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Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Cross Cultural Experience

I recently spent two days completing continuing education for my Indiana Auctioneer License.  Any time you spend two days in a room with more than 20 auctioneers, it is a cultural experience in itself.  You have a room full of story tellers who actually have stories to tell.  But the real cross cultural experience has to do with the fact that I was able to spend a day in the company of my two closest friends among the Amish, Jesse and Steven Yoder, who are also auctioneers.  We went through our auctioneer pre-licensing course together and became good friends during that time.  We spent 80 hours over several weeks in a classroom together and for most of that time I drove them to and from class.  We have spent many hours lined up across the seat of a pickup together which tends to be a male bonding experience in itself.  They are roughly half my age.  But we never had any problems becoming friends either because of the age difference or the cultural and religious differences.  During those hours together, we have talked about most subjects which adult males talk about in any small group.  We know each other well.

Jesse and Steven are members of a more liberal sect of Amish which still practice all the old religious traditions with some mild shifts toward the mainstream.  They now have telephones in their homes but do not own cell phones.  When we spend time together, their wives call my cell phone if they need to pass on information.  But there are no time wasting calls.  When I first met Amish people in Southern Ohio in 1989, they were members of the same sect to which Jesse and Steven belong.  But at that time, these people did not have phones in their homes.  If they had a legitimate need for a phone, they had a pay phone installed in their yard, garden, or pasture in a small black building which looked much like a one hole outdoor toilet.  They would have an answering service in Cincinnati and would go to the phone twice a day to pick up messages and make necessary calls.  If they felt it was necessary, they returned a call.  If it was unnecessary, they never returned it. 

Today, they have telephones and use them for what they consider legitimate business or family calls.  They might call distant relatives once a week but not usually any more than that.  Jesse and Steven also have a web page on which is maintained by an "English" friend. The Amish refer to all non-Amish as "the English".  When it is spoken with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent it sounds more like "the Englitch".  When I am with my Amish friends, I tend to pronounce it the same way.  Steven and Jesse do not listen to radio or watch television.  When we travel together, the radio in my truck is never on.  They have two or three regular "English" people in each Amish neighborhood who drive for the Amish.  They will not operate a car but they will ride in one if it is necessary.  They have no electricity in their homes but they will use propane or natural gas.  They avoid as much technology as possible. But if Jesse and Steven were hired to sell a large "English" farmers assets, they would be willing to sell a $100,000 combine or tractor.  I know some Amish in Southern Ohio who own and drive propane powered fork lifts in a cedar processing business.  But they will not operate a gasoline or diesel powered machine. 

They go to church on Sunday and do not perform any kind of unnecessary labor on Sunday. This is rooted in the Old Testament quotation about "getting an ox out of a ditch".  If work does not involve a necessity or emergency, it is never done on Sunday.  Since the continuing education class was set for Saturday and Sunday, the instructor made arrangements to meet them at another time and place to do the class which everyone else did on Sunday.  They still speak Pennsylvania Dutch and use High German in church.  Their children only learn to speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home and do not start to learn English until they enter school which they leave at age 16.  Even today, English is a third language for them.  We have talked once or twice about whether they could perform as auctioneers in Pennsylvania Dutch.  They say they could but all auctions, even for the Amish are performed in English.  We have the shared experience of having grown up wanting to become auctioneers.  They say they practiced their auction chants while driving horses in the field or bringing the cows in to milk.  I learned, like most auctioneers, by "selling fence posts and road signs" while driving.  This means that you practice by starting a chant on a road sign and selling it when you get to the next and starting over. Their "English" auctioneer friends often kid them about how high the prices were for the road signs they sold since they were practicing while driving a buggy not a car. 
We generally do not maintain telephone contact on a regular basis and only spend time together when we are in the same place.  If it is not a necessity, we do not get together or call each other despite the fact that all three of us enjoy spending time together.  When I am with them, I try to adhere to as many of their lifestyle norms as I reasonably can.  When it necessary for them to tolerate a few of mine they do so.  We are genuinely friends because of the many common elements we find in our lives and because we all work to overcome the differences and do not allow them to interfere with our friendship. We accept each other at face value and understand that we are not likely to ever live our lives in a manner which would be akin to the other.  Knowing the Amish has been very instructive to me in terms of being able to deal with people from many other cultures. 

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