“I” vs. “We”: A Linguistic Perspective on the Super Bowl
By: Julie L. Parenteau, Ph.D.
“Oh no, not again!”
“Why do professors insist on these things?”
“Another one…I’ve already got two in my other classes!”
Statements like these, followed by lots of heartfelt groans, were the usual reaction to my announcing that we were about to embark on group project time in the classes that I taught. Students in my classrooms loathed the idea of working in groups. They believed it was more trouble than it was worth and that one of the group members, usually themselves, would end up doing all the work. Working as a team was not high on their priority list. How did they develop this attitude? I think language and culture have a lot to do with it. As one of the biggest American spectacles of team interaction (The Super Bowl) is around the corner, let’s take a closer look at the way that our languages suggest cultures of independence or interdependence.
There is a saying in American sports that there is no “I” in team. While that may be true in some cases, American’s use of English does not often convey that message. In U.S. culture we are quick to talk about how the decision at hand might impact us as individuals. “That
meeting time won’t work for me.” “I won’t be able to finish my part before the deadline if s/he doesn’t get me the data in time.” “I can’t catch the ball if he doesn’t throw it to the target.” We are very good at blaming others and denying any fault of our own.
I used to hear that kind of talk all the time as a university professor. “Teacher, so-and-so is not doing the work.” “I’m the one doing all the work and I don’t think that is right.” It didn’t matter if I was working at a stateside university or one in Puerto Rico, such comments were rampant. All the focus was on the “I” even though the students were working on group projects. No one seemed interested in trying to work through the issues to bring the group closer together. They would have rather given up than try to make it work. This characteristic is truly representative of an independent, individualistic culture.
Outside of the strongly independent Western World, there is more emphasis on working together. Many Asian, African, and Latin American cultures are built on the idea that “two heads are better than one.” They look to the group for the support needed as individuals and truly work together to complete the task, being sure not to leave any one person open
to scrutiny. If someone is not fulfilling their role in the group, the rest of the group encourages that person to get more involved so they can reach the group or team goal together. The group is more important than any one person and all are needed to complete the task.
Avoiding the he said/she said-style finger pointing of individualistic cultures typically allows people in collectivistic cultures to work together more smoothly. There is no need to point out the failures or get upset over the lack of participation of one teammate. Rather, the emphasis is on building up the group as a whole. Proverbs from these regions support this concept. The Japanese, for instance, have a saying that “a single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.” The language of Ethiopia offers this proverb, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” Again, the emphasis is on cooperation and teamwork.
As the Super Bowl approaches, I will refrain from asking you who you think will win. Instead, I will ask you to pay attention to the media messages leading up to the big game. What questions do the reporters ask of the players and coaches? How do the players and coaches respond? Is there really a sense of team present or is any one player out to “get his own?”
Like it or not, thousands of young people, perhaps even your children, watch these games and learn a language from these famous players. Help them unpack those messages instead of swallowing them whole. Point out how many hands hold the trophy during the ceremony. Have them listen carefully to what the players say post-game. Do the players think any one player had more of an impact than others? Help them understand that there are benefits to both independence and interdependence. Teach them to recognize that asking for help is not a bad thing, while also encouraging them to strive toward their personal goals. Allow them to develop a language of inclusivity that gives them skills for working in both contexts. Having both skillsets will help them achieve success in our global society.
For further insight into the fascinating world of intercultural communication, contact Global Perceptions, your relocation and communication consulting specialists in Puerto Rico!