Why Americans Smile

I was in Russia last year, my third visit, and noticed again how solemn everyone seemed to be. In public transportation and on the street, there was not a lot of chit-chat, or smiling. Of course, that’s not surprising in Moscow – similar to New York City in that regard. But I was in Pyatigorsk, a resort town in the Caucuses, and it was summer. In terms of not seeing a lot of smiling faces on the street (or especially, in my experience, in service encounters), Russia is no different than many other countries. Germany, for one, comes to mind. But one country that is different is the United States. We tend to smile a lot. Smiling for no good reason is likely to make Russians think you’re a bit off. Walmart was not successful in Germany in part because managers insisted that cashiers smiled at customers. That irritated many Germans, after all, the customer didn’t know the cashier, so why act as if they are friends? That behavior would be akin to the cashier using the informal you, “du”, in addressing the customer, rather than the formal “Sie”. Some German men thought the cashiers were flirting with them.

So, why do Americans smile so much. That was a question addressed this week in the Atlantic. The answer, according to the article is surprising: “It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication. Thus, people there might smile more.” The authors of a study published in 2015 compared countries in terms of the number of source countries that make up their population: “Canada and the United States are very diverse, with 63 and 83 source countries, respectively, while countries like China and Zimbabwe are fairly homogenous, with just a few nationalities represented in their populations.” The researches polled people from 32 countries about expressing feelings openly. They found that “emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.” So citizens of countries with more diversity smile in order to bond socially. On the other hand, “countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures.”

The article points out that not only do US inhabitants smile more, their smiles are also wider, with higher levels of “facial muscle movement.” The article doesn’t discuss whether all the smiles in the US are genuine, that seems especially doubtful in the section of the article discussing how extensively politicians in the US smile.

Germany has been experiencing in recent years a large influx of immigrants, from a variety of countries – who knows, maybe next time you’re in Berlin, you’ll see more smiles.

Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

Alternative facts

Interesting news story in the New York Times today, about the increased sales of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in which a totalitarian state has absolute control over news dissemination, using “newspeak” to provide the view of reality the state wants to project, in the novel called “reality control”. Apparently, the surge in interest is related to the use by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway of the term “alternative facts”, in defense of the false claim by White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Mr. Trump had attracted the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration.” This first week of the Trump presidency has brought other “alternative facts”, such as that there were 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes in the presidential election, an explanation the President gives for losing the popular vote.

It might not seem all that important, whether there were more people at the inauguration this time compared to 2008, although clearly it does matter a great deal to Trump. The real problem is not with a president whose ego is so easily bruised. It’s that this refusal to acknowledge facts is likely to be something we will be seeing again, and in situations in which getting the facts right is vitally important (terrorist threats, trade negotiations, legislation). Having a government that puts out false information is clearly a threat to democracy. It risks putting the USA in the company of regimes, past and present, in which information from the government is routinely assumed by the citizens to be false. The media, mainstream and other, needs to be the safeguard, and we, as news consumers need to be more aware than ever of what sources to trust and which to doubt. It will be a sad state of affairs indeed if one of the sources we learn to mistrust is the White House.

Big changes

Here in Richmond, we saw amazing shifts in the weather last week, after 8-9 inches of snow (20-22 cm) on Saturday, the temperature dropped to 0° F. (-18° C.) early in the week, but then went up to 68° F. (20° C.) on Thursday. That big change, however, pales in comparison to the political change we will be experiencing in the US this week, with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The two men could hardly be more different in temperament, bearing, and convictions. As many have commented, the big concern many have voiced in the Trump presidency is not only in the kinds of new laws which may emerge, but also in the example that he represents in terms of acceptance of people different from himself, in race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or ableness. In my classes on intercultural communication, we talk about the importance of having leaders who are tolerant and counter-act stereotyping. Given the high profile and influence of the US President, the danger is that the attitudes in evidence in the White House may shape the views of the young and impressionable. In a country on its way to becoming minority white, that development is troublesome.

A big change is coming to the press in the US as well. That was clearly in evidence in the Trump press conference last week, which was highly adversarial. As he has done in the past, Trump deflected questions on topics that put him in a bad light, while using props (in this case stacks of folders) to assert the reality of his positions. He is not someone who is bothered by fact-checking – he simply makes up his own facts and ignores stories which expose his twisting of the truth. He exemplifies our post-factual political world. This makes the job of the press during the Trump presidency both more difficult and more important. It was announced today that the White House press corps may be moved outside the White House, allowing for additional kinds of press to be represented, including bloggers and reality show hosts. We are likely in the next four years to be bombarded with greatly contrasting press reports on what’s going on in Washington, D.C., making it all the more important for US citizens to engage in critical assessment of information sources.

Last night my wife and I attended a concert by folk singer Greg Brown, a terrific song writer and story teller. He ended with a song about the transition, with the refrain “Trump you won’t get this” after listing the things important to him such as love, music, and family. It may be that many Americans will respond to developments out of Washington with a turn inward. That’s understandable, but it’s good to remember President Obama’s comments in his farewell speech last week, namely that in a democracy the most important position is not the leader of the government but the citizen.

As we grow older, it’s more difficult for a lot of us to accept big changes. Part of that may be physical, as Greg Brown sang in the concert last night in relation to bones:

Apps or paper

Looking back at 2016, the news story that overwhelms all others (at least in the USA) is the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. The surprise and shock was universal, due to the near certainty in national polls that Hillary Clinton would be the winner. And, in fact, she was in the popular vote, by nearly 3 million votes. Maybe it should not have been such a surprise, given the similar upset win in the Brexit vote, which in showed the similar growing momentum of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments as evinced in the Trump campaign. That same movement is evident in other countries as well, such as Italy (upset loss of constitutional referendum), France (rise of LePen and the Front National), and Germany (electoral victories in regional elections by the “Alternative for Germany”). These movements have gained through electoral victories a kind of legitimacy that would have seemed impossible in the recent past. Along with that new political power comes a sense of empowerment to voice openly anti-immigrant, racist, and misogynous views – after all, if the President–elect has made similar pronouncements, doesn’t that put such talk and tweets into the main stream of public speech?

It will be interesting to see if Twitter – used in such a mean-spirited way by Trump –will lose any of its luster as an instrument of personal outreach and self-promotion through such an example. Of course the other significant influence on the election through technology was on the other side – Clinton’s email debacle. In point of fact, neither candidate can be considered digitally literate: Trump is said to have never used a computer, while Clinton is a notorious technophobe. Both camps, however, did include highly competent tech folks, who took care of promotion through social media and the use of data analysis to guide internal polling, advertising spending, and the get out the vote ground game. The conventional wisdom was that the Clinton campaign had in these areas an overwhelming advantage, with data analysis expertise much better than that on the other side. Since the Trump win, the media have been revising that view.

While the Clinton campaign’s decisions on where to spend time and money were based on models of likely voters based on voter-registration files, supplemented by tracking polls, the Trump camp used a different, more flexible strategy, based on evidence from local canvassers and early voter trends. According to Ed Kilgore, the Clinton approach “tends to create a more static view of the electorate and its views, and probably builds in a bias for thinking of campaigns as mechanical devices for hitting numerical ‘targets’ of communications with voters who are already in your column.” The Trump camp approach was more nimble and more technically up-to-date, at least as described in an interview on NPR by Brad Parscale, the data guru for Trump:

If you had an app on your iPhone or Android, you could go knock doors. And when you knock that door, you push a button on your iPhone – you talked and communicated with this person. It would immediately send back to our database, so now we know we don’t have to communicate with that person in another method, where Democrats still use pieces of paper that have to be scanned in and then databased later. So they weren’t getting real-time information on their door-knocking program. That’s a huge advantage for us into our ground game.

In the days leading up to the election, I was surprised that Trump was spending money and putting in time in “safe” Clinton states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which polls showed were securely Democratic, at least as far as the presidential race was concerned. But Parscale and his team were seeing shifts in local preferences and voting trends that weren’t being picked up by others. In the end, it was those Americans who were dismissed as unlikely to vote who made the difference. The next electoral go-around will see the application of lessons learned from 2016, not least of which will be in the area of technology: 1) It’s great to have a state-of-the-art data-driven model for guiding the direction of the campaign, but that model better be able to note and take into account subtle and last minute changes in trends and voter behavior; and 2) Speed in some instances is key, and apps feeding directly and instantly into a central data base in the cloud beat the pants off “pieces of paper”.

I’m in the process of writing a column for Language Learning & Technology on “big data” and learning analytics. In education, too, good decisions in technology use can have a profound influence on success. These days, that means increasingly looking to data-driven evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

Trump President “because of me”

Example of fake news spread by social media

Example of fake news spread by social media: Pope endorses Trump

An article today in the Washington Post features Paul Horner, who apparently makes a good living off of posting fake news on Facebook and other online services. Of the many posts, some appeared as news on Google, such as the Amish committing to vote for Trump. In the interview, he prided himself on the effect his fake stories had on the election:

My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.

The irony is that Horner asserts in the interview that he “hates Trump” – he assumed, he says, that his stories would be fact-checked, but clearly that didn’t happen. Since the election there have been a number of stories on the influence of fake news on the outcome, particular on Facebook, although similar comments could be make about Twitter. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories actually generated more likes and total engagement than real news stories.

It’s not just that people are misled by fake news, it’s also the case that the skepticism that fake news has engendered has led to distrust of news media in general, something that was quite apparent in the presidential election campaign, as discussed in an article in the New York Times today. As President Obama commented in a press conference in Berlin yesterday, the high volume of “active misinformation” makes it difficult to know what to believe, and, in the long run, can endanger democracy.

Many folks were shocked by the election of Donald Trump, in part because of social media reinforcing their already-held convictions that Hillary Clinton was certain to win. The “echo chamber” of the Internet seems to be particularly strong when it comes to politics, feeding user stories that online clicking and browsing habits and algorithmic analysis has indicated you want to see. A story in the Wall Street Journal, “Blue Feed, Red Feed” shows how different the information provided was for those Facebook users identified as Democrat (blue) from those profiled as Republican (red).

It seem that it’s more important than ever for us all to become informed and critical consumers of news and to try to seek out ways to break out of our personal bubbles and get different perspectives on what’s happening in our world. It’s also important to be engaged enough in what’s going on to vote in elections. A story today in the local media here in Richmond reported that, ironically, 5 of the 12 students arrested last week for blocking a highway while protesting the election of Trump had not voted.

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.

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.

Halloween correctness

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University of Louisville has apologized after the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes was posted online. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via Associated Press

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University has apologized for the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via AP

There have been recently in the US media a rash of reports related to what is often called cultural appropriation, namely taking on superficial aspects of another culture (appearance, dress, speech) in a way that can be perceived as prejudicial and insensitive. Today, there was a story out of Yale University, which, as other US universities did for Halloween, issued guidelines for avoiding cultural insensitivity in choosing a Halloween costume – eliminating what used to be mainstays of Halloween costumes such as Native American princesses (Pocohontas) or a Chinese warrior princess (Mulan). At Yale, an email was sent out to all students outlining what kinds of costumes are inappropriate. One of the categories was “Socio-economic strata”, which would have eliminated my stand-by Halloween costume as a kid, a hobo, a term which, too, has become unacceptable. The email sent out to Yale students by the “Intercultural Affairs Committee” prompted a response by one faculty member, Erika Christakis, who commented in an email of her own:

This year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween. I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

The idea, advocated here, for Yale students to decide issues of appropriateness of costumes for themselves, was met with a storm of protest from Yale students, with one encounter (with Christakis’ husband, also a faculty member) being captured on video. The Atlantic today has a long article about the controversy. One of the points made there is that the students’ strong reaction to Christakis’ email was likely not just caused by the email, but came from feelings of many minority students at Yale that racism was prevalent on campus. A NY Times article details some recent incidents.

The tension between free speech and cultural insensitivity is something that many US universities have struggled with, for example in creating “speech codes” which limit certain kinds of speech. It’s not just college campuses either. The NY times ran a piece recently on fashion asking “Does anyone own the cornrow?”, a hair style associated with black women, but one that has become popular with young white women as well. The case of Rachel Dolezal (the white woman who until recently claimed to be black) also has raised interesting questions of identity formation – is it offensive for someone to try to look black because she feels black and identifies more with African-Americans?

What language?

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush

Sarah Palin on Jeb Bush’s use of Spanish in conducting a town hall meeting in Florida recently:

“I think we can send a message and say: ‘You want to be in America? A: you better be here legally, or you’re out of here. B: when you’re here, let’s speak American.'”

Donald Trump was critical as well: “I like Jeb. He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.” Later, he retweeted an attack on Bush for “speaking Mexican”.

Aside from the awkwardly incorrect naming of languages, the real bafflement here for me is why the Republicans would go out of their way to discourage their own candidates from trying to connect with Hispanic voters, a group the party badly needs for success in 2016. Jeb Bush may not be a super exciting candidate, and his views may not be conservative enough for many Republicans – while for others, his having actual experience holding political office is a clear disqualification – but he does seem like someone likely to attract at least some Latinos to vote Republican. Of course, that holds true potentially for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

This is not just a Republican issue, and points to general views on the ability to speak other languages in the US. One would think that we would be happy to have our leaders be able to communicate directly with foreign leaders in a second language. In fact, US voters (and non-voters) tend to be suspicious of politicians who speak other languages. French seems to be particularly suspect. John Kerry downplayed his fluency in the language when he was a candidate for President and Mitt Romney was particularly loathe to admit to his ability in the language. Apparently one may be tainted with socialism by speaking French.

In the case of Spanish, many US citizens are living in denial that the country has become – and certainly will remain – multilingual, with large numbers of US citizens and non-citizens speaking Spanish as their mother tongue. If Republicans continue to embrace the views of this group of deniers, it seems likely they will again go down in defeat in 2016.

Surprising Iowa

kids

Students at Des Moines North High School

I have been spending time over this Thanksgiving break with family in Iowa. It’s a state with a strong farm tradition and where traditional values have s strong foothold. My children growing up always looked forward to visiting Iowa, as they could count on things not changing radically from one visit to the next. Yet Iowa can surprise. It was one of the first states to make gay marriage legal. In terms of demography, Iowa is not known for its diversity. But an article in the Des Moines Register this week pointed to significant shifts in the population which mirror the demographic trends in the U.S., where for the first time white students are in the minority in U.S. public schools:

A model of this new American student diversity is right under our noses, which might surprise people outside Iowa. In Des Moines, the public school system has been “minority majority” since 2011. National Journal discovered this last month, writing that the school district could be a “model for urban schools” in blending students that speak 100 different languages and dialects and come from Myanmar, Mexico, Thailand and more than 20 other countries.

The article chronicles how schools in Des Moines are dealing with the needed increase in English language instruction. That lack of English proficiency has led to overall lower scores on standardized tests. The principal of the Des Moines North High School had a refreshingly positive view of the changes in the student population:

“We represent the world,” said Des Moines North High School Principal Michael Vukovich. “It’s an advantage. We don’t have to leave the U.S. to learn about different countries. We have all those cultures in our hallways…We don’t focus on proficiency as much as growth. Assessment tests are a weak predictor of success.”

The Des Moines school district is unusual in Iowa in terms of diversity. The state is predominantly rural, and, as in other rural areas of the U.S.,  there is less ethnic diversity than in urban areas, while the politics tends to trend conservative. In fact, politically, Iowa has had an interesting mix of progressive and conservative elected officials. It was the state that gave Barack Obama the initial boost he needed to win the Democratic primary in 2008. In the recent election, however, Iowa went a different way, replacing one of the most progressive U.S. Senators, Tom Harkin, with a political newcomer, Joni Ernst. She made a splash in the early days of the campaign by touting her farm experience castrating pigs, which she said would be helpful in “cutting pork” in Washington, D.C. Although she focused her campaign on her Iowa farm roots, critics have pointed to the variety of far-right views and conspiracy theories she has embraced in the past. After her election, she commented that she was looking forward to going to Washington and “making them squeal”. Let’s hope that she learns from the experience of the Des Moines school district, that it’s possible to work together with people different from you in fundamental ways, and that it would be good to shift her rhetoric from castration to cooperation. Maybe barn raising would be a good farm symbol for what the U.S. political system needs today.

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).

Philly sound: Dying out?

philly

Philly cheesesteak: More popular than the accent?

Interesting article in the NY Times about what the author describes as “the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America,” namely the “Philadelphia, or Filelfia, accent [which] may sound like mumbled Mandarin without the tonal shifts”.  What has been unique about the Philly sound was that it represented a mash-up of Northern and Southern accents: “Nowhere but in the Delaware Valley can you hear those rounded vowels — soda is sewda, house is hay-ouse — a clear influence from Baltimore and points south.”

Some examples of Philly talk from the article:

Jeet? D’jou wanna get a sawff pressle?  [Did you eat? Do you want to get a soft pretzel?]
Dry da wooder awf wit a tail.   [Dry the water off with a towel.]
’Lannic City’s too torsty anymore.  [
Atlantic City is too touristy these days.]

To hear the accent, check out the series of YouTube videos by Sean Monahan. Unfortunately, according to a recent study by linguists at the University of Pennsylvania, the accent is changing and moving towards greater similarity to other Northern accents.

Speaking of regional accents, a survey was conducted by cupid.com to determine the “sexist” North American accent.  The winner?  Southern.  The least sexy? “Mid-Atlantic” – does that mean Philly? On the other hand, the Philly Cheesesteak continues to find lots of admirers.

Selfie Society?

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

The word of the year for 2013:  selfie, according to Oxford Dictionaries, as well as linguist Geoff Nunberg, speaking today on NPR. Selfie (i.e., self-portrait) describes a picture taken of oneself with a phone camera. The word has been in the news recently in connection with the picture Danish prime minister took of herself together with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron.  The picture excited comment due to the fact that it was taken during the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela, maybe also for the disapproving expression from Michele Obama. The term — and the practice it describes — have been seen as symptomatic of what ails modern society, from the cutesification of English to an obsession with sharing everything one does. It does seem to point to something that a wildly popular mobile app such as Snapchat can exist principally to enable sharing of selfies. A columnist in the New York Post pointed to the narcissism inherent in the practice and commented that the picture taken by the Danish prime minister “symbolizes the global calamity of Western decline.”  It’s not just in the U.S. that such concerns have been raised, as evident in the Telegraph’s (U.K.) article, Family albums fade as the young put only themselves in picture.

On NPR today there was another story that struck me in terms of language use.  It was in a story describing the high cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay area.  The reporter struggled to find a way to describe the housing arrangement of a group of unrelated young people living together in a large house.  He suggested the term “commune” but it was rejected as too heavily burdened with free love associations from the 1960’s.  The inhabitants of the house use the term “co-living” to describe their arrangement.  I found the difficulty finding a term interesting because of how easily and conventionally such arrangements are described in German-speaking countries: Wohngemeinschaft (living community), often shortened to WG.  This is not only a word widely used, but so too is the practice of doing what NPR thought was newsworthy in the Bay area, unrelated young people living together. Americans tend to think of houses as single family dwellings, which is far from how they are viewed in most of the rest of the world.

Not the nanny!

lam-bright-family-photoThe latest installment of the NPR “Code-Switch” series had an interesting segment on multi-racial families in the U.S this week.  Such families have become much more common, with 15 % of marriages being interracial or inter-ethnic, but that doesn’t means they are universally accepted. The story highlights the experiences of a couple with an African-American father, a Vietnamese mother, and two children.  The mom recounts that when she her daughter to a local park, she was ignored by the other moms or was asked if she were the nanny and if it was ok with the family that she spoke Vietnamese to her charge.  The encounters inspired the mom, Thien Kim Lam, to create a blog called I’m not the nanny. The article points out that more and more interracial families are touting their mixed heritage as a positive thing. Surveys in the U.S. show that that over 2/3 of Americans would accept multiracial marriages in their families.

It’s not always easy for the children in biracial families.  Thien Kim Lam recalls that when her daughter was 2, she threw a tantrum because her skin wasn’t fair like her mom’s and her hair was curly. The take-away for the mom was that it’s a good idea to talk about race and to make them aware of their special status: “Teaching them their Vietnamese culture, but then I also reiterate that they’re American. That’s what makes them American; that they have this great mix of cultures.”