Two bodies at war

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

It’s likely that the debate tonight will have little to do with substance, but rather with how the two candidates are perceived by viewers, which may not be determined to any great extent by the content of their answers or the explanations of policy differences. Rather, it is likely to come down to non-verbal communication, namely body language, gestures, and paralanguage, i.e., the tone of voice and speech characteristics. In a recent piece in the Atlantic, James Fallows discusses this aspect of the encounter. In reference to Donald Trump’s body language, he quotes noted anthropologist, Jane Goodall, that “the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals”. Indeed, his imposing physical stature on the stage at the Republican primary debates did seem to overpower the other candidates. The exception was Carly Fiorina, who was alone in standing up to him in the early debates. This time around, he will be facing no men but a woman who is unlikely to be cowed by the kind of chest-beating and belittlement he bestowed on his male competitors. As Fallows comments, “The potential first woman president of the United States, who is often lectured about being too ‘strident’ or ‘shrill,’ is up against a caricature of the alpha male, for whom stridency is one more mark of strength.”

Fallows points out, correctly, I believe, that one of the keys to his success so far has been the simplicity of his messaging and the language used. After the first debate, the transcript of Trump’s remarks was run through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which indicated they matched a fourth-grade reading level. In politics (in the US), that’s a good thing. If it’s spoken language, the simpler, the better, making it more likely that listeners will both understand and retain what is said. According to the article, and experts on body language Fallows consulted, Trump’s facial expressions tend to have a similar narrow range. Jack Brown of BodyLanguageSuccess.com, commented that Trump’s range of expressions was considerably less that that of most people, with an interesting corollary:

The reason most people betray themselves through body language—we’re generally poor liars; others can tell when we’re faking a smile—is that our face, hands, and torso do more things involuntarily than most of us are aware of or can control… The payoff in this understanding of Trump’s body language, according to Brown, is that it explains why he can so often say, with full conviction, things that just aren’t true.

Fallows points out that in the first US presidential debate in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, those who heard the debate on radio thought it was a draw, but those who watched it on TV gave the win to the elegant, relaxed Kennedy over the sweating, shifty-eyed Nixon. Today, with high-definition TV, we will be able to spot the possible beads of sweat before even a candidate notices. Fallows says that, “the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.” If the battle of words becomes too much to bear, I might just try out his advice tonight.

Update: 9/28/2016
Yes, the non-verbal side of the debate was fascinating, especially in the last hour, in which Trump get increasingly feisty and defensive and Clinton began to smile more and more. There was one segment that proved particularly memorable, after Trump had engaged in one of his rambling responses, ending with, “I have much better judgement than she has. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she does.” Clinton’s response: “Whoo. Ok.” and a broad smile and several shakes of her shoulders:

debate

The shoulder shimmy seemed a perfect indicator of how the debate went – Clinton delighted in Trump’s difficulty in presenting himself as “presidential”, namely thoughtful, well-spoken, and serious.

Burkinis & European integration

burkini_banThe highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.

There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.

In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

From pose to reality

Source: PNAS Credit: Vacharkulksemsuk et al.

Source: PNAS / Credit: Vacharkulksemsuk et al.

There were 2 recent episodes in the NPR Invisibilia series that tell some interesting stories illustrating the power of transforming oneself through outward actions – who we hang out with, what our body language is, or how we dress. The first episode, “Outside in” has this as its starting point: “There’s a popular idea out there that you can change from the outside in. Power posing. Fake it ’til you make it. If you just assume the pose, inner transformation will follow.” One story shows how acting like a celebrity in order to ridicule US celebrity culture (having a “posse” following you around, driving up to a venue in a limousine, etc.) actually created the desire for fame. Another recounted a story from Rwanda in which an inexperienced female university debate team were inspired by Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing, eventually gaining enough confidence to overcome both social prejudice against women in that role and their own uncertainty whether they belonged in the competition.

The second episode is entitled “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes”. One of the stories is a portrait of a famous tailor, Marin Greenfield, who makes clothes for US presidents and many celebrities. According to the story, Greenfield “learned how to sew when the SS put him to work in the tailor shop at Auschwitz, where he did an amazing thing. After he ripped the shirt of a Nazi officer, and took a beating for it, Martin decided to take the shirt for himself. No other prisoners had a shirt under their uniform but he kept his, throughout the rest of the war. We explore whether this one shirt saved his life by making him feel more like himself.” It’s an amazing story. An especially dramatic episode was the first time he wore the shirt, going out of the wrong door from the prisoner barracks at Auschwitz – whether it was the shirt or the new confidence or new sense identity it brought, the Nazi guards surprisingly did not reprimand or punish him, just let him walk by. Another story talks about the power of sunglasses to transform behavior and attitudes.

The episodes remained me of a story from another NPR series, Shots, entitled “To Catch Someone On Tinder, Stretch Your Arms Wide”, about how body language in photos on dating sites make a big difference. It’s not just a question of attractiveness, but rather body language: expansive body posture leads (in the photo above, left) to better dating responses than the contracted posture (right). According to a study out of the University of California – Berkeley from Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk, the open, expansive posture conveys power and openness: “The information packing in that nonverbal behavior is social dominance, and where that person stands in a hierarchy,” The presumption, according to the article, is that “the person high in the pecking order is sexy. Alphas are scarce and in demand.” It sounds like we haven’t evolved much from caveman days, especially in our nonverbal behavior patterns.

High heels empowering?

Japanese women taking walking lessons

Japanese women taking high heel walking lessons

I’m currently in Russia and one of the many cultural differences to the US is in how young women dress. I’ve been spending a good amount of time at playgrounds with my 5-year old grandson and have seen a lot of young mothers with their children. Inevitably, the women are dressed very well, often wearing high heels, not something you are likely to see in North American playgrounds. High heels have been in the news recently, with a group in Japan, the Japan High Heel Association (JHA), advising women to start wearing them for personal “empowerment”. As reported in the Daily Mail, JHA managing director ‘Madame’ Yumiko argues that wearing heels will help ‘Japanese women become more confident’:

She explains: ‘Many women are too shy to express themselves. In Japanese culture, women are not expected to stand out or put themselves first.’ Her solution is for women suffocated by such strict protocols to simply ‘throw on a pair of heels,’ arguing the freedom it brings can unlock the mind…’Chinese or Korean ladies don’t have these problems,’ she said. ‘It’s a result of Japan’s kimono culture and shuffling about in straw sandals. It’s ingrained in the way Japanese walk. ‘But very few Japanese wear a kimono all day anymore. We should know about Western culture and how to wear heels correctly,’ she added.

The JHA has started offering etiquette lessons (400,000 yen or US $4,000), with many young women signing up, according to the article. Critics have pointed out that this is just the wrong behavior to be advocating to women in an already staunchly patriarchal society, in which women have struggled to obtain equal rights to men.

The advocacy for heels comes at a time when women in the west are protesting that fashion accessory. Julia Roberts went barefoot on the red carpet during the Cannes Film Festival in May as a sign of protest against women being ejected last year from the festival for wearing flat shoes. A campaign in Britain to end high heel only policies at companies is being supported by a number of Members of Parliament.

Hijab question

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Frank Boston/Flickr Creative Commons

For American Muslim women, the question of whether or not to cover their heads can be a difficult issue, as outlined in a piece on National Public Radio. Wearing the hijab can automatically change the dynamics of interactions with other US Americans. One Muslim woman in the piece had this perspective:

“Before I wore hijab, making friends with people who weren’t Muslim was a lot easier,” says Maryam Adamu, who was born in North Carolina to immigrants from Nigeria. Before she began wearing a headscarf three years ago, people didn’t know she was Muslim — until she told them.
“I, like, Trojan-horsed my Islam,” she says, laughing. “Like, ‘You’re already my friend. I know you like me. Now you know I’m Muslim, and you’re going to learn about this faith.’ ” Once she started wearing a headscarf, she encountered a social obstacle she hadn’t seen before. “Now, I have to work a lot harder to get into people’s lives who aren’t Muslim,” she says.

Of course, hijabs, or other clothing associated with Islam such as the body-covering burqa are not the only clothing or body modification which can tend to put folks automatically into particular categories. Black leather, along with multiple tattoos, for example, may point to motorcycle club membership. But few decisions on dress and appearance are as complex as the decision facing US Muslim women in regard to head covering. They face widespread assumptions in the US, which are largely negative, with wearing a hijab most often seen as a sign of oppression. In reality, there are many possible factors, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied demonstrated in her TED talk. A provocative perspective was offered in a Washington Post op-ed by Asra Nomani. An opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this year by Ruqaiya Haris presented an interesting perspective on the introduction of high fashion hijabs, modeled by white Westerners:

As a Muslim woman and the intended target consumer, I thought that the pale white model wearing the clothing served as yet another stark reminder that eastern culture may only be celebrated when it is glamorised by western society, which can in turn capitalise on it. In the context of global Islamophobia, there is something that makes me feel quite uneasy seeing a towering white woman praised for looking glamorous in the same clothing that often leaves Muslim women perceived as “extremist” and puts them at risk of being attacked or even criminalised in some western societies.

A powerful speech act

steve3I attended yesterday the official swearing-in of a new judge on the Virginia Supreme Court, Steve McCullough. The process was an interesting example of a powerful “speech act” (an utterance that causes something to happen), namely having the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court transform an ordinary citizen into a fellow Supreme Court Justice by a few simple words spoken as an oath of office. The magical transformation only happens, however, if the oath is spoken correctly. President Obama in 2009 had to retake later the oath of office because Chief Justice John Roberts did not prompt him with the exact correct language, so that Obama did not say the line correctly. It’s not likely in that particular case that anyone would question whether Obama was really the President of the United States (although, given the birther controversy, that may have happened, if he had not retaken the oath). In the case of marriage vows, a similar transformational speech act, the absence of the concluding statement, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” often is played up in fiction and film as meaning that the couple is in fact not legally wed (i.e., The Graduate, The Princess Bride).

The oath of office actually was made interesting by the fact that the new Justice held his 2-year son, Andrew, as the oath was being administered, while Andrew’s mother held the bible on which Steve swore the oath (and tried to quiet down her son). Speech acts may be accompanied by such nonverbal signals as the presence of an official document of some sort or the wearing of prescribed clothing, as, in this case, the black robes, which visually transformed Steve from a citizen into a Justice (the “robing” was also done ceremoniously). Part of this official act was also that it took place in a prescribed location, namely the Chambers of the Virginia Supreme Court, a place set apart from normal everyday life (no cell phones allowed, sitting and standing at prescribed times, always beginning one’s addressing of the Justices with the formula, “may it please the court”). In linguistics, we would say that the “felicity conditions” (i.e., in this instance, all the outer trappings) for this “commissive” speech act (it commits Steve to fulfilling the oath of office) have been fulfilled.

Into this august environment came Andrew, who chimed in merrily while his father took the oath. It struck me at the time that the kind of informality represented by having a new Supreme Court Justice hold a babbling 2-year old during such an important official government ceremony, in the presence not only of the other Justices, but also of the Governor of Virginia, members of the Virginia legislature, and other high officials, was something that might not be done in all cultures. In the US, we like to see our government officials as being no different from ourselves, often choosing a political candidate by the fact that he’s “just like us” (open question of how well that works out). Being a doting father is part of that image projection and having children close by in such instances is both accepted and valued. When you’re the US President on an official visit to Vietnam, having noodles and cold beer at a neighborhood joint in Hanoi is just the kind of “ordinary joe” behavior we like to see.

I don’t usually hobnob with the Governor and the Supreme Court, but Steve is a former VCU student, whom I hired as a lab assistant back in the early 1990’s when I ran the Language Lab. After graduating from law school, he worked for a while for my wife’s law firm, so we’ve known Steve and his family for a long time. It’s great to see a former student have this degree of success. I asked Steve after the ceremony whether he figures that being a Supreme Court Justice will be an interesting line of work. He answered that there are likely to be engrossing cases that come up, but that a lot of it will be routine and less than exciting – just like all jobs.

Colors and body parts

donald-trumps-hands-suck-1457116346-crop_desktopThis past week there have been some remarkable public comments on personal appearance and body builds. In the most recent Republican debate, “Little Marco” (Trump’s term) tangled with “Big Donald”, with Donald Trump commenting on Marco Rubio’s statements about his hands, clearly referencing his male prowess: “And, he [Rubio] referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” This follows Rubio’s comments about Donald having wet pants in the breaks from an earlier debate. In a press conference, Trump commented on how much Rubio sweats: “Can you imagine,” Trump said of Rubio meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, “and he walks in and he’s drenched. I have never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats. … It looked like he had just jumped into a swimming pool with his clothes on.” Speaking of Putin, there we clearly have a politician who feels that projecting a hyper-masculine persona is important for his image. He frequently is seen in press photos bare-chested, playing sports, or engaging in other activities that highlight his body build. His walk is best described as a swagger. It’s sad to see US politicians engaged in outdoing each other in terms of masculinity – the last thing that should determine who is best able to be President is the level of testosterone (or the ability to hurl insults).

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

A controversy over skin color emerged in the last week in reference to the movie of the life of singer Nina Simone. This has brought out for public discussion the issue of colorism – the idea that skin tone (how light or dark) and not just race, can lead to prejudice and discrimination. The actress selected to portray Simone is Zoe Saldana, who is Latina, but self-identifies as black. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a mix of ethnic and racial backgrounds which results in a broad range of skin tones. Saldana is light-skinned, in contrast to the dark-skinned Simone. This has been seen as one more example of “Hollywood’s attempt to sideline women with dark skin”. What makes the issue particularly troublesome is that for the movie Saldana wore black face, recalling past racist practices in the entertainment industry. Many have pointed out also that it’s not just a case of trying to cast someone that comes close to the appearance and background of the person portrayed, but that in this case Nina Simone famously made a point of talking and singing about her blackness, which she celebrated but which also resulted in missed opportunities, such as being refused entry to the Curtis Institute of Music.

Another issue of appearance arose in an interview this week-end on NPR with Joanna Hausmann, a Venezuelan comedian who makes videos for The Flama, focusing on Latino culture. Hausmann has a Jewish father, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and a Cuban mother. She uses her personal background as one of the main sources of her comedy:

I think that I grew up explaining who I was, right? As a white Latina with a Jewish last name. That does not make sense in the conceptualization of what a Latina should be. Also I’m not particularly suave, I’m incredibly awkward. There’s something about my identity that does not mesh with what people think the identity should include. …

[Growing up] I was trained in explaining my identity in a way that wasn’t surface level. And it also opened me up in understanding that people can literally have absolutely any background and what we conceive to be their identity, or their reality or their background is usually not the case.

Hausmann celebrates not only the variety of appearances of Latin Americans, but also the variety of ways in which Spanish is spoken, as in the video below:

Resting smirk face

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Martin Shkreli, on Capitol Hill

There was a study released recently on “resting bitch face”, that world-weary look that expresses boredom, and contempt, indicating that, contrary to what the name seems to indicate, the facial expression is just as frequent in men as in women. The look, according to a Huffingtonpost article is often associated with particular celebrities, namely Anna Kendrick, Kristen Stewart, Queen Elizabeth and Kanye West.

But none of those folks can hold a candle to the facial expressions exhibited today in a Capitol Hill hearing by Martin Shkreli, which one tweet characterized as “resting smirk face”. Shkreli is the infamous former chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, the one who after acquiring Turing increased the price of Daraprim, a drug that treats a parasitic infection, from $13.50 to $750 a pill. He has recently come under a federal indictment for operating what was in effect a Ponzi scheme in his previous business dealings. But in his appearance today before a congressional committee he was anything but contrite. He pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer any questions, but although he was verbally restrained, his body language spoke volumes. He smiled, looked all around the room, laughed, shook his head mockingly, and posed for photographs, all while congressmen were making comments or asking questions; in fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself mightily.

His best smirk came when uttering the word “respectfully” in “on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions”, clearly taunting the congressmen. A smirk nearly as good accompanied his response to a congressman telling him he was welcome to answer questions which could not be possibly be incriminating (such as how to pronounce his name): “I intend to follow the advice of my counsel, not yours.” In fact, Shkreli has gained quite a reputation for his smirks, so much so that the Washington Post has created a gallery of his best.

The scientists who studied “resting bitch face” indicate that although contempt is conveyed by the look, it is often not intended. No such innocent interpretation is possible with Shkreli. After the hearing, he tweeted, “Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government.” Probably not the way to win friends and influence neighbors.

The Hijab Professor

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Professor Larycia Hawkins

There have been a couple of interesting cases recently in the US concerning freedom of expression on the part of university professors. This week Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri at Columbia, has been in the news (article in the Atlantic) due to an incident that occurred in November, when she threatened to bring “muscle” to help her stop a student journalist filming a campus protest and may also have tried to grab the camera herself. She and students involved in the protest had set up what they considered a “safe zone” on the campus quad, where they were protesting police violence. Now a deal has been cut that will allow Click to perform community service rather than face a misdemeanor assault charge. Click is up for tenure this year, but in the meantime she has been suspended from the university.

In December, a professor of political science from a private Christian College near Chicago donned a hijab as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims. The professor, Larycia Hawkins, was placed on leave December 15, and now Wheaton College has initiated the process of firing her. The College states that the cause is not her wearing a hijab, but because of a Facebook post in which she stated , “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The evangelical Christian beliefs of the College, in contrast to those of the Catholic Church, do not support this view, given the fact that Islam sees Jesus as a prophet, not as divine. Whether that is in fact the reason for the College to fire her is unknown. In an interview on NPR, Hawkins sees her case as going beyond religious views: “It’s a bigger academic freedom question than Wheaton College alone. It’s actually not even just a religious institutional question…I’m not the ‘hijab professor’; I’m the professor that’s trying to teach my students to move beyond theoretical solidarity, sitting on our laurels in the classroom, towards embodied politics, embodied solidarity.”

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.

I identify as black

Rachel Dolezal before and after she was "black"

Rachel Dolezal before and after she was “black”

Rachel Dolezal , head of the Spokane, Washington NCAAP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the largest black advocacy organization in the US, has white parents, whose heritage is European-American, mostly German and Czech, according to her father. She is clearly not African-American biologically. But in recent years she has been active in leadership and advocacy roles for African-Americans, teaching African heritage course. Ironcially, as a college student, Dolezal sued Howard University, a historically black university, alleging discrimation against her in favor of African-American students. The revelation that Dolezal is not black stirred a social media firestorm when the news broke recently. According to CNN:

Some defended her by pointing to her activism and efficacy as a leader while adding that someone shouldn’t be barred from being a civil rights leader because they’re white. Others blasted her for lying and asserting she’d diminished the real struggles of African-Americans by claiming she had suffered hurtful racism like them, even though she grew up white in Montana, and had used that identity to advance her career as an activist.

Her identification as black has been especially controversial in the African-American community. It brings to the fore experiences that that community has had in the US. Historically, if there has been a trace (“a drop” in race laws) of black blood, that US citizen is identified as “black”. Black Americans have not had the option of presenting and performing as “white”, even if they were, like Barack Obama, of mixed white/black heritage. In that sense, Dolezal’s claim to be “black” has been seen as a instance of “white privilege” – white people can choose their race, while blacks can not. The case has also brought up another identity issue currently under discussion: how is that it is possible to choose ones gender (i.e., Caitlyn Jenner) but not one’s race?

On the lighter side is comedian Dave Chapelle’s take on the case: “The world’s become ridiculous…There’s a white lady posing as a black lady. There is not one thing that woman accomplished that she couldn’t have done as a white woman. There’s no reason! She just needed the braids!”

Brother Orange

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Brother Orange and Matt Stopera from Buzzfeed

As a language teacher, I emphasize the importance of language in cross-cultural communication. It’s one of the direct pathways into another culture – it can mean that you’re looking from inside, not outside. However, connecting with someone from another culture without knowing the language is certainly possible – and it happens all the time. I am reminded of that fact by the recent story on NPR about “Brother Orange” and the lost cell phone.

Matt Stopera, from Buzzfeed, had his cell phone stolen last year from a bar in New York City. Then, months later, he noticed pictures showing up on his new phone that he hadn’t taken. They featured selfies by someone who looked Chinese and whom he started referring to as “Brother Orange” because a number of the photos included orange trees. Stopera posted one of the pictures on Buzzfeed, and the story was then spread on the Chinese social messaging service Weibo. Users of Weibo tracked down the man in the photo, who turns out to be a restaurant owner in the Southern Chinese city of Meizhou. In China, the story went viral and both men became minor celebrities. Brother Orange and Stopera started exchanging messages, and Matt decided to travel to Meizhou to meet him. On Buzzfeed Matt has described the experience. It turned out that the two found that they got along very well and despite neither speaking the other’s language, they became close friends. In the NPR interview with Stopera, he talks about the importance of non-verbal communication in their relationship:

We had two translators, but, you know, you’d be surprised about how much nonverbal you can do with each other. You know, how much you slept. Did you sleep well? We also, in the middle of the trip, we developed this, you know, symbol where we tapped our hearts and said happy, happy, happy, happy whenever we, you know, had a moment. And so when I think about that, that’s just big.

On the Buzzfeed page, Stopera also talks about the role of technology, describing the last day of his trip, being together with Brother Orange:

The last morning of our trip. We don’t have a translator for this part. This is it. The journey is over. What even happened?
We sit in the back of the car. We both are holding back tears. When’s the next time we’re going to see each other? What will it be like? When is he coming to New York to visit me? It’s all up in the air.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the boundaries we had broken down. It’s 2015 and cell phones and computers have changed everything. Language boundaries aren’t that real. We had happily chatted with each other using a translation app. There’s an app for everything. Anything is possible. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

In the end, the stolen cell phone seemed to Stopera to align with an aspect of Chinese culture he had learned about:

I find out that part of the reason why my story resonated so well with the Chinese is that people learned about it during Chinese New Year. Bro Orange’s nephew actually heard about my story spreading on the first night of the lunar moon. This is not an accident. It’s a sign.
I start to believe more and more in the Chinese theory of destiny. It’s big in Chinese culture and another reason why this story was so big there. This is more than just a series of crazy, random coincidences that changed our lives — it’s fate.

The experience leads Matt not only to insights into Chinese culture, but through the natural tendency to compare cultures to think about U.S. cultural practices:

He let me into super-personal parts of his life. I went to his childhood climbing trees, a local temple, and his parents’ house. We even paid tribute to his ancestors. I have a moment when he asks me how I pay tribute to my ancestors. I don’t have an answer. Americans don’t really do that. It’s fucked up and makes me feel bad. Cultural differences, man!

The sense one gets from reading Stopera’s account of his visit to Brother Orange is that despite the language barrier, there was a deep connection made between the two men. That happened in large part because of the welcoming nature of the Chinese people, and of Brother Orange and his family in particular. But it was also made possible by the openness Stopera demonstrated in experiencing a variety of Chinese cultural experiences very different from his normal way of life and his willingness to share those together with his new Chinese friend.

mudbathThere’s a nice segment, for example, about his experience in the mud baths. From the many pictures included in his travel account, it is clear that for many of those experiences, no verbal exchange was necessary.

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:

Folk Music Blendings

guWe all know that one of the best ways to connect across cultures is through music. Its power to connect and blend cultures is second perhaps only to food. A recent piece on NPR about the Australian singer Gurrumul has led me to reflect on other musical blendings I have encountered recently. Listening to the music of Gurrumul at first gives you the impression that it could be North American folk music. In fact, it’s clear that his work is within a universal folk tradition. But he rarely sings in English. Mostly he sings in the indigenous language of his people, the Yolngu, of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. It’s not just the language that’s distinctive. He sings about the everyday life of the Yolngu. He has written, for example, wonderful songs extoling the orange footed scrubfoul (a strange bird indigenous to the region – see clip below) or about the rainbow python, who in the Yolugu mythology created the world. One of his rare songs in English is “Gurrumul History (I was born blind)” in which talks about himself and his family and about his experiences as a blind man, including traveling to New York City.

Another amazing blend of styles, cultures, and languages is represented by the music of Abigail Washburn, an American claw hammer banjo player and song writer. As she explains in a TED talk, she originated wanted to study law in China, but decided instead to pursue a career in music. She has spent a considerable amount of time in China and sings in both English and Mandarin. Shortly after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Washburn and Dave Liang of the electronic group The Shanghai Restoration Project, went to Sichuan and created Afterquake an album to raise awareness and funds. She recently created a theatrical work entitled Post-American Girl in which she explores her connections to China and to different types of folk music. She also has created a shadow puppet version of her song “Ballad of Treason” with puppeteers from the ancient Muslim quarter of Xi’an:

A final blending is the music of Bostonian Shannon Heaton, who plays Irish style flute, sings, and composes. She also sings in Thai, having studied abroad in Thailand. She does an amazing job combining Irish traditional music and Thai folk styles in a rendition of the Thai song Lao Dueng Duen (By the Light of the Full Moon):

I, too, am Harvard

harvard2An article over the week-end in the NY Times discussed racial “microaggressions”, an increasingly used term on U.S. college campuses to describe “the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture”.  The Times cites examples: “A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.” These are clearly not examples of full-blown racism, but are indicators of a lack of awareness and sensitivity.  At a number of universities currently there are discussions of microagressions, through Facebook pages, photo projects, or blogs. There is debate in these forums as to whether the examples given are legitimate reasons to feel slighted or whether, as the Times states, they represent “a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion.” The term’s prominence comes in part from the popularity of a blog begun by two Columbia University studens, the Microagressions Project.

At Harvard, a photo project called, “I, too, am Harvard” explores microaggressions experienced by black students at the elite university.  Many cite references to the appearance, often centered around hair, or casual statements about it being nice to be black when applying to Harvard.  That latter comment reflects one likely origin of such comments, the perceived experience of minority students receiving preferential treatment through affirmative action programs.  The photo project at Harvard has since morphed into a play.

An interesting take on such slights comes from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a recent interview on NPR, Adichie recounts the bafflement she felt when a black fellow student at Princeton took offense at a classmate talking about watermelon.  As an African, she has had to learn the cultural dimensions of being black in the U.S.  Interestingly, she has a lot to say in the interview about hair and the importance of how Nigerian women chose their hair styles, a topic that also comes up in her wonderful novel, Americanah.