From left, Chinese-American Olympians Gu, Zhu, Chen
Interesting reactions in both the US and in China to Olympic athletes who grew up in the US but whose families have roots in China. These individuals are often referred to as ABC’s: American-Born Chinese. As is true with immigrant groups in the US generally, Chinese-American families are diverse, from first generation families speaking mostly Chinese at home to long established families in the US, assimilated in many ways, to many stages in between. Yet, when ABC’s go to China, those distinctions are often not recognized or acknowledged. If you look Chinese, the expectation is frequently that you should not only be familiar with Chinese culture and customs (food for example), but also that you are able to speak Mandarin.
The expectations from the Chinese is the same for those athletes as for any ABC’s. So there has been severe criticism for those who don’t speak fluent Chinese, including Nathaniel Chen, who won gold in figure skating. The harshest criticism however, has been leveled at figure skater Zhu Yi, who gave up her American citizenship to represent China (and changed her name from Beverly Zhu). The attacks were in part a result of her poor performance at the Games, but also reflected her less than perfect Mandarin language skills. On the opposite end of the spectrum is San Francisco native and freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who also chose to compete for China (she is known as Gu Ailing in China). When she won gold last week, the congratulations pouring in temporarily crashed China’s leading social media platform, Weibo. Gu speaks Chinese fluently (reportedly with a Beijing accent) and also is well known as a fashion model and Internet influencer.
My experience in China is that if are foreign and don’t look Chinese, but speak some Chinese, even if poorly, you will be received very favorably. That’s been the case for me as a white American. If you speak Chinese fluently, as does my oldest son, Chinese people will be amazed and effusive in their praise. There is zero expectation that foreign tourists learn the language that popular opinion among Chinese themselves consider to be very difficult. However, if you look Chinese, the expectations are totally different.
Ukrainians preparing to defend their country against a Russian invasion
Much concern has been expressed recently about the rise of nationalism in a variety of countries, fueled by adverse economic conditions, religious intolerance, populist politicians, and/or xenophobia. While fervent nationalism can lead to tribalism and a rejection of others, some forms of nationalism and patriotism can have positive effects, including pride, solidarity, and a sense of group bonding. With the winter Olympics starting up soon, we are likely to see patriotism tied to sports, a mostly benign phenomenon.
More recently, strong feelings of patriotism and shared group identity have arisen in two countries under threat from hegemonic big brothers, namely Ukraine and Taiwan. President Putin of Russia has asserted that Ukraine is historically and culturally part of Russia and that indeed Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. In fact, many Ukrainians, especially in the east, continue to speak Russian (rather than Ukrainian) as their preferred first language, long after the break-up of the Soviet Union. But the impending threat of invasion from Russia has led to a change of feelings about language and identity, including in Eastern Ukraine, as outlined in a recent piece in the Washington Post, “Border city pro-Russia no more”. The conflict with Russia has strengthened the pro-West movement already evident in Ukraine and in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Ironically, Putin’s effort to increase Russia’s influence in Ukraine have led instead to the opposite, to a growing distrust and a feeling of increasing separation from its historical partner.
Similarly, President Xi of China, has asserted often that Taiwan is a part of China, and that the people from mainland China and the island of Taiwan are the same, all Chinese. In fact, Mandarin is the main language in both places, although Taiwan uses traditional characters in writing while the mainland uses simplified characters. More and more recently the rumblings about Taiwan from Beijing are increasingly bellicose. This week the Chinese Ambassador to the US warned of “military conflict” over US support of Taiwan’s independence. Rather than convincing the Taiwanese that they should join the People’s Republic, the hardline stance from the Chinese government has led to a greater sense of a separate Taiwanese identity. That is discussed in a recent piece in the New York Times, “‘We Are Taiwanese’: China’s Growing Menace Hardens Island’s Identity”. The article points out that traditionally the ties to mainland China are strong:
Well over 90 percent of Taiwan’s people trace their roots to mainland China, but more than ever, they are embracing an identity that is distinct from that of their Communist-ruled neighbor. Beijing’s strident authoritarianism — and its claim over Taiwan — has only solidified the island’s identity.
According to the NY Times, more than 60% of the people surveyed identity themselves as solely Taiwanese, way up from the last survey in 1992. Only 2% identified themselves as “Chinese”.
It’s difficult to foretell what will happen as Ukraine and Taiwan strive to maintain their independence and develop a stronger sense of national identity. The people of Hong Kong also had a sense of separateness from China but were not able to maintain their semi-independent status in the face of Beijing’s economic, political, and military power. The reasons for the big countries seeking absorption of their smaller neighbors differ, but one motive seems clear: the functioning democratic states of Ukraine and Taiwan, providing a variety of freedoms to their citizens, are governance models that the authoritarian leaders in Moscow and in Beijing do not want their own people to have close by.
Former German Families Minister Giffey, accused of plagiarism, and forced to resign
In the US, there continue to be many citizens who cling to the “Big Lie”, the claim by former President Trump, and other Republicans, that Trump actually won the 2020 election. This follows the record number of exaggerations and outright falsehoods emanating from the Trump White House. Many have simply shrugged off the constant string of lies and misleading claims. This is clearly a dangerous trend in terms of maintaining a healthy democracy. In fact, today, Memorial Day in the US, President Biden said that “democracy is in real peril,” both in the US and elsewhere. Meanwhile, former National Security Advisor of the United States, Michael Flynn, suggested that the military putsch in Mayanmar could be a model for what should occur in the US.
Added to that development has been the proliferation in the claims of “false news” when journalists published articles in any way critical of the Trump administration. That, along with the echo chamber created in social media, has resulted in widespread suspicion of mainstream media. That has led to projects such as the News Literacy Project, which aims to build an informed citizenry through “programs and resources for educators and the public to teach, learn and share the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy”.
Turning to Germany, a federal minister, Franziska Giffey, family minister has had to resign her position. Why? She has been accused of plagiarizing in writing her Ph.D. dissertation. In fact, she is the third federal minister in the recent past to have resigned for the same reason. Cheating and lying are seen as incompatible with holding public office in Germany. It’s remarkable, in terms of comparison with the US, how many German politicans have earned high academic degrees. Angela Merkel herself has a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry. It is not likely that Frau Giffey intended to plagiarize, but rather was likely sloppy in her note-taking and did not distinguish sufficiently between her own notes and citations from sources. That in itself is likely in Germany to be seen negatively, as an indicator of Unordnung, a failure to keep order and good organization in her research.
Of course, in the case of Frau Giffey, we are far far from the Big Lie (and the many smaller lies), which did not prove to be sufficient for a US President to be considered unfit for office. At least he didn’t plagiarize. Or has he?
With apologies to the Doobie Brothers for the title (dates me badly, I know), there has been considerable press lately, in Germany itself, and elsewhere about the intriguing turn-around in the country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days, Germany’s success fighting the disease and persuading Germans to follow mitigation measures was hailed widely, especially when compared to the lackluster and ineffective efforts in the US. The explanation frequently given: Germans’ reputed respect for authority and obedience to rules. Chancellor Merkel was given credit for clarity and consistency of messaging, with her science background considered a major plus. The German government was seen as acting with the Gründlichkeit often seen as characteristic of Germans, i.e., thoroughness/rigor and a need to understand and consider all aspects of an issue.
But now, as a headline in the Guardian recently put it, that positive trait seems to be a liability: “Heroes to zeros: how German perfectionism wrecked its Covid vaccine drive. The same thoroughness that made Angela Merkel’s government a pandemic role model is now holding it back.” Gründlichkeit brings with it the need to know the truth, to get to the bottom of things, before making decisions. That aligns with Merkel’s well-known penchant for caution and deliberation before acting. While the US went ahead and ordered millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines without knowing at the time whether any of those vaccines would actually work, Germany held back, wanting to see what the clinical trials would reveal. In fact, it wasn’t just Germany’s decision, but the joint decision of the European Union, of which Germany is a leading voice. The German authorities set up central vaccination sites with great organizational efficiency, only to discover that they went largely unused, because no vaccines were available. Now that vaccines are becoming available, the mixed messaging about the most widely available vaccine in Europe, AstraZeneca, has led many Germans to be wary. First that vaccine was for those under 65, then it was pulled entirely (fears over blood clots), then yesterday it was announced it would be available again, but this time for those over 65.
A substantial part of the problem in Germany is federalism, which, as in the US, has resulted in different Covid strategies in each German state, made more complicated by the fact that it is an election year and several state prime ministers are jockeying for position to replace Merkel. Meanwhile, Merkel issued this statement recently: “Wir wollen, dass die sprichwörtliche und im übrigen auch bewährte deutsche Gründlichkeit um mehr deutsche Flexibilität ergänzt wird” [We are going to supplement the proverbial and well-established German Gründlichkeit with more German flexibility.] Part of that newly-discovered “German flexibility” apparently will be something many have called for, namely allowing family doctors to administer the vaccine.
I am writing this from Brno, Czech Republic, where I have been attending a conference on intercultural communication. There are attendees from all over, but more from Asia than from Europe or North America. The theme of the conference is “East / West: New Divisions, New Connections and Populist Political Reality”. Many Western speakers (UK, USA, Europe) have highlighted (and bemoaned) the populist political atmosphere in many countries, which encourages suspicion of immigrants/foreigners and celebration of nationalist views. In the process, they often critique their national governments, especially the xenophobic rhetoric from Donald Trump’s White House. On the other hand, the Chinese colleagues (not those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau) have highlighted in their talks a Chinese government development which I have not connected with intercultural communication: the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The project involves Chinese companies working with local authorities on infrastructure projects. In the West, it has been controversial due to insensitivity to local cultural conditions and to debt-trap diplomacy.
Another controversial issue that arouse at the conference was the social responsibility of teachers, especially university professors, to speak out publicly about issues that might be viewed as political such as social justice or income inequality. Some colleagues pointed out that in some countries doing so might lead to those speaking out losing their jobs, or even going to jail. Others pointed out that just because of that fact, those of us in countries where it is (relatively) safe to speak out should do so. From that perspective, it may be that for those working in the area of intercultural communication might think about adding to the traditional components of intercultural competence, i.e. skills, knowledge, attitude, a fourth element: action. That would translate into encouraging students to take action to promote intercultural communication, which could involve political engagement, such as working to elect leaders who support tolerance and diversity. If we have that expectation for our students, that translates into teachers doing the same.
History is not an abstraction: past events shape our culture and our view of others. That’s why it’s so important to get history right. Made-up history can be as damaging as made-up science.
An episode from the NPR radio show On the Media, The worst thing we’ve ever done, that was broadcast this week (originally aired in June) seemed quite appropriate for this time of the end of the year, when we take stock of the past. It was an interesting comparison of how a shameful period in a nation’s history has been viewed by later generations. The contrast was between Germany and its Nazi period and the USA and slavery. The report pointed to how many public reminders there are in Germany of the Holocaust and how it is extensively present in education and in the public sphere generally. An interview with Peter Weissenburger, journalist for the Berlin taz was enlightening in that regard. He talked about how ubiquitous the presence of the Nazi past was for him growing up, in school and in the media. For him, German identity is defined by Nazi Germany, something that can never be “resolved” so that it belongs to the past: “There’s no point in which we can say, ‘ok, we’re done now.’ This is always going to be what happened.”
In contrast, the period of slavery and the following violence and discrimination against African-Americans is far less known in the US, or acknowledged as a problematic period in US history. According to the report, many US citizens believe that in fact slaves were treated well and are skeptical that lynchings took place (despite numerous photos and other documentation). Indeed, there are monuments to well-known slave holders and heroes of the Confederacy, which defended the institution of slavery. The report discusses initiatives to bring to the public’s attention the crimes and injustice associated with slavery and its aftermath. In Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, there are two monuments to that past, the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. As seen from the photos above, the massive hanging steel columns in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, each dedicated to a lynching in a particular US county, is impressive and haunting, similar to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. However, the project takes a step further, in an effort to bring home to local communities the reality of racist actions in the past. It is inviting communities where lynchings occurred to claim their histories in a tangible way:
The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not. (Monument’s web site).
The current embrace by some of “alternative facts” has led to the questioning of widely accepted scientific findings, in areas such as climate change and pollution. Pseudo-science is used to justify political views and further entrenched economic interests. History too can be retold, refused, or re-focused to accommodate political or ideological positions. The Nazis used pseudo-history to legitimize their power, presenting themselves as continuing ancient heroic Germanic traditions. Just as we need to learn from history, so as not to repeat it, we need to recognize how history and science can be distorted to support group interests.
As a further example of the growth in support for STEM fields in education (science, technology, engineering, math) in the US, and the concurrent drop in support for the humanities, the state legislature in my state of Virginia this year changed the requirements for the academic diploma from high school to enable computer science to substitute for foreign language study. This aligns with the perception that employment opportunities of the future will call for skills in coding, not in speaking another language. In the US, the trend in education emphasizing vocational training is often linked to the economic downturn following the 2008 financial collapse. The result has been a decade of gradual decline in enrollment in foreign language classes at high schools and universities. As a consequence, fewer US students are learning a second language (at least formally in school). This has unfortunate consequences both individually and society-wide. On a personal level, students lose the opportunity to develop a new identity, by experiencing the world through the different cultural lens that a second language provides. That has social ramifications, as monolinguals tend to cling to the one culture they know and tend therefore to be less receptive to other ways of life.
These thoughts were prompted through a recent piece by linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett, “Learning another language should be compulsory in every school“. Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts. He is best known for his work as a field linguist in the Amazon, learning Pirahã, which he described in the wonderful book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (2008). He’s also famous for his spat with the most famous linguist on earth, Noam Chomsky over the concept of universal grammar, aspects of which Everett found to be contradicted by characteristics of the Pirahã language.
In his essay, Everett, talks about his own language experiences, growing up in California, along the border with Mexico, learning Spanish so well that he joined a Mexican rock ’n’ roll band based in Tijuana:
Learning Spanish changed my life. It taught me more about English, it gave me friendships and connections and respect I never could have otherwise received. Just as learning Portuguese, Pirahã and smatterings of other Amazonian languages continued to transform me during my entire life. Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.
He describes the practical and potential employment advantages of knowing another language. Then he provides an example of how learning a language provides insight into how other cultures see the world:
Beyond the pragmatic benefits to learning languages are humanistic, cultural benefits. It is precisely because not all languages are the same that learning them can expand our understanding of the world. Every language has evolved in a specific geocultural niche, and thus has different ways of talking and codifying the world. But this is precisely why learning them is so beneficial. Take, for example:
John borrowed $10,000 from the bank of Mom and Dad to pay down his college loan.
The Pirahã language of the Amazon has no words for numbers or for borrow, dollars, bank, mom, dad, college or loan. So this sentence cannot be translated into Pirahã (it could be if their culture were to change and they learned about the modern economy). On the other hand, consider a common Pirahã phrase:
This phrase means ‘go upriver’ in Pirahã. Innocuous enough, until you realise that Pirahãs use this phrase instead of the less precise ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right’ (which depends on where the speaker and hearer are facing) – this is uttered from deep within the jungle or at the river’s edge – all Pirahãs carry a mental map of tens of thousands of acres of jungle in their heads, and thus know where all points of reference are, whether a river or a specific region of the jungle. They use absolute directions, not relative directions as, say, the average American does when he says ‘turn left’ (vs the absolute direction, ‘turn north’). So to use Pirahã phrases intelligibly requires learning about their local geography.
Everett points to the broadening horizons language learning brings with it:
Language-learning induces reflection both on how we ourselves think and communicate, and how others think. Thus it teaches culture implicitly. Languages should be at the very heart of our educational systems. Learning languages disables our easy and common habit of glossing over differences and failing to understand others and ourselves. You cannot achieve fluency in another language without learning its speakers’ perspectives on the world, and thereby enriching your own conceptual arsenal.
Everett ends with a reference to a video presentation of the method he uses in learning indigenous languages, while not having a common language. In the video, Everett uses Pirahã in eliciting language lessons from a woman speaking Hmong. After the demonstration, Everett describes some of the fascinating aspects of Pirahã, including the variety of communication forms including humming, whistle speech, musical speech, and yelling. Speech acts are radically different from Western norms, with no greeting or leave taking rituals. Men and women speaking Pirahã use different consonants.
The experience of speaking Pirahã involves a very different human experience than speaking English. This is true of all languages, ways of life are embedded deeply in how languages work. Learning to program computers is a highly valuable skill, especially in today’s world, but it shouldn’t substitute for the invaluable human experience of learning a second language.
A recent piece in the online magazine, Undark, Scientists Probe an Enduring Question: Can Language Shape Perception?, examines an interesting, new approach to the topic of linguistic relativity, i.e. the extent to which the language we speak influences how we see the world. It starts with a familiar topic within the scholarly debate around this question, namely whether the existence or absence of words for specific colors in a language affects speakers’ perception of colors. This was famously studied by Benjamin Whorf, the very same of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which first laid out this strong connection between language and culture. Whorf studied Native American languages and noted that Navaho speakers split black into two colors and lumped blue and green together into one, thus providing a slightly different color lens on the world than English. Later scholars had doubts, such as Berlin and Kay (1969), who argued that there are cross-linguistic regularities in the encoding of color such that a small number of basic color terms emerge in most languages and that these patterns stem ultimately from biology. This was put forward as evidence against the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Other researchers went further, labeling Whorf’s views as “vaporous mysticism” (Black, 1954),
In this piece in Undark, the example centers on the color blue, and the distinction between shades of blue made in Greek (and in other languages as well) with a separate word, ghalazio, for light blue (akin to goluboy in Russian) and ble for darker blue (siniy in Russian). Instead of the usual procedure in experiments of this kind, the researchers involved (at Bangor University) did not show the participant colors and ask them to name them. Instead, they attached electrodes to their scalps in order to track changes in electrical signals in the brain’s visual system as they looked at different colors. This allowed researchers to observe directly neural activity. In the experiment, native speakers of English and Greek were shown a series of circles or squares of different shades of blues and green. Electrical activity measured in the participants revealed that in the Greek speakers, the visual system responded differently to ghalazio and ble shapes, a change not seen in the English speakers. Thus, for the English speakers everything was “blue”, while the Greeks see the world in a more differentiated way, at least in references to things bluish.
The research team decided to replicate the experiment, this time with shapes:
The Spanish word taza encompasses both cups and mugs, whereas English distinguishes between the two. When Spanish and English speakers were presented with pictures of a cup, mug, or bowl, the difference between the cup and mug elicited greater electrical activity in the brains of English speakers than in Spanish speakers.
Such experiments from cognitive scientists seem likely to continue – and to continue the debate around linguistic relativity. They do seem to provide scientific evidence that our brains are wired by language, at least in some areas. It would be interesting to see experiments of related phenomena, such as the presence or absence of grammatical genders in languages. As Guy Deutscher described in the NY Times Magazine a few years ago, psychologists have compared associative characteristics of objects with different noun genders in different languages (such as the feminine word for bridge in German, die Brücke with the masculine el puente in Spanish):
When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.
Another area of interest would be time perception, as discussed in a recent article in Popular Science, “The language you speak changes your perception of time”:
Different languages frame time differently. Swedish and English speakers, for example, tend to think of time in terms of distance—what a long day, we say. Time becomes an expanse one has to traverse. Spanish and Greek speakers, on the other hand, tend to think of time in terms of volume—what a full day, they exclaim. Time becomes a container to be filled.
The article cites a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, in which Spanish and Swedish speakers were asked to estimate time based in either distance (how long a line took to grow) or volume (how long it took for a container to fill). The results showed that there were indeed clear differences in the two groups in how they measured time in terms of length or volume, in other words, that the language they spoke affected how they estimated the relative passage of time. The original article, not surprisingly, is full of cautions and caveats. That is likely to be the case in such studies and provides a rationale for cognitive scientists to continue their efforts to measure brain activity related to language and culture.
Today Olympic gold medal winner Ryan Lochte lost the major endorsement deals he had with a variety of companies. This comes in the wake of his behavior in Rio after a night of celebratory drinking. He claimed that he and other US swimmers out with him had been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station by what seemed to be Brazilian police officers. It turns out the reality was quite different, namely that the group had trashed a restroom at the station and had been confronted to pay for the damages. Lochte apparently thought his story would be believed, given perceptions of rampant crime and corruption in Rio, and the fact that the claim was coming from a celebrated athlete from the US. Brazilians were understandably upset by the incident, viewing it as playing on negative stereotypes of Brazilians versus the assumed honesty of white Americans. In the US, too, Lochte has been seen as a classic example of “ugly American” behavior, US citizens acting in dramatically insensitive ways when abroad. On the other hand, Breitbart has defended Lochte against this view.
The Lochte story struck me in particular tonight, as, on the evening news, it was followed by a story on the “White Helmets”, volunteers in Syria who risk their lives to go out in Syrian cities after bombing strikes to dig through the rubble to rescue survivors. They do this dangerous work with no expectations of reward or recognition. Heroic Syrians versus ugly Americans? This is the group that rescued 5-year old Omran Daqneesh, the boy who was pulled bloodied and stunned from the ruins of Aleppo and has become a symbol of the violence in Syria. It makes you not feel too bad for Lochte losing all his sponsorship money.
There are many ramifications of the vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union. Most of the attention has gone to the possible economic consequences through the UK’s loss of access to the EU single market. Of course, it’s likely that special trade deals between the UK and the EU will be negotiated, possibly along the lines of existing relationships between the EU and Switzerland or other non-EU countries like Norway, but the uncertainty over how and when that will be worked out has worried markets and companies doing business in the UK. Uncertainty exists as well in respect to the status of foreigners currently in the EU. No longer being an EU member brings to an end not only the free movement of goods but also that of people. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has a record of have a tough stance on immigration. There are already some indications that anti-immigrant attitudes are now being more publically expressed, as the Brexit vote seems to signal that such views are now mainstream in the UK, and therefore able to be voiced openly. It remains to be seen whether such voiced sentiments will result in violence against foreigners.
There has been less media attention paid to the cultural and educational consequences of Brexit. One concern for universities is the likelihood that UK scholars and students will no longer be able to participate in EU programs and projects, at least not with the same full access as EU member states. Much of the research done in recent years in an area I am interested in, educational technology, has been driven by funding from EU grant programs. In fact, in my experience with EU colleagues, it has been difficult to get them on board with any kind of teaching or research project that did not involve EU funding. Being out of the EU is likely to mean UK scholars will be as much on the outside as those from the US. The situation for students is similar, with the potential exclusion from the widely popular Erasmus exchange program, which has made it easy for students from EU countries to spend a semester or more at a university in another EU country, with full credit towards their degrees. There are numerous other EU arts and culture programs as well.
The Brexit vote is symptomatic of a worrying trend towards nationalism, accompanied frequently by xenophopia, a distrust of globalization, and a feeling that one’s own culture must be defended from all outside influences. This is by no means limited to the UK. We’ve seen similar sentiments expressed in the US presidential campaign as well as in political developments in Western Europe and elsewhere. Excluding other cultures from enriching a national culture is a sign that that culture is likely to be stagnant and in decline. As a visitor to the UK, I would much regret the absence of Indian influences on British food culture – it would be sad indeed to have to rely only on fish and chips and shepherd pie.
Coming to India to teach intercultural communication seems like taking coals to Newcastle – seems odd for an American, coming from a foreign language phobic land, to be telling multilingual Indians how to get along with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, one of the main themes in the course was the Western controlling influence over the traditional narratives around intercultural communication, with individualism (identified with the West) being seen positively – enabling creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurism – in contrast to the groupthink, passivity, and rigidity of collectivistic cultures. The course was live-streamed on YouTube, then archived: Intercultural Communication in Global Virtual Environments.
My colleague here at the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) has mentioned that in her classes she typically has students representing a number of Indian states and a variety of Indian languages. English is the language of instruction, but it isn’t anyone’s first language. During breaks from the classes during the course, I heard a lot of code-switching among the participants. There was one student from Nigeria in the class – it was interesting to compare the different effects of British colonialism in both countries. Nigeria has a similar multilingual make-up; the student indicated that he regularly used four different language at home, the main ones being English and Housa, plus two local languages.
I learned some history of the Institute here that I hadn’t known, namely that it was the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, housing those fighting for independence in the 1930’s. This is now the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology. The site was used as a British Royal Air Force airstrip and later as a US Air Force base. In fact, I was told yesterday that the Enola Gay refueled here on its way to drop its atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
I am heading back to the US tomorrow. I will miss being here, and especially the contact with the students, but will not miss the weather. It was 110° F when I came and has been hotter than that some days; for Thursday the forecast says 117°.
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.
There are a number of contentious issues in the conflict between Greece and the European Union over the country’s economic situation. What we hear about in the media are disagreements related to taxes and pensions. The popular perception outside of Greece, and particularly in Germany, is that the Greeks have not been good shepherds of their resources; they retire early with fat pensions and do not pay the taxes they owe. It turns out that those views are outdated; there have been major reforms of the pension system and crackdowns on tax evaders (see the story in this week’s On the Media about that). But popular perceptions are slow to change, especially when there are compelling and long-established stereotypes at work: Germans are industrious; Greeks (and southern Europeans) are lazy. However, there are indeed some striking cultural distinctions of interest.
One of the aspects of the Greek crisis that I’ve been following with interest are the conflicts that have arisen that have nothing to do with money. A few weeks ago, when the Greek prime minister and other officials were in Brussels to continue negotiations, German TV news conducted an interview with Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. Schäuble said he didn’t think the Greeks were serious about finding a solution to the crisis. Why? Not because their proposals were deficient, but because the Greek delegation wasn’t showing up on time for meetings. He gave specifics. He also commented on the fact that at the time of the interview, in the morning, the Greeks were having a leisurely breakfast, rather than showing up for meetings. For Schäuble, if you are serious about getting work done, the first requirement is that you be on time. The Greek perspective is different, seeing deadlines as less important. When Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras pulled out of negotiations and announced the referendum that was held last Sunday, he was asked about the problem of missing the June 30 deadline for Greek to pay back 1.6 billion euros. His response: he couldn’t imagine that it would be a problem if there were a delay of a few days while a deal was worked out. Yesterday, the EU officials were flabbergasted that the Greeks did not show up for the meetings of finance ministers with a new proposal. Prime Minister Tsiparas had promised to deliver a new plan within 48 hours, if the Greeks voted “no” in the referendum. The Greeks responded yesterday that they were working on it.
For individuals used to a “monochronic” time orientation (doing one thing at a time; keeping to deadlines), like Schäuble, it was inconceivable that agreed-on time commitments were not kept. For those with a “polychronic” time orientation, time is not seen as segmented, but fluid, and other priorities may have precedence. From the Greek perspective, the Germans were being unnecessarily rigid and unreasonable. The problem here is not really related to being on time, but on establishing and maintaining a cooperative attitude that could lead to a successful negotiation. The Germans, not taking into consideration the different time orientation of the Greeks, interpreted their behavior as one more signal that the Greeks were not serious negotiation partners. The Greeks didn’t help by not being aware of and taking into consideration the German imperative for punctuality. It’s not just the Germans who have this perspective; the Lithuanian prime minister said today that for the Greeks “everything is always mañana“, thus taking a swipe at several different cultures.
This was not the only cultural conflict. Schäuble offered a dramatic contrast in style and tone to the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who announced his resignation yesterday. Schäuble is tight-lipped and serious, being cautious in his pronouncements. Varoufakis, in contrast, is free with his opinions and has not hid his disdain for some EU and German officials. Schäuble wears dark suits with conservative ties; Varoufakis goes for leather jackets. The Greek prime minister also does not wear ties. The German convention is that if you are doing serious business, you dress the part. Of course, the contrast between the two finance ministers is also a case of different personalities, as well as a generational divide. But it remains that if the German and Greeks are far apart on economic issues, they are as well in terms of some social norms and practices.
Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)
There’s an interesting new series on NPR called Invisibilia which “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions”. A recent show dealt with categories, with an interesting story about someone who alternates between male and female personas and has as a consequence a much harder time than transgender individuals, who at least can be put into a category. The story that I found particularly interesting was about a retirement community in Florida – nothing unusual about that, but in this case it is dedicated to individuals from India, or their descendants. The community is set up to make retirees feel like they are back in India, with not just Indian food and Bollywood movies, but houses arranged to imitate an Indian village with low houses and a big courtyard. The big attraction, however, is the opportunity to be with other Indians. The concept proved to be very successful, with the condos selling out quickly. The fact that it is a gated community may raise concerns about excluding others, but the organizers insist anyone is welcome, it’s just that non-Indians were not interested. One of the retirees expressed in the piece how comfortable she felt in the Indian environment created in the community, with the comment that “it can be exhausting to live in a culture as an outsider”. In the retirement community, she was no longer a member of a minority group. One of the commenters on the story put it well:
I can definitely sympathize with the people in the news story. Their culture is even more dissimilar and there’s only so much that a first generation immigrant can adapt. It’s no surprise that the elderly would seek to remove some of that stress from their lives. And it’s the simple things that make the difference. The neighborhood will serve authentic Indian food, and you don’t have to drive miles to the nearest art-house theater to watch the new Bollywood movies. Furthermore, I do believe that there is a great deal of difference between individual racism and institutional racism. A white person might experience isolated incidents regarding racism, but racism pervades every aspect of life for a minority.
One of the points made in the story was that as we grow older, we tend to want to be with others like us in fundamental (cultural) ways:
According to Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, if you raise the specter of death in a person’s mind, Christians like Christians better; Italians like Italians better. Even Germans, who are usually pretty lukewarm about other Germans, if you get them to contemplate their own mortality, suddenly they really like Germans. “If you interview Germans near a funeral home, they’re much more nationalistic,” Greenberg says. And the reverse is also true: We like people outside our group much, much less. “People become more negative toward other cultures,” Greenberg says. “Because death haunts us as it does, we have to do something about it.”
According to Greenberg, being around people not like you makes you in some sense feel invisible, and that’s a feeling that increases significantly towards the end of life. Being with others like you, particularly late in life, gives you the impression of being significant. I have to say that this has not been my experience personally in growing older and facing retirement. I find myself thinking more and more about the attractions of living abroad (Ireland!).
Yesterday President Obama, in the context of a joint press appearance with David Cameron, talked about ways to fight the rise of extreme Islamists who carry out the kinds of attacks experienced last week in Paris. He pointed to the importance of the Muslim population integrating into U.S. society:
There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength. Now, it doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to the kinds of tragedies that we saw at the Boston Marathon. But that, I think, has been helpful. There are parts of Europe in which that’s not the case.
Providing all residents – citizens and immigrants – the same opportunities for education, employment, and free exercise of their chosen religion is clearly one way to lessen the likelihood of frustration, hopelessness, and anger, feelings which provide a fertile ground for the growth of extremist views. This does not equate with immigrant or minority groups giving up their cultures (including language) and becoming indistinguishable from the majority culture. When groups such as “Pegida” in Germany (“Patriotic Europeans against the islamification of the West”) rail against the threat to Judeo-Christian culture represented by Islamic immigrants, what they are advocating for is religious intolerance, just what fuels the flames of extremist elements.
It’s not just in the West that lived experiences lead to the growth of extremism. In her new book on Afghanistan, Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes describes how the wide-spread practice of bribes and graft create strong feelings of injustice, powerlessness and rage, leading to the embrace of violent means to create a new social order. In an interview on NPR, she cited a number of examples of the humiliation Afghans experience through being extorted for bribes for all kinds of daily interactions (such as using the post office) and how contemptuously people are often treated by officials. This has understandable consequences:
It infuriates people. So first of all, you get people who are indignant and personally humiliated in a country like Afghanistan and a significant number of them, especially of males, are going to get violent. So if you have a violent movement that’s around and looking to recruit people, there’s a likelihood that they are going to really find people who have had an interaction like this or – or five of them or 10 of them – that are ready to get some revenge.
We’ve tried war, nation-building, and demonizing Islam as ways to fight terrorism – none has worked. The common sense – and just – approach is to provide opportunities for individuals and families to build their lives in an open and tolerant society. This is as true in Muslim countries as it is in the West.