Publisher: Axiom Press
Cost: To be negotiated
Tested: July 15-19, 2004
Country profiles are a dime a dozen, ranging from the inferior, grossly outdated Atlapedia (which still does not "recognize East Timor" as an independent country and has no statistical data or political/historical information since 1993) to the top-notch current editions of Britannica GeoAnalyzer, Information Please Almanac and the CIA World Factbook. They are good, mostly objective collections of important information, primarily featuring statistical and demographic data and narrative descriptions about the geography, history, population, politics, economics, education and health care of the nations of the world. Although they all provide good demographic data, you don't see the people behind the population. CultureGrams fills in the gap.
CultureGrams, started nearly 30 years ago by Brigham Young University, are mini social anthropologies, which Margaret Mead probably would not have approved, and are informative for those who wanted to learn a bit about the cultures of other people. Brigham Young students and faculty roamed around the world as missionaries and acquired first-hand information about peoples in all corners of the world by actually living with them for several months. Their summaries gave realistic and practical snapshots about the cultures, including some of the major traits of their customs, beliefs, languages, social interactions, etc.
Many years ago when I spotted their booth at an ALA conference I would pick up a few of their four-page well-structured country profile flyers in good quality print. They were very much worth the small price — about $5 per profile. I am even more pleased with the online edition, because the full text is searchable and users have options to create comparison tables customized to their preferences in terms of countries and indicators (more about this in the software section).
There are culturegrams for more than 180 countries in the World Edition. That is less than the United Nations member states and the omissions are quite obvious when you look at the maps. The names, which in turn are the links to the culturegrams, of some countries don't appear. On the map of Europe you won't find Monaco and Andorra because there are no culturegrams for them. Andorra, by the way, leads the world in life expectancy for both genders. This is not necessarily a discrimination against small countries, such as Liechtenstein, which does have a culturegram.
Likewise, on the Middle East map there are no culturegrams for Lybia and Kuwait, even though both countries have been in the news quite extensively, presumably generating interest. There are also no culturegrams for Brunei and the Maldives on the Asia map, which few users may spot, but the lack of information about India and Myanmar (Burma) is stunning, as is their omission from the map — again considering their prominence in the news, not to mention in human culture. Given the jaw-dropping geographic illiteracy, it is not a good idea to exclude countries from the regional maps in a publication that promotes the understanding of diversity and cultural heritage of other peoples. At the very least, they should be printed on the map — the lack of a link would indicate that there is no culturegram yet.
The culturegrams all have the same appealing layout, with sections on background, people, customs and courtesies, lifestyle, and society (which is the run-of-the-mill section about government, economy, transportation, communication, education and health). The home page of countries consists of the usual tidbits: map, flag, official name and anthem of the country, plus key demographic data, which includes the rarely used but quite informative Human Development Index rank and its adjusted version from women's perspective (the Gender Development Index). The former is available for 173 countries, the latter for 146 countries in CultureGrams. Unfortunately, the year of the statistics are not provided by CultureGrams, but they seem to be a tad outdated. It would be great if some other telling indices from the statistics of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank were included, such as the Human Poverty Index or the Women Empowerment Index.
There is a useful page for definitions and terminology that explains, among other things, the above two indices. It's another question that, for example, Quatar ranks 51st out of 173 countries in terms of Human Development and its gender-adjusted rank is 48th out of 146. This is in spite of the fact that according to the informative Highlights section of CultureGrams, "Women must meet higher admission standards than men when applying to the University of Qatar so that they don't overwhelm the enrollment." In my book, this alone should yield greater difference between the two ranks, but maybe other elements of the composite GDI where Qatar has a good standing (such as maternal mortality rate) make up for this policy and its implications, if not for the strained explanation about overwhelming the enrollment system.
The prominently positioned "Did You Know?" trivia collections for each country are mostly fun and interesting, but sometimes the efforts to come up with something unique or at least unusual, produce headlines such as "In Cambodia, it is improper to embarrass someone in public," which would be an embarrassing deep thought even in an elementary school newsletter, unless it is run by Jerry Springer fans. It would not have been difficult to present some substantial information in the "Did You Know?" headlines for Cambodia, such as the estimated number of land mines or the maimed victims per 1,000 people — depressing as it may be.
The unique, and by far the best, part of CultureGrams is the sections about People, Lifestyle, Customs and Courtesies, with their many useful subsections about greetings, gestures, visiting, dating and general attitudes, even if some touristy misinformation sneaks in here and there.
While I usually use samples from the country where I grew up, let's look at two subsections for the United States to illustrate the practicality of the information. You may take for granted the mandatory "Fine, thanks" reply to " How are you?", even when you are mentally stressed and plagued by a cluster headache, but it is befuddlingly odd to a newcomer. So too are the American sitting positions that are offensive in many cultures.
Of course, I could add a few dozens of my own gaffes caused by not understanding cultural differences in the U.S., such as pulling out my date book when someone told me that "we must have lunch together" or walking over to another table at Burger King with John Travolta-like swagger because, I believed, a girl smiled at me. It was just a case of misread metacommunication.
In spite of the obvious limitations in details, the culturegrams are excellent for getting ready for differences in everyday culture. For example, the Greetings subsection for Hungary is perfect in pointing out many characteristic traits and oddities, such as the unusual verbal greeting "I kiss your hands" (or just "kiss you") of adults (not just older women) by children and of adult women by males who are not even acquaintances. It does not mention the obsessive frequency of handshakes between males, but these are fairly easy to pick up and adapt to.
More awkward for the uninitiated may be the custom that, as CultureGrams correctly notes, "except between men, many Hungarians also puszi, or kiss each other lightly on each cheek." In other words, Hungarians, along with Brazilians and Cubans, belong to the double-puszi people, as opposed to Middle Easterners who are quadruple puszi people, while the Russians (and according to CultureGram, the Dutch) take the middle road with three puszis.
After reading a few greeting sections you may feel ready to set up a finely structured classification scheme. You would learn that the Poles are also triple kissers, but the sequence of alternating the cheeks is said to be mandatory, right, left, then right again. In Oman a kiss on the nose after a handshake is fine. In Quatar, the nose kiss is reserved for showing deep respect between men. In Costa Rica, "if women are not yet acquainted, they may pat each other on the arm."
Equally important, practical and on-the ball are the subsections about visiting people at their homes. The subsections about eating, diet, family life, recreation habits are informative, if not comprehensive, and point out the unusual, such as the celebration of name days, which, however, are not limited to those who have a first name commemorating a saint and are not merely celebrated with gifts, flowers and cards, but most typically with alcohol. But these are minor oversights.
There are a few typos (including the misspelled name of the prime minister, but even that is offset by the correct spelling in another subsection) and most of the errors are ill-placed accent mark on personal names.
The touristy naivete sometimes kicks in, for example when describing recipes for the most popular Hungarian foods and desserts. For Hungary, the recipe for kindli was chosen and has a description that is longer than the other recipes put together. It is delicious, no doubt, but almost 98% of the population of Hungary is Christian and this dessert "served during Purim by Hungarian Jews" just can't be in the same league of popularity as the world famous and endless variety of strudels, the heavenly Gundel pancake and many other desserts. The other soups, main dishes and side dishes are well-chosen by CultureGrams. The small phrasebooks also have useful, although not always perfect, explanations. For example, the list includes puszi again, describing it as "a greeting in which Hungarians hug and kiss each other lightly on each cheek," but fails to mention that it is also a verbal greeting without the action and that typically no hugging accompanies them, unless a Hungarian has watched too many Oprah shows.
The photos (and their captions) are OK, but nothing to write home about — reflecting more the tourist than the traveler. It may illustrate my point here that there are 15 pictures from Italy and not one of them from Florence or the Tuscany region, but three from Venice. The 15 pictures of Thailand focus on Bangkok, which is represented, rather poorly, by 11 images. Of course, it is still better than no pictures at all, as is the case with many countries, including Cambodia, which has one of the truly spectacular wonders of the world: Angkor Wat (along with many of the other architectural marvels in the vicinity that would have provided ample photo opportunities).
The collection of short biographical entries of famous people for some countries is a mixed bag. While I am glad that Pinochet of Chile, Papa Doc of Haiti, and some other dictators are not disgracing the list of the famous people for their respective countries (which they fled after decades of atrocities), it is disappointing that for many countries their infamous people still get prominent treatment (as Siad Barre and Farrah Aydid of Somalia, and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania) and even lead the list, as Benito Mussolini does for Italy. You don't find entries for the mentally disturbed bloodiest dictators Idi Amin or Pol Pot, because the culturegrams of Uganda and Cambodia don't have biography additions.
The Kids Edition is also a mixed bag. Much of its content is recycled from the original CultureGrams, although the language and style is appropriately simplified. It is also rather outdated. For example, for Hungary it shows a banknote that was replaced by a coin a long time ago as illustration for the economy and refers to a prime minister who has not been in that position for more than two years. It is, however, still better than FactMonster, which is a childish effort to have a kids' version of the excellent Information Please Almanac.
It shares the sorry efforts of FactMonsters to come up with a Fun Facts section that is as strained as the fun hours in understaffed summer camps. It is beyond me why people who compile fun facts consider events like major natural disasters or the plight of an ethnic group fun. You may not fully agree with the somewhat one-sided presentation of the Romas (gypsies) in the entry of Hungary, but you probably agree that the conclusion that "many are poor, uneducated, and unemployed. . . . the Roma sometimes suffer discrimination" is not inherently a fun fact. Neither does the fact about the Aka people of the Central African Republic qualify for fun that "as rain forests are cut down, it is becoming harder for the Aka to live in this traditional way."
The component about U.S. states is OK, having some of the same elements as CultureGrams for nations, but it is missing much of the cultural highlights that made the original publication so engaging and informative. There are useful demographic information and well-done charts about race distribution in each state. Still, there is hardly any information about the people and their customs and habits, apart from a short Cultural Note.
Navigation is straightforward from the home page. It is clear that there are three main modules in CultureGrams. It is another question that these are not so much editions as partially related and linked components. It encourages explorative browsing to link the culturegrams from regional maps, but it may confuse somewhat geo-literate users as to why certain countries don't appear on the map of a region, such as Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) or Trinidad and Tobago on the map of the Caribbean region. They don't appear because there are no culturegrams for them.
Neither is it clear if the extras (Famous People, Recipes, etc.) are different in the components (which would be reasonable) or not. Well, they are not — the user is always taken to the Famous People and Recipes mini databases of countries, not those of the states. The same is true for the other extras, except for the data tables that are available both for nations and states.
Searching is possible, but you can't do a global search across the main components, let alone across the extras. The search button from the home page brings up the search form that shows that you must choose one component at a time. The captions of the photo gallery are not among the searchable components, so you can't find images showing, say, mosques or wats. Nor does it seems possible at first to search the Definitions and Glossary component, but it is searchable, although only the lead terms — a surprising solution.
The strength of the software is in the handling of statistical data. Although the data points that are listed are rather limited for the nations, and very limited for the U.S. states, the comparative tables somewhat compensate for this, offering user-defined choices and easy-to-compare tables.
CultureGrams fills a niche area by providing factual and narrative information about the everyday culture of the peoples in 180 nations. The other two main components are not nearly as innovative and could be improved if everyday cultural information were incorporated about the 50 states and their famous people and dishes, as well as some more life-style indexes. The Kids Edition should have more original materials for that specific target audience.