Ugly Americans?

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Ryan Lochte and fellow US swimmers in Rio

Today Olympic gold medal winner Ryan Lochte lost the major endorsement deals he had with a variety of companies. This comes in the wake of his behavior in Rio after a night of celebratory drinking. He claimed that he and other US swimmers out with him had been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station by what seemed to be Brazilian police officers. It turns out the reality was quite different, namely that the group had trashed a restroom at the station and had been confronted to pay for the damages. Lochte apparently thought his story would be believed, given perceptions of rampant crime and corruption in Rio, and the fact that the claim was coming from a celebrated athlete from the US. Brazilians were understandably upset by the incident, viewing it as playing on negative stereotypes of Brazilians versus the assumed honesty of white Americans. In the US, too, Lochte has been seen as a classic example of “ugly American” behavior, US citizens acting in dramatically insensitive ways when abroad. On the other hand, Breitbart has defended Lochte against this view.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 10.30.57 PMThe Lochte story struck me in particular tonight, as, on the evening news, it was followed by a story on the “White Helmets”, volunteers in Syria who risk their lives to go out in Syrian cities after bombing strikes to dig through the rubble to rescue survivors. They do this dangerous work with no expectations of reward or recognition. Heroic Syrians versus ugly Americans? This is the group that rescued 5-year old Omran Daqneesh, the boy who was pulled bloodied and stunned from the ruins of Aleppo and has become a symbol of the violence in Syria. It makes you not feel too bad for Lochte losing all his sponsorship money.

Brexit: Turning inward

brexit2There are many ramifications of the vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union. Most of the attention has gone to the possible economic consequences through the UK’s loss of access to the EU single market. Of course, it’s likely that special trade deals between the UK and the EU will be negotiated, possibly along the lines of existing relationships between the EU and Switzerland or other non-EU countries like Norway, but the uncertainty over how and when that will be worked out has worried markets and companies doing business in the UK. Uncertainty exists as well in respect to the status of foreigners currently in the EU. No longer being an EU member brings to an end not only the free movement of goods but also that of people. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has a record of have a tough stance on immigration. There are already some indications that anti-immigrant attitudes are now being more publically expressed, as the Brexit vote seems to signal that such views are now mainstream in the UK, and therefore able to be voiced openly. It remains to be seen whether such voiced sentiments will result in violence against foreigners.

There has been less media attention paid to the cultural and educational consequences of Brexit. One concern for universities is the likelihood that UK scholars and students will no longer be able to participate in EU programs and projects, at least not with the same full access as EU member states. Much of the research done in recent years in an area I am interested in, educational technology, has been driven by funding from EU grant programs. In fact, in my experience with EU colleagues, it has been difficult to get them on board with any kind of teaching or research project that did not involve EU funding. Being out of the EU is likely to mean UK scholars will be as much on the outside as those from the US. The situation for students is similar, with the potential exclusion from the widely popular Erasmus exchange program, which has made it easy for students from EU countries to spend a semester or more at a university in another EU country, with full credit towards their degrees. There are numerous other EU arts and culture programs as well.

The Brexit vote is symptomatic of a worrying trend towards nationalism, accompanied frequently by xenophopia, a distrust of globalization, and a feeling that one’s own culture must be defended from all outside influences. This is by no means limited to the UK. We’ve seen similar sentiments expressed in the US presidential campaign as well as in political developments in Western Europe and elsewhere. Excluding other cultures from enriching a national culture is a sign that that culture is likely to be stagnant and in decline. As a visitor to the UK, I would much regret the absence of Indian influences on British food culture – it would be sad indeed to have to rely only on fish and chips and shepherd pie.

Teaching in India

logo Coming to India to teach intercultural communication seems like taking coals to Newcastle – seems odd for an American, coming from a foreign language phobic land, to be telling multilingual Indians how to get along with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, one of the main themes in the course was the Western controlling influence over the traditional narratives around intercultural communication, with individualism (identified with the West) being seen positively – enabling creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurism – in contrast to the groupthink, passivity, and rigidity of collectivistic cultures. The course was live-streamed on YouTube, then archived: Intercultural Communication in Global Virtual Environments.

My colleague here at the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) has mentioned that in her classes she typically has students representing a number of Indian states and a variety of Indian languages. English is the language of instruction, but it isn’t anyone’s first language. During breaks from the classes during the course, I heard a lot of code-switching among the participants. There was one student from Nigeria in the class – it was interesting to compare the different effects of British colonialism in both countries. Nigeria has a similar multilingual make-up; the student indicated that he regularly used four different language at home, the main ones being English and Housa, plus two local languages.

I learned some history of the Institute here that I hadn’t known, namely that it was the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, housing those fighting for independence in the 1930’s. This is now the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology. The site was used as a British Royal Air Force airstrip and later as a US Air Force base. In fact, I was told yesterday that the Enola Gay refueled here on its way to drop its atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

I am heading back to the US tomorrow. I will miss being here, and especially the contact with the students, but will not miss the weather. It was 110° F when I came and has been hotter than that some days; for Thursday the forecast says 117°.

Touch Culturally Universal?

Figure via Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans The areas outlined in blue are the "taboo zones," which are regions that person group is not allowed to touch.

Figure via Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans
The areas outlined in blue are the “taboo zones,” which are regions that person group is not allowed to touch.

A recent study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) caught my attention. It deals with reactions to being touched by others and examined reactions across a variety of cultures (Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom). The researchers survey people from those countries using an “Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool”:

Touch is a powerful tool for communicating positive emotions. However, it has remained unknown to what extent social touch would maintain and establish social bonds. We asked a total of 1,368 people from five countries to reveal, using an Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool, those parts of their body that they would allow relatives, friends, and strangers to touch.

The fact that allowable areas of touch are related to group membership is no surprise. We would expect to see significant differences between partners and strangers in that regard. The study also asked about family members and distinguished between male and female subjects (respectively colored blue or red in the chart). Also expected was the study’s results in terms of what body areas are teemed “touchable”, which depended on the nature of the relationship:

Human social touch is particularly dependent on the emotional bond between the parties: The bodily regions where one may touch different individuals in their social network are relationship- specific, with hands and arms being routinely touched by even emotionally distant acquaintances, whereas touching the head, neck, and buttocks is typically restricted to emotionally closer relationships.

One of the findings I found less expected was the fact that cultural differences did not make as much of a difference as did gender:

The sex of the participant and the toucher significantly influenced the TIs [the touchable index]. When considering social network members having the same type of social relationship with the participant (e.g., sister vs. brother), females were allowed to touch wider body areas than males. The sex-related TI differences were significant for all male–female pairs of the social network (P < 0.05, t test). Accordingly, participants also reported stronger emotional bonds with female than male members of their social networks. Moreover, female subjects reported, on average, higher TIs across all members of their social network than males did, with the exception of female acquaintances and female strangers…Female, rather than opposite-sex, touch was, in general, evaluated as more pleasant, and it was consequently allowed on larger bodily areas.

Across the cultures, the most often used reason for touch was in greeting. In terms of cultural differences, some results surprised the researchers: “Somewhat surprisingly to the Finnish and Italian authors of the present study, Finland had larger TIs than Italy.” On the other hand, the culture least comfortable with touch may be easily predicted: the British. Unfortunately, the cultural variety was limited, so the results can hardly be generalized to include cultures from Asia, Africa or Latin American, where there may in fact be significant differences in terms of touch.

Greeks & Germans: Cultural contrasts

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

There are a number of contentious issues in the conflict between Greece and the European Union over the country’s economic situation. What we hear about in the media are disagreements related to taxes and pensions.  The popular perception outside of Greece, and particularly in Germany, is that the Greeks have not been good shepherds of their resources; they retire early with fat pensions and do not pay the taxes they owe. It turns out that those views are outdated; there have been major reforms of the pension system and crackdowns on tax evaders (see the story in this week’s On the Media about that). But popular perceptions are slow to change, especially when there are compelling and long-established stereotypes at work: Germans are industrious; Greeks (and southern Europeans) are lazy. However, there are indeed some striking cultural distinctions of interest.

One of the aspects of the Greek crisis that I’ve been following with interest are the conflicts that have arisen that have nothing to do with money. A few weeks ago, when the Greek prime minister and other officials were in Brussels to continue negotiations, German TV news conducted an interview with Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. Schäuble said he didn’t think the Greeks were serious about finding a solution to the crisis. Why? Not because their proposals were deficient, but because the Greek delegation wasn’t showing up on time for meetings. He gave specifics. He also commented on the fact that at the time of the interview, in the morning, the Greeks were having a leisurely breakfast, rather than showing up for meetings. For Schäuble, if you are serious about getting work done, the first requirement is that you be on time. The Greek perspective is different, seeing deadlines as less important. When Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras pulled out of negotiations and announced the referendum that was held last Sunday, he was asked about the problem of missing the June 30 deadline for Greek to pay back 1.6 billion euros. His response: he couldn’t imagine that it would be a problem if there were a delay of a few days while a deal was worked out. Yesterday, the EU officials were flabbergasted that the Greeks did not show up for the meetings of finance ministers with a new proposal. Prime Minister Tsiparas had promised to deliver a new plan within 48 hours, if the Greeks voted “no” in the referendum. The Greeks responded yesterday that they were working on it.

For individuals used to a “monochronic” time orientation (doing one thing at a time; keeping to deadlines), like Schäuble, it was inconceivable that agreed-on time commitments were not kept. For those with a “polychronic” time orientation, time is not seen as segmented, but fluid, and other priorities may have precedence. From the Greek perspective, the Germans were being unnecessarily rigid and unreasonable. The problem here is not really related to being on time, but on establishing and maintaining a cooperative attitude that could lead to a successful negotiation. The Germans, not taking into consideration the different time orientation of the Greeks, interpreted their behavior as one more signal that the Greeks were not serious negotiation partners. The Greeks didn’t help by not being aware of and taking into consideration the German imperative for punctuality. It’s not just the Germans who have this perspective; the Lithuanian prime minister said today that for the Greeks “everything is always mañana“,  thus taking a swipe at several different cultures.

This was not the only cultural conflict. Schäuble offered a dramatic contrast in style and tone to the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who announced his resignation yesterday. Schäuble is tight-lipped and serious, being cautious in his pronouncements. Varoufakis, in contrast, is free with his opinions and has not hid his disdain for some EU and German officials. Schäuble wears dark suits with conservative ties; Varoufakis goes for leather jackets. The Greek prime minister also does not wear ties. The German convention is that if you are doing serious business, you dress the part. Of course, the contrast between the two finance ministers is also a case of different personalities, as well as a generational divide. But it remains that if the German and Greeks are far apart on economic issues, they are as well in terms of some social norms and practices.

Returning to roots

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

There’s an interesting new series on NPR called Invisibilia which “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions”. A recent show dealt with categories, with an interesting story about someone who alternates between male and female personas and has as a consequence a much harder time than transgender individuals, who at least can be put into a category. The story that I found particularly interesting was about a retirement community in Florida – nothing unusual about that, but in this case it is dedicated to individuals from India, or their descendants. The community is set up to make retirees feel like they are back in India, with not just Indian food and Bollywood movies, but houses arranged to imitate an Indian village with low houses and a big courtyard. The big attraction, however, is the opportunity to be with other Indians. The concept proved to be very successful, with the condos selling out quickly. The fact that it is a gated community may raise concerns about excluding others, but the organizers insist anyone is welcome, it’s just that non-Indians were not interested. One of the retirees expressed in the piece how comfortable she felt in the Indian environment created in the community, with the comment that “it can be exhausting to live in a culture as an outsider”. In the retirement community, she was no longer a member of a minority group. One of the commenters on the story put it well:

I can definitely sympathize with the people in the news story. Their culture is even more dissimilar and there’s only so much that a first generation immigrant can adapt. It’s no surprise that the elderly would seek to remove some of that stress from their lives. And it’s the simple things that make the difference. The neighborhood will serve authentic Indian food, and you don’t have to drive miles to the nearest art-house theater to watch the new Bollywood movies. Furthermore, I do believe that there is a great deal of difference between individual racism and institutional racism. A white person might experience isolated incidents regarding racism, but racism pervades every aspect of life for a minority.

One of the points made in the story was that as we grow older, we tend to want to be with others like us in fundamental (cultural) ways:

According to Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, if you raise the specter of death in a person’s mind, Christians like Christians better; Italians like Italians better. Even Germans, who are usually pretty lukewarm about other Germans, if you get them to contemplate their own mortality, suddenly they really like Germans. “If you interview Germans near a funeral home, they’re much more nationalistic,” Greenberg says. And the reverse is also true: We like people outside our group much, much less. “People become more negative toward other cultures,” Greenberg says. “Because death haunts us as it does, we have to do something about it.”

According to Greenberg, being around people not like you makes you in some sense feel invisible, and that’s a feeling that increases significantly towards the end of life. Being with others like you, particularly late in life, gives you the impression of being significant. I have to say that this has not been my experience personally in growing older and facing retirement. I find myself thinking more and more about the attractions of living abroad (Ireland!).

Fighting Extremism: Integration is key

Pegida movement in Germany

Pegida anti-immigrant movement in Germany

Yesterday President Obama, in the context of a joint press appearance with David Cameron, talked about ways to fight the rise of extreme Islamists who carry out the kinds of attacks experienced last week in Paris. He pointed to the importance of the Muslim population integrating into U.S. society:

There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength. Now, it doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to the kinds of tragedies that we saw at the Boston Marathon. But that, I think, has been helpful. There are parts of Europe in which that’s not the case.

Providing all residents – citizens and immigrants – the same opportunities for education, employment, and free exercise of their chosen religion is clearly one way to lessen the likelihood of frustration, hopelessness, and anger, feelings which provide a fertile ground for the growth of extremist views. This does not equate with immigrant or minority groups giving up their cultures (including language) and becoming indistinguishable from the majority culture. When groups such as “Pegida” in Germany (“Patriotic Europeans against the islamification of the West”) rail against the threat to Judeo-Christian culture represented by Islamic immigrants, what they are advocating for is religious intolerance, just what fuels the flames of extremist elements.

It’s not just in the West that lived experiences lead to the growth of extremism. In her new book on Afghanistan, Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes describes how the wide-spread practice of bribes and graft create strong feelings of injustice, powerlessness and rage, leading to the embrace of violent means to create a new social order. In an interview on NPR, she cited a number of examples of the humiliation Afghans experience through being extorted for bribes for all kinds of daily interactions (such as using the post office) and how contemptuously people are often treated by officials. This has understandable consequences:

It infuriates people. So first of all, you get people who are indignant and personally humiliated in a country like Afghanistan and a significant number of them, especially of males, are going to get violent. So if you have a violent movement that’s around and looking to recruit people, there’s a likelihood that they are going to really find people who have had an interaction like this or – or five of them or 10 of them – that are ready to get some revenge.

We’ve tried war, nation-building, and demonizing Islam as ways to fight terrorism – none has worked. The common sense – and just – approach is to provide opportunities for individuals and families to build their lives in an open and tolerant society. This is as true in Muslim countries as it is in the West.

Non-verbal India

namasteOne of the interesting aspects of being in India is to observe non-verbal communication. Indians by and large are big talkers, but they also are very expressive non-verbally. Well-known is the greeting using the folded hands in front of the chest, often while saying “Namaste” or “Namaskar” (from Sanskrit, “I bow to you”). The gesture is accompanied by a slight bow. At the hotel where I was staying in Ahmedabad, the hotel employees greeted me that way every time we met. I have also noted while I’ve been here that, while Indians love to talk, they are also more comfortable with silence than most US Americans. There is not the same compulsion to fill pauses in conversation with chatter.

My colleague here told me of a personal experience of hers illustrating a difference between US and Indian behavior in this area. She was a graduate student at an American university and had, she says, been slacking off on her work. Her graduate advisor called her to his office to lecture her about buckling down. Abashed, she kept her head down during the conversation, not looking him in the eyes. This was her acknowledgement of his age and seniority, as well as a way to show her own awareness and confession of her guilt and shame. He didn’t take it that way, and became increasingly angry in the conversation, interpreting her not looking directly at him as a refusal to accept his views and to acknowledge her fault, in other words, the opposite of what she intended to convey. India is a hierarchal culture in which it’s expected that one show respect for age and authority. One way of conveying that is to lower your eyes.

The most intriguing gesture in India is surely the head wiggle. This is a circular bobbing of the head (like a bobble head) from side to side, neither a nod nor a shake. I have seen this gesture used very often and in many different contexts, and I just realized yesterday evening that I was unconsciously using it while listening to a colleague here tell me about her family’s tragic experiences during the separation between India and Pakistan in 1947. In this case, I was expressing sympathy and indicating Yes, I am listening, go on. But that’s just one use of the head wiggle. Depending on how it is done – how fast the wiggle – it can also mean yes or I agree. In other contexts, particularly if it is slow and subtle, it can just be an acknowledgement of the presence of another person – a kind of minimal greeting. According to one account, it can also be used as a non-answer, to not respond yes or no to a question, request, or offer. That kind of ambiguity can be quite useful in a culture in which it’s not acceptable to make definitive refusals of offers.

A YouTube video demonstrates the different uses of the head wiggle:

My colleage att IIK-Kharagpur pointed me also to this clip from the TV series Outsourced:

Scotland’s other national drink

Irn-BruWith the upcoming vote on independence, there have been a good number of stories in the US media about Scotland. Of particular interest seem to be stories about the distinctiveness of Scottish life and culture (especially as differentiated from England). On NPR this week there was a story about Irn-Bru, an orange flavored soft drink very popular in Scotland. The story featured interviews with Scots professing their love the neon orange colored drink, connecting that passion with Scottish patriotism:

As Scots prepare to vote on independence next month, the fizzy fervor for this fluorescent fluid may offer some insights into Scottish nationalistic tendencies. When asked why they’re so crazy for this Scottish soda, people most often reply, “Because it’s Scottish.”… Much of the world treats Scottish icons as kitsch. Kilts. Haggis. Bagpipes. But for Scots, these are potent symbols of national pride. One of Irn Bru’s advertising slogans is “Made in Scotland, from girders.” Girders, as in the steel beams that hold up buildings.

I have to admit that although I have visited Scotland several times, I have never tasted Irn-Bru, although I did liberally partake of Scottish ale, which has its fans as well, although it certainly pales in popularity to Scotland’s true national drink, Scotch whisky.

The NPR story led me to think about other soft drinks associated with specific cultures. The obvious example is Coca-Cola, a US icon, but less well known are some other drinks I have sampled. In Austria, for example, students I have taken on study abroad trips often discover and enjoy Almdudler, a carbonated drink made from apple, grape, and herb flavors. In Germany Spezi is popular – cola mixed with orange soda, as is Apfelshorle, apple juice mixed with minteral water. On hot summer days in Bavaria, I have enjoyed drinking a Radler or two, a mix of beer with lemon soda.

Particularly memorable for me was drinking cold Kvass in Moscow a few summers ago, when there were massive fires in the region, covering the capital in smoke, with the temperature the hottest it had been in years. Kvass is a slightly alcoholic drink (at most 1.5%) made from fermenting black or rye bread and one of the few drinks in Russia consistently served ice cold. In the summer there are Kvass stands all around, similar to root beer stands in the US at state fairs.

A drink I have heard about but never tasted is Inca Kola, a widely enjoyed soft drink in Peru. I would guess, given its popularity, that the Peruvian cola must be much better than the worst cola I have ever had, which was in East Berlin before German reunification. Coca-Cola, as a symbol of capitalism, was not available in the German Democratic Republic, instead a home-brewed version was made, Vita-Cola. To me it tasted like soap, but maybe it was just a bad batch, because with the nostalgia for things East German (“Ostalgie”), Vita-Cola has enjoyed a comeback.

Do kids need chaos?

adventure-playground-australia6

An adventure playground in Australia

There have been a rash of stories in the US media recently about playgrounds, over-protective parents, and the absence of creative play opportunities for US children. It reflects a perennial complaint about the litigious nature of US society, with stories about schools removing playground equipment because of the fear of lawsuits. A story earlier this year in The Atlantic on “The Overprotected Kid” raised a lot of interest. A recent story on NPR contrasted the presence of “adventure playgrounds” in Europe with their absence in the US, outside of a few isolated examples. These are playgrounds that are not as carefully risk-free as US playgrounds tend to be:

There are only a handful of these “wild playgrounds” in the country. They embrace the theory that free, unstructured play is vital for children and offer an antidote to the hurried lifestyles, digital distractions and overprotective parents that can leave children few opportunities to really cut loose.

The example discussed in the story is the Berkeley Adventure Playground. It doesn’t have the organized look and feel of the typical playground, but offers children the opportunity to do “dangerous play” such as hammering nails or painting. Similar is the Tinkering School outside of San Francisco, the subject of a TED talk by Gever Tulley. One of the comments posed on the NPR site about the story was something with which I – and probably a lot of baby-boomers – identify: “We had a place like this when I was a kid. We called it ‘Outside’”.

It’s not just the design and functionality of playgrounds that determines the nature of children’s play, it’s also the attitudes and behavior of the parents. In this regard, the US and the UK may be similar. A UK ex-pat mom in Germany expressed her surprise at German and Swiss parents allowing children to have pocket knives. An ex-pat US mom had a similar reaction to the unsupervised freedom allowed Dutch children.

Does it really matter that kids in the US don’t typically have the same opportunities for free-form, independent play? Or that parents are over-protective? Some would say yes, that children need the unstructured playtime to engage with other children, not with their parents or other adults. Certainly, there’s no question that freedom stimulates creativity – always being strictly under control is not ideal for the development of free, adventurous thinkers. It’s also important for social skills. According to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, those social skills also result in better learning in school, results that have been shown in a study measuring social skills and academic performance in third grade, then again in eighth grade. Pellis comments: “We can ask which of the two data sets, social skills or academic performance is a better predictor of their academic performance at eighth grade? And it turns out that the better predictor is social skills.” He adds: “Countries where they actually have more recess, academic performance tends to be higher than countries where recess is less.” This reflects the recognition of the importance of social learning, a central concept in learning theories and recognized increasingly as an essential component of effective online learning. Interestingly, the pedagogical approach used in mainstream MOOCs today (massive open online courses), the so-called xMOOC moves away from a emphasis on social learning, the central component of the alternative, free-form, construcivist model (the cMOOC).

Cry now for Argentina?

germany-v-argentina-2014-fifa-20140713-222236-556The evening news in Germany on the Tuesday (Tagesthemen) after Germany won the World Cup showed the welcoming celebration in Berlin (naturally at the Brandenburg Gate) for the victorious German national soccer team (not called die Mannschaft, as the US media dubbed the team, but rather the Nationalelf – the national eleven). There followed a piece showing some German soccer fans – they were in the process of taking down the German flags displayed in windows. In contrast to the US, the display of flags in Germany, as well as other symbols of patriotism, are relegated almost exclusively to use in contexts related to sporting events. Waving a flag in other contexts signals support for extreme right wing political parties. The national pride the Germans experienced has little to do with feelings US citizens might have in terms of the superiority of the US over other countries. It’s more a feeling of community, and perhaps happiness over something positive that brings all Germans together. More an excuse to party than anything else and to let loose, not always an easy thing for Germans.

I was reminded today of that newscast due to news from the country that Germany defeated in the World Cup final, Argentina. The despair that Argentinians felt at the loss was likely as strong, if not stronger than the joy on the part of the Germans. And now another blow to Argentinian pride, having to default on a loan to a small group of bondholders, who refused to go along with the “haircut” agreement made in 2001 to receive partial payback. The default signals serious economic problems ahead for the country, which already has an inflation rate of 40% and has lost 25% of the value of its currency against the US dollar this year. Social unrest may follow. Once again, the contrast with Germany is stark, as the Germany economy continues full steam ahead. If in fact Argentina does default on the loan and the economy worsens, it will be interesting to see if the Argentine government once again brings up the issue of sovereignty over the Malvinas islands, as the Falklands are known in Argentina, another source of hurt national pride.

Multilingual South Africa

SOUTHAFRICA_SS1I am in my last day in Johannesburg, South Africa, having attended a linguistics conference here for the past week. It’s been a fascinating experience, both attending presentations at the conference and experiencing South Africa for the first time. The language situation in South Africa is complex. There are 11 official languages (versus just 2 in the Apartheid days, English and Afrikaans – derived from Dutch). The fascinating fact for me is that virtually everyone here speaks English, but it is rare that it is anyone’s native tongue. Most likely it is the second language (for white Afrikaans speakers) or the second or third language (for black South Africans). Many South Africans speak more then two languages, especially Blacks, who often speak their home language (such as Xhosa or Sotho) and also English and possibly also one or both of the other two languages which have a lingua franca function here, namely Afrikaans and Zulu. In one presentation today it was mentioned that adult Blacks do not necessarily view their native language as their best language – that might be English or Afrikaans, languages which are vital for success in higher education and in the professional world.

There was a presentation today by a Swiss linguist, who reported on language issues in health care in Switzerland. She started off by mentioning that her country also has multiple official languages (German, French, Italian, Romantsch). At the end of her talk there was a question from a South African in the audience, asking why, if Switzerland were multilingual like South Africa, there was any need for interpreters or other assistance in health care. She was assuming that the situation was analogous to multilingual South Africa, where it’s the norm to speak multiple languages, and, if possible, to learn to speak (although not necessarily to read or write) all the languages used widely in your region. The Swiss linguist was somewhat taken aback by the question and responded that while there are multiple official languages, they are not all spoken throughout the country but rather are limited to particular geographic regions. Many Swiss within those regions speak only their native tongue (and often school English).

Maybe the South Africans learn more languages because they’re more open and approachable. One South African linguist at the conference reported an anecdote of a woman in a township being asked why she was learning an additional African language (her 4th or 5th language) – she responded that it would be rude not to be able to speak to her new neighbor who spoke that language.

Frau Merkel’s lover

16933418,14048206,highRes,1344610095Sorry, there isn’t one. François Hollande, her counterpart across the Rhein?  Sure, he’s French.  The stories in the news recently from France and Germany make it hard to imagine that the two cultures have Charlemagne (Karl der Große) as a common ancestor, or that they share much at all in terms of values and way of life. It’s nothing surprising or shocking in France that a politician would have a maîtresse, even a politician as uncharismatic and down-to-earth as François Hollande. Just because they are elected to public office, French politicians aren’t expected to stop being human or men or French.

In Germany one expects politicians to be serious, that is to say, to focus on their responsibilities and to do their duty.  Such extra-curricular activities are verboten as an unnecessary and unwanted distraction.  How do German leaders break the public trust?  If they plagiarize on their university theses, as has caused the downfall of several ministers in the last few years (dishonesty).  Or they fall behind schedule on a building project, such as the debacle over the years late new Berlin airport (incompetence).  Or they spend an inordinate amount of public money (in this case from Church tax paying German Catholics) on luxury for themselves (extravagance), as did the “bling bishop” (Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg).

The big news in Germany in recent days has nothing to do with lovers or sex, but instead with something much closer to the hearts of many Germans: their automobiles.  The scandal in the news is the sudden loss of trust in an organization Germans depend on and see as the ideal complement to their cars, namely their automobile association, the ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club). The ADAC has served as the trusted advisor to German car owners and prospective car buyers since 1903.  The most widely published periodical in Germany is not Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, it is the ADAC Motorwelt (motor world). Now it turns out that data supplied by the ADAC (for example on the number of votes for car of the year) has in some cases been either manipulated or invented, possibly in order to inflate the importance of the organization in order to gain more members.  This is not just dishonesty, incompetence and greed – it’s all three combined to swindle Germans in relation to their prize possession, the symbol of German economic power and engineering prowess. Mein Gott, o Gott! 

Unlike their preferences in cars, Germans don’t like flashy leaders.  What they do value in leaders and cars is dependability and familiarity – just the qualities the reliable and consistent Mutti Merkel provides.  Mutti take a lover?  No way.

Abiding Traditions

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The winner of the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition

The annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers was held recently, an event that has been going on for over 50 years but has recently surged in popularity, according to an article in the NY Times. The competition aims to find the best phone answerer in terms of politeness, voice (a high pitch is preferable), and efficiency in providing the information sought. Almost all the competitors are women.  According to the article:

Organizers of the event, which now draws over twice the number of contestants as it did a decade ago, attribute that popularity to the enduring importance of politeness here, as well as a growing concern among some employers that younger Japanese are forgetting their basic manners…Formal phone answering is serious business in Japan, with many rules intended to head off offensive or awkward moments. A search on Amazon’s Japanese website found more than 60 books specifically on phone manners, and dozens more on business etiquette in general. Most appeared to be aimed at women, like “How to Talk Like a Workplace Beauty.”

The competition highlights the role of politeness in Japanese society, but also the position of women in the workplace.  Despite a 1986 gender equality law, women hold just 11 percent of managerial jobs in Japan.

Meanwhile, in England, folks are glued to the radio to hear the shipping forecast from the BBC, even if they live nowhere near the coast, or have no relationship to ships. It’s a tradition that points to a core value of English culture derived from being an island nation, an abiding concern for maritime weather — or, for that matter, just the weather.

NPR had a series of broadcasts this week featuring the shipping forecast and highlighting coastal communities.  Also discussed was the cultural significance of the shipping forecast.

It is a bizarre nightly ritual that is deeply embedded in the British way of life. You switch off the TV, lock up the house, slip into bed, turn on your radio, and begin to listen to a mantra, delivered by a soothing, soporific voice. “Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger ….” says the voice. You are aware — vaguely — that these delicious words are names, and that those names refer to big blocks of sea around your island nation, stretching all the way up to Iceland and down to North Africa. Your mind begins to swoop across the landscape, sleepily checking the shorelines, from the gray waters of the English Channel to the steely turbulence of the Atlantic. Somewhere, deep in your memory, stir echoes of British history — of invasions from across the sea by Vikings, Romans and Normans; of battles with Napoleon’s galleons and Hitler’s U-boats.

Japan and Britain share not only a respect for traditions (many more than the ones listed here), but also the reputation for politeness, perhaps inherent in island nations with relatively dense populations. In a fast changing world, it’s comforting to know that some things stay the same. It’s great too to have cultures like these that have traditions that seem unaffected by the tides of globalization and successfully resist the tendency towards homogenization.

 

Pasta not rice

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil  & her parents

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil & her parents

“I ate pasta, family ate rice,” says Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil, who comes from a Filipino-American family and wrote that phrase as a contribution to the Race Card Project and as a way of characterizing one aspect of her cultural identity. As a girl Melanie was embarrassed that she couldn’t offer visiting school friends main-stream American snacks like hot dogs or Tater Tots – such things weren’t to be found in her family kitchen.  Melanie’s friends were mystified (and she was mortified) by the huge rice dispenser which was the centerpiece of her family kitchen. Her family ate Filipino food, and rice was served with every meal.  In middle school Melanie told her family she wasn’t going to eat rice any more and her accommodating mother made her pasta instead.  Her story is not unusual for immigrant families.  Fortunately, Melanie’s subsequent story is common these days as well.  In her 20’s she came to discover that her Filipino heritage made her special, and she has since embraced Filipino cooking. Ironically, as she told NPR, she is now making sure Filipino traditions are kept alive in her extended family, making sure the young people in her family know how to make the traditional dish of lumpia, (similar to an eggroll):

“I would prepare my grandmother’s lumpia recipe and kind of set up a lumpia sweatshop, if you will,” Ramil says. “For each of my cousins’ children … there are about 25 or 30 of them — I would put a place mat in front of them, lumpia wrappers … a little bowl of raw meat.”

Melanie is making sure such traditions have some permanence and extend beyond her family, writing a blog, Lola’s Journal, based on her grandmother’s life (and cooking).

For many of us food is an important part of our cultural identity, which may or may not be tied to ethnic backgrounds. Melanie’s story shows us that sometimes that connection is complicated and changes over time.  I’m writing this on Thanksgiving and I’m looking forward to a new tradition my family started last year:  the 10-minute instant Thanksgiving dinner, consisting of a purchased roasted chicken (how great that our main grocery store is open on Thanksgiving), boxed stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and gravy, heated-up rolls. No gourmet feast, but it does allow more time for socializing, games, and emptying my growler, not to mention eliminating the 5 a.m. turkey preparation – a tradition I’m willing to pass up.