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.
I 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.
Among the legacies of colonialism are habits and attitudes brought by the colonizing powers and which persist beyond the colonial period. That may be in some cases a taste for particular foods or styles of preparation – for example, the Portuguese treats I remember enjoying in Macau (at a casino food court, no less). The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is another example (although pho may or may not be related to pot-au-feu). Even more evident is of course language, with India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Hong Kong taking advantage of the historical role of English to foster wide use of that language in business and education. But the few instances of positive colonial legacies pale in comparison to the pernicious cultural, economic, and political legacies of the colonial powers. That includes suppression of native languages along with countless other acts of cultural imperialism.
What we are witnessing now in Uganda is just such a sad legacy. As discussed in a piece in the Think Africa Press, one of the sources of homophobic attitudes in that and other African countries is a holdover from imported and imposed Victorian concepts of sexuality. There are of course other factors involved as well, one being the anti-Western backlash against what can be seen as neo-colonial pressure for Ugandans not to pass anti-gay legislation. Another being the possible influence of American evangelicals. Uganda is by no means alone, According to the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are at least 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Many have colonial histories as well but by no means all, and not all former colonies have Victorian attitudes to blame. Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its wide-spread popular support seem sadly to be home-grown.
Uganda’s President indicated recently that he will not sign the anti-gay bill passed by the legislature. His explanation – homosexuals are “abnormal” and “sick” and need to be rehabilitated. His views join a long list of world leaders making unfortunate remarks about gays in their countries, from Putin to former Iranian President Ahmadinejad who famously stated that there were no gays in Iran.
Recent NPR story on the music of Sidi Touré And The Sonic Heritage Of The Sahara. Beautiful guitar music – delicate and comples – against the backdrop of a region (city of Gao in Northern Mali in Africa) torn by ethic conflict. His music harkens back to the Songhaï Empire, which ruled the region in the 15th and 16th centuries. Tuareg rebels captured the city of Gao in March and proclaimed a Tuareg homeland that they are calling Azawad. It’s amazing how much great music comes from Mali, much of it going back to ancient traditions, particularly from the Mande Empire. What makes the music today so good and different is the mixture of many ethnic cultures, including French and Arab, that continues to influence Mali musicians.