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The Amish Culture: a Complex and Interesting Field of Study

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There are many negative stigmas about the Amish culture and the way they live their day to day lives. Outsiders can’t imagine a world without technology or in a community that strikes the fear of being shunned into you. Others believe their dress to be strange or don’t understand why women never cut their hair. Many people do not know the foundations of the Amish culture or where they got their roots in the United States. The Amish culture extends across the United States and has drawn intrigue and criticism from around the world. Intercultural communication theories will assist in explaining the Amish heritage, culture, and how the Amish compare to a typical American family.

In order to fully understand the Amish culture, I think that we need to first understand the roots and foundations behind their culture. The Amish roots stretch back to sixteenth century Europe. Reformers in Zurich, Switzerland were outraged at religious authorities for baptizing each other. The rebaptism of adults was then made a crime punishable by death. Baptism, in the dissidents’ view, was only meaningful for adults who had made a voluntary confession of faith (Kraybill). Because they were already baptized as infants in the Catholic Church, the radicals were dubbed Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, by their opponents. Anabaptism, also known as the Radical Reformation, spread through the Cantons of Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. This rapid spread threatened civil and religious authorities. To escape persecution, the Dutch Anabaptist leader and former Catholic priest Menno Simons gathered his followers and fled to Switzerland, where the Mennonite group was established. By the end of the 17th century, a group led by Jakob Amman split from the Swiss Mennonite group and was named Amish after its leader. Attracted by the promise of religious freedom, the Amish began migrating to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s (Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau). The Amish have been able to maintain a distinctive ethnic subculture by successfully resisting acculturation and assimilation. The Amish try to maintain cultural customs that preserve their identity. They have resisted assimilation into American culture by emphasizing separation from the world, rejecting higher education, selectively using technology, and restricting interaction with outsiders.

The Amish spend their days stressing the importance of humility, obedience, and simplicity. They have a religious blueprint called The Ordnung, which states expected behavior, and regulates private, public, and ceremonial behavior. Unwritten in most settlements, the Ordnung is passed on by oral tradition. The Ordnung marks expected Amish behavior within their communities (Elder). Ordained Amish leaders update The Ordnung in periodic meetings; however, each bishop interprets it for his local congregation. Therefore, dress styles and the use of telephones and battery-powered appliances may vary by church district. Once embedded in the Ordnung and established as tradition, the understandings rarely change. As new issues face the church, leaders identify those which may be detrimental to community life. Non-threatening changes such as weed-whackers and instant coffee may be overlooked and gradually slip into Amish life (Kraybill). While these small variations exist, some things remain the same throughout the Amish culture. Women wear pray caps, usually white for a married woman and black for those that are unmarried. Married men never cut or trim their beards but kept a shaven upper lip. This is due to the fact that mustaches are often associated with the military and are forbidden among Amish people. The Amish are pacifists and tradition dictates that they abstain from any acts of violence. They are also conscientious objectors, avoiding any involvement with the military. So no male is allowed to grow a mustache (National Geographic). When Amish meet a non-Amish person, they tend to not initiate greetings but will respond to a non-Amish wave by pointing their index finger toward the sky. This gesture towards the heavens shows respect to the non-Amish while also revealing and representing the Amish people’s strong religious connection and beliefs (Neuliep). Collectively, the Amish follow five basic tenets: adult baptism; separation of church and state; excommunication from the church for those who break moral law; living life in accordance with the teachings of Christ; and refusal to bear arms, take oaths, or hold political office.

When it comes to verbal communication, the Amish are trilingual and use phrases uncommon to outsiders. During church services, the Amish use a dialect of German, called high German. At home and during informal gatherings, they speak low German, sometimes called Pennsylvania Dutch. At school the Amish learn and speak English at school and use it when they interact with non-Amish people (Neuliep). To enforce church order and discipline, the Amish engage in a form of excommunication called “the ban” or “shunning.” Shunning prohibits that individual from attending church and in the most extreme form, most involvement with community members. In those extreme instances, the family of the shunned member is expected to cut off all communication and basically ignore their existence until the church deems them fit for their community. Language is a fundamental way groups distinguish themselves from other groups, and thereby maintain their group identity (Nolt).

Nonverbal communication in the Amish culture is mainly addressed through their physical appearance and clothing. The style of hat worn by an Amish man communicates his age and marital status. On the other hand, an Amish woman’s bonnet or prayer covering communicates her marital status. According to Neuliep, young girls wear colored bonnets before transitioning into a black bonnet at the age of nine. Once a woman is married, she wears a white bonnet. The Amish wear plain clothing to “communicate submissiveness and pride, enhance group unity, and indicate their desire to be separate from the rest of the contemporary world” (Neuliep). Ribbons, bows, makeup, and jewelry are forbidden because they are seen as vain. Women are never allowed to wear pants and no Amish clothing can have patterns. Generally, the colors of Amish clothing are restricted to black, white, green, blue, and purple. All of these examples show that the Amish remain modest and plain, focusing on their religious beliefs instead of modern fashions. This is a form of nonverbal communication that the in-group understands and the out-group can identify.

The Amish fall on the collectivism side of the communication apprehension scale. The Amish are a Gemeinde, which translates to “redemptive community.” This means the Amish depend on their community for their identity. They also believe that a person’s self-worth is defined by his or her role within the community. Individual achievement, self-ambition, power, and worldly acquisitions are not valued in the Amish culture. Sharing, community effort, and trading are the core values of most Amish communities.

The Amish also believe that community service gains one access to God and eternal life. Because of their collectivistic orientation, each member of the group has a well-defined role. For example, sex roles among Amish men and women are clearly prescribed. Patterns of dress and a strict division of labor separate men and women in Amish society. Exclusively, Amish women are homemakers and Amish men are farmers, with the small exception of those men who join the ministry (Neuliep).

Even though the different genders have specific roles within the community, the Amish rely heavily on one another in order for their society to maintain itself. The Amish culture is a prime example of collectivism.

Like many collectivist cultures, the Amish uses a contextual style of communication. The contextual style accentuates and highlights one’s role identity and status (Neuliep). I really believe the Amish culture fits within this group since they rely so heavily on their roles within their society. The Amish are a patriarchal society where the eldest male is the head of the family unit. Only males are allowed to have positions in the church, and family land is passed down to the youngest son. All family members have responsibilities to keep the household afloat and care for the land and animals on the property.

Responsiveness, according to Neuliep, is one’s ability to be sensitive to the communication of others, be a good listener, engage in comforting communication, and recognize the needs and wants of relevant others. Since the Amish community is so tight knit, I believe they are receptive to one another’s needs and wants. I think they have established a system where everyone knows their role, this makes it so everyone can take care of and contribute to the community in a way that prevents a necessity from being forgotten. The cooking, cleaning, farming, and home life are all taken care of and the Amish are responsive to what one another accomplish in a day. Since the Amish live a religious life, they are not like to engage in conflict with one another. They listen to one another and make adjustments when necessary in dealing with day to day life.

When I visited Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was quite young but I do remember distinct things. When we went on vacation there we went on a horse and buggy ride. At the end of the ride, my family wanted to take a picture with the horse, buggy, and buggy driver. The Amish man got very offended and refused to get a picture with us. Afterwards we learned that they don’t take pictures because they are considered vain. During the trip, I was able to pick out one souvenir so I picked out a girl doll in the traditional Amish dress. I then learned that it wasn’t a traditional doll because it has a face. True Amish dolls don’t have faces because it takes the focus off of religion and family and directs it to self-vanity. Overall, I found the trip to be really fascinating and fun. I learned a lot about the culture and some of their traditions. Although I don’t remember everything, I do remember enough to know that their culture was very different from the one I grew up in.

The Amish culture is a complex and interesting one to study. You can relate many intercultural communications terms to them but some of the most obvious are collectivism, language (both verbal and nonverbal), and responsiveness. The Amish are a religious based, tight-knit community that focuses on simplicity, humility, and obedience. They are trilingual and their garments communicate marital status as well as age range. They understand their role in their community and tend to stick to that role in order to be responsive to one another. The Amish want the best for their community, and ultimately want to remain a microculture that is unobstructed by the modern world around them.

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