Smell and language

smellOne of the trickier issues that may arise in encounters across cultures is the difference in attitudes towards particular smells, especially body odor. There are distinct cultural associations with smell which vary considerably and can cause friction in cross-cultural encounters. One of the other aspects of smell that are interesting from an intercultural perspective is the connection to language, in particular to what extent languages have vocabularies for describing and distinguishing different smells. An article in the current issue of The Economist describes a presentation recently given by a well-known researcher in the field, Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands. She studies Maniq and Jahai speakers (languages in the Austro-Asiatic family), who live in the Malay peninsula. She and her colleagues asked speakers to identify a variety of smells and discovered they could do so much more quickly and with greater confidence than a representative Western group tested. They also had many distinct terms for the smells, which in contrast to Western languages were not based on a smell’s source (i.e. lemony) or its properties (stinky) but were abstract terms used only for that smell. The article concludes:

This finding challenges the long-standing idea that something about the way human brains are wired limits their ability to put words to smells swiftly. Dr Majid says that in the West, “nothing should have a smell unless you put it there,” and that there are many taboos surrounding talking about odours. The smell-rich environment, scent-centric cultural practices and evident lack of taboos enjoyed by the Jahai and Maniq are, she believes, correlated with their recall and use of smell-related words. It may simply be that having more smells around, and talking about them, ensures that the varieties of smell all have names.

Anyone familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistic anthropology will find this familiar, the idea that cultures have an extensive vocabulary for objects and phenomena that are important in their way of life. Survival and success for hunter-gatherers in the bush is likely much more tied to smell than is the case for stock brokers on Wall Street. In an interview Professor Majid describes the extensive organized structure the Jahai and Maniq have for smell terms, akin to color terms in other languages.

Returning to roots

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

There’s an interesting new series on NPR called Invisibilia which “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions”. A recent show dealt with categories, with an interesting story about someone who alternates between male and female personas and has as a consequence a much harder time than transgender individuals, who at least can be put into a category. The story that I found particularly interesting was about a retirement community in Florida – nothing unusual about that, but in this case it is dedicated to individuals from India, or their descendants. The community is set up to make retirees feel like they are back in India, with not just Indian food and Bollywood movies, but houses arranged to imitate an Indian village with low houses and a big courtyard. The big attraction, however, is the opportunity to be with other Indians. The concept proved to be very successful, with the condos selling out quickly. The fact that it is a gated community may raise concerns about excluding others, but the organizers insist anyone is welcome, it’s just that non-Indians were not interested. One of the retirees expressed in the piece how comfortable she felt in the Indian environment created in the community, with the comment that “it can be exhausting to live in a culture as an outsider”. In the retirement community, she was no longer a member of a minority group. One of the commenters on the story put it well:

I can definitely sympathize with the people in the news story. Their culture is even more dissimilar and there’s only so much that a first generation immigrant can adapt. It’s no surprise that the elderly would seek to remove some of that stress from their lives. And it’s the simple things that make the difference. The neighborhood will serve authentic Indian food, and you don’t have to drive miles to the nearest art-house theater to watch the new Bollywood movies. Furthermore, I do believe that there is a great deal of difference between individual racism and institutional racism. A white person might experience isolated incidents regarding racism, but racism pervades every aspect of life for a minority.

One of the points made in the story was that as we grow older, we tend to want to be with others like us in fundamental (cultural) ways:

According to Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, if you raise the specter of death in a person’s mind, Christians like Christians better; Italians like Italians better. Even Germans, who are usually pretty lukewarm about other Germans, if you get them to contemplate their own mortality, suddenly they really like Germans. “If you interview Germans near a funeral home, they’re much more nationalistic,” Greenberg says. And the reverse is also true: We like people outside our group much, much less. “People become more negative toward other cultures,” Greenberg says. “Because death haunts us as it does, we have to do something about it.”

According to Greenberg, being around people not like you makes you in some sense feel invisible, and that’s a feeling that increases significantly towards the end of life. Being with others like you, particularly late in life, gives you the impression of being significant. I have to say that this has not been my experience personally in growing older and facing retirement. I find myself thinking more and more about the attractions of living abroad (Ireland!).