved through clever marketing and promotion and the excellent performances of the musicians, rather than because of similarities of temperament.

Still, Lapšanský's claim prompts a discussion on cultural characteristics as well as the "nature vs nurture" question.

First off, the claim assumes that temperament is somehow manifested along ethnic or national lines. Given the ethnic and cultural diversity of many countries today, that is a very sticky wicket on which to start any analysis.

You may think, for example, that you can point to typically "British" characteristics- "stiff upper lip", "being a gentleman" - but you would be referring to white, middle-class, male Brits brought up in a particular way with a particular set of values. That means you would be excluding at least 85 percent of the population, never mind all the Brits of Caribbean, African, Asian, Greek, Chinese and what-have-you descent. And when you get to America, it's even more complicated. A Slovak child of Slovak parents is a Slovak-American. But when that kid grows up in America and has the values of the States drummed into him (let's assume it's a boy) through hearing The Star Spangled Banner sung before every football game, attending flag-waving parades every Fourth of July, and by watching endless repeats of Tom and Jerry cartoons, then what you've got is an American, and the Slovak part remains at home with the parents.

Sure, parental and family influence may play its part, and some of that may be described as "Slovak", but you don't meet many unassuming, impassive Americans (a few laconic Yankees perhaps), and you don't meet many brash, thigh-slapping, permanently smiling Slovaks, do you? Forgive the unforgivable stereotyping readers. The point is, when you start talking about culture along ethnic and national lines you really are stepping into a minefield.

Come to think of it, there may be more similarity between Asians and Americans than between either of these and Slavs. Take the question of smiling. Oriental cultures use smiling as a way of disguising discomfort in any given situation. Your car's broken down and you're struggling to fix it. A group of Chinese workers stand watching you, smiling and laughing as you sweat and grunt, oblivious to the thought that they actually might lend you a hand. (This actually happened).

And Americans, I often find, seem to feel obliged to smile throughout virtually every interaction they have. It's as if they are afraid of causing offence if they don't, no matter what verbal message they're delivering.

Back in my Banská Bystrica days, I had an American colleague who would keep a cheek-to-cheek display of pearly whites fixed on her face as she informed her less successful students: "You gotta five", "You gotta five" (five is a failing mark in Slovakia).

The students responded in kind. They would walk around with stretched grins across their faces, mouthing "Hello, I'm Helena. I hate you, I hate you", through gritted teeth.

Whatever the grimace you put on your face, you can't hide where you're coming from. But like with Japanese and Slovaks, any nations could get along "well".

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