Cursing Across Cultures: Connecting with People Over Commonality and Difference

Whenever I travel abroad, one of my primary goals is to learn more about the people and culture of the place I’m in. One of the best and most obvious ways to do that is to meet people, and have conversations. If you share a common way of communicating, a simple introduction can open up a world of possibility. Naturally the conversation may shift towards discussing the place and culture of the country in comparison to your own.  In this case, my favorite subject to discuss is curse words.  Virtually every culture has ways of communicating anger, pain, displeasure, or other negative emotion about an individual, group, or situation. In my experience, discussing curse words and insults is one of the best ways to diffuse cultural and interpersonal tension while gaining insight into how the culture is different from that back home.
Throughout my time here in Romania, I have had the pleasure of having several conversations focused on Romanian foul language.  During these conversations, not only was I taught the translation of curses in Romanian into English, I learned how to say several in Romanian.  A skill that has come in handy a couple of times nearly getting run down by motor vehicles and other situations where the application of my newfound shills seemed topical.  However, the opportunity to put the words to practical use was never the main objective. Learning about these words, and some of the nuances involved in their use helped me gain some insight into how Romanian culture contrasts with American.  Take, for example the word “Taran”.  Literally translating the word int to English, yields the meaning “peasant”; however, the word is used quite differently in Romanian than it is in English. In English, to call someone a “peasant” implies that they are uncivilized, uncultured, and unintelligent. In Romanian calling someone “Taran” is of calling someone a jerk, meaning rude and uncouth.
The Romanian art of cursing is far more detailed and descriptive than cursing in English, specifically cursing in the United States.  I’ve heard people spend minutes cursing and never repeating a phrase. I’ve noticed in Romanian, there is a stronger emphasis on certain aspects of life and culture than in American cursing. One example of this that I’ve already touched on phenomena is an emphasis on rural life and peasantry. Occasionally worked into streams of cursing are words like sunflower seeds and sunflower beds. These words are used in phrases while swearing because sunflowers have an association with peasantry and farming, while sunflower seeds are a food stereotypical of the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.  Similar to the united states, there is a common use of Christian terminology in cursing, like words that translate into hell, God, Jesus, and more with a slight difference. Words for Christian holidays are incorporated more frequently, Easter and Christmas. Here in Romania, the focus of the Orthodox Church on Easter and the rise of Christ means that the word for Easter, “Paști”, is used more frequently.
An additional aspect of swearing common across cultures is the emphasis on family. The terms for immediate family are frequently incorporated into cursing in both cultures. In the US with the more brief and to the point style of swearing, the relative that is typically insulted or referred to in a derogatory context is the mother. In Romanian, the mother is the most frequent, but from what I’ve been told, it’s much more common for other members of the immediate family to be insulted and degraded in the varying phrases of cursing. The one difference I think is the most important in examining differences across culture is the frequent use of terms for ancestors and dead relatives. This implies a more profound connection in the Romanian culture to one’s familial roots and ancestry. This difference can also be seen in how each nation views American-ness and Romanian-ness culturally and in the requirements for citizenship. Where Romanians prescribe to a more citizenship through blood approach, the United States has more of a birth on the land approach to citizenship.
I believe my conversations about swearing with the people here in Romania have not only allowed me to make deeper friendships and connections across cultures, but also encouraged development of a deeper knowledge of the differences and commonalities across cultures. I intend on learning more about this, and other aspects of Romanian culture and continuing to learn about cursing across cultures in my worldly travels throughout the rest of my life. I look forward to making more friendships and connections over conversations with others both at home and abroad.
Image result for Romania Sunflowers and cart
Image Source: “https://www.dreamstime.com/editorial-photography-village-life-romania-july-farmer-carriage-donkey-sunflowers-background-image83826427”

Cursing Across Cultures: Connecting with People Over Commonality and Difference

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