Proverbs: Windows Into Other Cultures

By Gary M. Wederspahn

“The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.”

                                                                                                                                --Francis Bacon

 Proverbs and popular sayings are capsules that contain highly condensed bits of a culture’s values and beliefs.  They are passed on from generation to generation as a legacy of folk wisdom.  People tend to accept them, in an uncritical way, as “truths” learned by their elders.  They have great influence on the assumptions, attitudes, motivations and behaviors of the members of a culture precisely because are absorbed and internalized at a very early age and then are taken for granted.  An excellent way to gain insight into a culture is to analyze its unique sayings and proverbs.

 Diverse cultures have proverbs that convey very similar meanings.  For example, Murphy’s Law that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, is expressed many ways:  “The hidden stone finds the plow,” (Estonian), “The best cloth is always the one that get a spot on it,” (Spanish),  “Darkness lies one inch ahead,” (Japanese) and “The bread never lands but on its buttered side,” (British).  This kind of pessimistic thinking can probably be found among people in all cultures.  Perhaps it says something about the human condition.  Such common attitudes are interesting to note.  However, to gain awareness of cultural differences that may cause misunderstanding and friction, it is advisable to pay attention to those sayings that contrast with or which have no equivalent to the proverbs of one’s own culture.

 Key US Sayings

 There would be little doubt among foreigners that the following sayings are distinctly American:  “Time is money,” “Just do it!” “Get to the point!” “Toot your own horn,” “If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself,” “Don’t beat around the bush,” “God helps those who help themselves,” and “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”  The individualism, directness, activism, self-reliance, egalitarianism, and fast-paced work ethic characteristic of US culture are reflected clearly by these proverbs.  Understanding the meaning of them can help others adapt to our way of life and relate more effectively to us in work and social situations.  Likewise, reflecting on these and other common expressions can help us to gain greater self-awareness of our own cultural baggage and foresee how others are likely to react to us.

 Contrasting Proverbs of the World

 An effective way to discover cross-cultural differences in other countries is to consider proverbs that deal with specific values that are important to us and to them.  Keeping US cultural baggage in mind, it is useful to focus on the following categories:

 Time

In many cultures the pace of time is slower and more leisurely than in the United States.  A Spanish proverb states,  “He who rushes, arrives first at the grave.”  The Japanese advise,  “When in a hurry, take the roundabout route” and  “The more haste--the less speed.” The Arabs caution,  “Haste is the devil’s work and patience is from the Merciful (Allah).”  The Chinese long-term perspective is reflected in “Drips of water wear through stone” and  “Feather by feather the goose is plucked.”  Ecuadorians say, “Little by little one walks far.” In Zaire we are reminded,  “The peanuts don’t grow until the rains come.”  And Ethiopians believe that “If you wait long enough, even an egg will walk (the chicken will hatch).”  The unhurried Indian pace of life is reflected in the expression “Time is free.” 

Diplomacy/Indirectness

 “Flies do not enter a closed mouth” is an old Colombian proverb.   The Chinese say that “Those who keep on smiling seldom loose their teeth” and “Ceremony is the smoke of friendship.”  In India subtlety and caution in communications are encouraged by the expressions “He who speaks first loses” and “The truth is one, though the wise state it in many ways.”  The French say, “Whoever goes softly, goes far.”  The Mexican equivalent is, “To speak well and be agreeable costs little and achieves a lot” and “Only little children and drunks always tell the truth.”  Arab traditional wisdom also encourages holding one’s tongue: “If I have regretted my silence once, I have regretted my chatter many times.”  The Japanese agree that “The mouth is the cause of calamity” and point out that “There are formalities between the closest of friends.” 

 Modesty

 The Chinese faith in one’s true value and worth being noticed without self-promotion is evident in the saying “A sharp sword will penetrate its cover and eventually shine openly.”  On the other hand, the Japanese warn that “The nail that sticks up is the one that get pounded down,”  “A hollow drum makes the most noise,” and “A red lacquer needs no decoration.”  In Korea one hears that “A barking dog is never a good hunter.” Cambodians say “The immature rice stalk stands erect, while the mature stalk, heavy with grain, bends over.”

 Group Identity/Loyalty

 In contrast to US-style individualism, many cultures promote group effort.  For example, Indonesians say “Both a light burden and a heavy burden should be carried together.”  The Arabs’ close family and clan loyalty is expressed in the saying “My brother and I against my cousin.  My cousin and I against the stranger” and “ Stay with your old cronies even if new friends enrich you.”  The Venda people of South Africa promote sharing with the group by teaching that “Children even share the head of a locust” (the last bit of food during a famine).  Another group, the Tsonga, say  “Man is a man through other people.”  In Mongolia, one hears the proverb “Posts support a yurt--friends support a man in difficulties.”  The ancient Chinese sage, Mencius, said “A family must first overthrow itself before others can overthrow it.”

Age/Youth

 In many places in the world, age is venerated.  A Nigerian proverb counsels,  “The elders of a community are the voice of God.”   “Children tie parents to the past, present, and future” is the way the Japanese express the connection of the generations.  Indonesians say,  “Paradise is located under your mother’s feet.”  A Turkish saying is that “Beauty passes, wisdom remains.”   As the Chinese put it,  “To succeed, consult three old people.”  "A youth that does not cultivate friendship with the elderly is like a tree without roots" is a Ntomba proverb from Africa.  “The youth walks faster than the elderly but the old person knows the road” is a saying of the Nilotic people.

 Power/Hierarchy

 Not all cultures believe people are equal.  In Afghanistan it is said that "Not even the five fingers of our hands are alike."  The Chinese value of hierarchy is well expressed in the proverb “When you are an anvil, hold still. When you are a hammer, strike at will.”  In Germany the saying is “Whoever wants to climb a ladder must start on the lowest rung.”  “Equality is not easy, but superiority is painful.” advises a Serere (African) proverb.  “Even if thin, the elephant remains the king of the forest,” according to a saying in the Cameroon.  A Romanian proverb warns, “There is no good accord where every man would be a lord.”

 Fate/Destiny

 Fate vs. self-determination is a common theme of proverbs.  Frequently heard expressions in Latin America are “ Man proposes but God determines” and “What will be, will be.”  The Arabs agree: “Man does not attain everything he desires; winds don’t always blow as the vessels wish.”   Traditional Chinese wisdom teaches, “ A wise person adapts to circumstances as water conforms to the jar that contains it.”  The Japanese have a saying that “Life is but a candle before the wind.”  A similar view is expressed throughout Asia as “One does not make the wind blow but is blown by it.”  The point of these sayings is that one’s destiny often holds more power than one’s efforts or self-determination.

 Risk Taking

 Being careful to not over-extend oneself is a value in many countries.  In Ethiopia it is said “When you stretch up to reach higher things, you drop what you have under your arms.”   The Mexican version is “One bird in your hand is better than a hundred flying.”  “Only a fool tests the depth of water with both feet” is the way the Arabs put it.  In Indonesia one hears “ It is hopeless to try to embrace a mountain because your arms are too short.” The Japanese say  “Add caution to caution” and “Even monkeys fall from trees.”  The Korean saying is “Even if it is a stone bridge, make sure it is safe.” Such proverbs engender a desire to avoid risk and to be content with things that are known and secure.

 Conclusion

 Insight into many other aspects of foreign cultures can be explored by gathering their unique proverbs and sayings.  For example, traditional values regarding male/female roles, money and wealth, and openness to change, all have their corresponding sayings.  An additional benefit of seeking the folk wisdom of another country is that it shows interest in what is important to the local people.  The elders, in particular, are great sources of traditional proverbs. By taking time to hear their sayings and explanations of them you show them respect. That attitude is well received everywhere.  The saying of the Aka people of South East Asia needn’t inhibit one: “When a fool is told a proverb, the meaning must be explained to him.”

 Byline

Gary Wederspahn is a leading intercultural coach, trainer, consultant, speaker, and writer.  He has designed and conducted cross-cultural training programs for hundreds of expatriates and global executives. This article is based partly on his book, Intercultural Services: A Worldwide Buyer’s Guide and Sourcebook from Butterworth Heinemann publishers available at Amazon.com.  He can be contacted via e-mail at gary@intercultural-help.com.