February 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 1 // Tools of the Trade // 1TOT2

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Proverbs: A Path to Understanding Different Cultures

Studying proverbs can help Extension staff understand the similarities and differences of other cultures compared to our own. The proverbs of some different cultures are used to illustrate the differences between cultures. The author shares her experiences with using proverbs in her daily Extension work and other ways Extension staff can use proverbs in email, newsletters, trainings, etc. Sharing and using proverbs is one way Extension staff can begin to understand the deep culture of some of the groups they work with.

Ellen Schuster
Extension Nutrition and Foods Specialist
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet address: schustee@ccmail.orst.edu

Whether called maxims, truisms, cliches, idioms, expressions, or sayings, proverbs are small packages of truth about a people's values and beliefs. Values like ambition, virtue, generosity, patience are addressed in sayings from most every culture.

Yet, each culture has proverbs that are unique to it. The saying, "If you want to know a people, know their proverbs" illustrates this. For example, sayings from various Native American tribes often reflect their view of the land as sacred: "Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it" (Zona, 1994) and the importance of spirituality: "Wisdom comes only when you stop looking for it and start living the life the Creator intended for you" (Zona, 1994). Japanese proverbs often refer to morals: "An evil deed remains with the evildoer" (Zona, 1996) and discretion: "The tongue is like a sharp knife, it kills without drawing blood" (Zona, 1996). Many Mexican proverbs reflect the thinking and values of rural people or the average person on the street and hope is a common theme: "Hope dies last of all" (Sellers, 1994).

Workplace diversity is and will become increasingly important for Extension to address. We can learn about a people through its sayings. Sharing these proverbs can be one way to learn about other cultures - their similarities and differences compared to ours. Towards this end, I have shared cultural proverbs with others by (a) adding them to my weekly voice mail messages on my office phone; (b) adding them to the signatures on the e-mails I send and (c) sending a weekly cultural proverb, via e-mail, to co-workers in my office. The reactions to these efforts have been enthusiastic. Some callers, after leaving a message for me, have called back just to listen to the proverb and write it down.

There are other ways we can use proverbs in our daily Extension work, such as:

(a) including a proverb in a memo to draw attention and reinforce a certain theme, that is, a Congo proverb to illustrate teamwork: "A single bracelet does not jingle" (Copage, 1993).

(b) using a proverb in a newsletter article or a training to make a point, such as, good nutrition with the Haitian proverb: "The empty bag cannot stand up." (Copage, 1993).

If you would like to use proverbs in your newsletters, trainings, articles, presentations see the reference list at the end of this article.

Proverb resources are also available on the Web at the URL: http://www.utas.edu/au/docs/flonta/PHRASEOLOGY(Note : As of May 3,2001 this web page is no longer available). Here you will find De Proverbio, the Journal of International Proverb Studies and other links to African, Russian, Yiddish and Swahili proverbs. Other sources are Feldman & Voelke (1992) and Zona (l993).

Proverbs are one way we can expand our multicultural repertoire. Through the sharing of proverbs we can reinforce the similarities and differences of people everywhere.


Copage, E. V. (1993). Black pearls. New York: William Morrow.

Feldman, R. & Voelke, C.A. (1992). A world treasury of folk wisdom. New York: HarperCollins.

Sellers, J.M. (1994). Proverbios y dichos Mexicanos - Folk wisdom of Mexico. San Francisco: Chronicle Books

Zona, G. A. (1996). Even withered trees give prosperity to the mountain and other proverbs of Japan. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Zona, G.A. (1993). The house of the heart is never full and other proverbs of Africa. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Zona, G.A. (1994). The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears and other Native American proverbs. New York: Simon & Schuster.