Face masks vs. MAGA hats

Anti-mask sign in Illinois store

One might expect that in a pandemic, a public consensus would arise on how people should protect themselves and others from catching the disease. However, in the US, the spread of COVID-19 has led to very different behaviors, that are divided along political lines. That is translating currently into different camps regarding the need to wear face masks in public. Rather than considering the practical health benefits, some refuse to wear a mask as a signal of solidarity with President Trump and his call for the country to open back up. This has turned into a face mask becoming a partisan symbol, as described in US News:

While not yet as loaded as a “Make America Great Again” hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown.

That resistance to masks has been stoked by President Trump. Rather than wearing a mask to model desired behavior among the public, he didn’t wear a mask during an appearance at a facility making them. Vice President did the same when visiting the Mayo Clinic.

Vice President Pence without a mask

Wearing a mask, on the other hand, can be seen as an endorsement of the advice of medical personnel and public health officials, namely that wearing a mask protects oneself as well as those around us. In that way it is also signaling social solidarity. Not wearing a mask might be seen as a sign of selfishness – or, from others’ perspective, as an assertion of individual freedom.

In the US, this is a radical change from popular opinion on mask-wearing before the pandemic. While wearing a face mask has long been common practice in many East Asian countries, that has not been the case in the US. Indeed, wearing a mask was often seen negatively; as reported in National Geographic, “masks signaled ‘disease,’ as if the wearer had something to hide”. Not being able to see someone’s face automatically made them suspicious. We are used to reading faces as a way to evaluate others’ actions, attitudes or intentions, so not being able to see facial expressions can be disturbing in a culture not used to seeing face masks. The article points out that people may use other non-verbal cues to make up for the absence of facial expressions, such as excessive, energetic waving or extra-explicit friendly language. It may be that as more US Americans don masks, behaviors will adjust. For now, however, there remains a strongly political symbolism to face masks.

Social distancing: Cultural perspectives

Human beings are social animals. That makes social distancing very difficult, the practice of keeping ones distance from others in order to slow the spread of disease, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. Each one of us is of course different in terms of sociability but it’s likely that almost everyone needs some degree of regular social contact. That can come through being together person-to-person individually or in groups with friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, club members, etc. Often language will play a major role in our connections with others, in that one of its major functions is to negotiate social relations. Non-verbal communication too plays an important role in relating to others. With the arrival of COVID-19 pandemic, we still have language (more and more mediated electronically) but we have largely lost personal contact, while non-verbal behaviors have changed significantly.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the aftermath of the pandemic, whether social conventions, work arrangements, and educational delivery systems will experience long-term changes, i.e. more folks working remotely, increased use of online learning, and shifts in behaviors involving such phenomena as greetings and physical interactions. Will social distancing become engrained behavior, by default keeping our personal distance from others greater than has been the social norm in the past? Will we no longer go into automatic handshaking mode in particular situations, such as meeting someone new? If the pandemic were short-term, or likely to be a once in a lifetime event, one would not expect such changes, but neither seems to be the case. Instead of weeks, the pandemic looks like it will play out for months, maybe longer, and may be with us as a recurring event. Nor is it likely the last coronavirus we will see.

One might suspect that cultures labeled “collectivistic” would have a harder time with social distancing, given communal orientations. However, cultures generally associated with that label, namely China and South Korea, have been quite successful in fighting the virus. Keeping to cultural stereotypes, one might argue that, in fact, the willingness of individuals to forego direct social contact is in line with expectations, in that they are sacrificing in the name of the greater social good, namely slowing the spread of the virus. A recent piece in the Atlantic magazine discusses the cultural difficulties many Americans have in adjusting to social distancing. The argument is that “America’s individualistic framework is deeply unsuited to coping with an infectious pandemic”. The author, Meghan O’Rourke, asserts that the North American cultural frame of self-reliance makes it more difficult for individuals to consider the common good. Similarly, the cultural theme of individual freedom of action runs counter to the need for the restriction of movement through self-quarantining. She points out that the mania for individual responsibility has resulted in the US in a lack of universal health-care system and a weak social safety net, situations which are likely to make it more difficult to deal with the pandemic and its economic aftermath. She finds it unlikely, that the pandemic will bring a change “from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos”.

One should always approach broad-brush cultural characterizations with caution. That’s called for here, as the US is culturally very diverse, with significant regional, ethnic, and socio-economic differences, despite the undoubted presence historically of the themes of freedom and individualism in the US. It may be that the pandemic will bring about different mindsets and behaviors. It seems clear at this point that not everyone will weather the storm under the same conditions. While in some professions, work at home is doable, that’s not the case for many jobs, typically low-wage work. In an opinion piece for CNN, a group of sociologists from UCLA discuss the need to offer help to those in that position:

We must be particularly supportive of those among us who are vulnerable to contagion — unable to “physically distance”– precisely because of the work they do. This includes not only health care workers but also service and delivery workers, domestic and home care workers, cashiers, sanitation workers, janitors, store clerks, farm workers, and food servers who quietly but vitally sustain our collective lifestyles, even in a pandemic.

These are jobs for which the workers cannot afford to be absent from work, cannot work remotely, and often do not have health insurance. In parts of the US, those workers are likely to be immigrants, already suffering from discrimination and unequal treatment. The authors urge that instead of using the term “social distancing” we refer to “physical distancing” to encourage the practice of maintaining physical spacing, but not being distant socially. That involves practicing solidarity with those suffering more from the pandemic, as well as using technology to maintain social connections. In the process, they write, “Just as physical distancing can give us a fighting chance of combating this virus, finding creative and socially responsible ways to connect in crisis can have positive and long-lasting effects on our communities.” So long-term changes may be on the horizon; we’ll see.

Treetop Barbie: Ecological girl power?

Treetop Barbie working

Barbie was launched in 1959 by the US Mattel toy company and over the years the doll has accumulated a boyfriend (Ken) and many accessories. Barbie dolls have been a controversial figure, as an embodied example of the media-propagated version of the ideal female figure, tall, blonde and white, with an exaggeratedly thin waist and disproportionally large breasts. This led to what has been termed “Barbie syndrome” among pre-teen and teenage girls, namely the desire to have Barbie’s “unattainable body proportions” (Lind, 2008), leading in some cases to eating disorders such as anorexia or even plastic surgery. Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, the “living Barbie doll,” is an example of such fetishism.

The Barbie doll series has also been criticized for its lack of diversity and stereotyping of women as “dumb blondes”. Over the years, Mattel has responded to such criticism with the introduction of black and Hispanic dolls, as well as Barbies engaged in a variety of professions. On the other hand, in 2014 Mattel published Barbie: I can be a computer engineer. As I reported at the time in a blog post:

 In the opening pages we see Barbie working on developing a game: “I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”

That sounds great, but when Barbie’s sister asks to play the game, here is Barbie’s response: “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

That’s right, Barbie of course can’t actually write the code – she needs boys to do that. As a blog post from Pamela Ribon details, things get worse from there. It turns out that Barbie has infected her own and her sister’s computers with a computer virus and that she has little clue what to do, or other basics of how to work with computers.

So is Treetop Barbie in a similar mode? The idea is that Barbie is an engaged ecologist, working as a forest canopy researcher, just like her creator, Nalini Nadkarni. Nadkarni is a biology professor at the University of Utah and is well-known for her work unraveling the secrets of rain forest ecologies by climbing trees and investigating the nature of “canopy soils” (a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches) and “aerial roots” (above-ground roots growing from branches and trunks). In working in the field, Nadkarni saw few other women. To encourage girls to consider ecology as a profession, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of Treetop Barbie. Mattel was not interested in the concept, so Nadkarni carried out the project on her own, buying used Barbies, dressing/equipping them as canopy researchers, and selling them at cost. After the project started to attract attention (New York Times), Mattel tried to shut her down over brand infringement, but eventually relented, and, given the publicity and marketing benefits, decided to partner with National Geographic to roll out this year a a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science, with Nadkarni as an advisor.

Nadkarni realizes that using Barbies is controversial, as she admitted in a recent NPR interview:

My sense is yes she’s a plastic doll. Yes she’s configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped. But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber… It’s never perfect. But I think it’s a step forward.

Nalini Nadkarni at work

Interestingly, Nadkarni herself is far from being a Barbie type. Her skin and hair are brown, her father is from India. From videos of her working in the rain forest, it is clear she is rugged, daring, and independent, not characteristics one associates with the doll. The initial idea of Treetop Barbie was made in fun, but then she and her colleagues decided it could be an effective way to get young girls thinking that being a scientist or researcher might be a doable future career. The transition from appearance-obsessed glamor girl to working ecologist is laid out in an “interview” with Treetop Barbie published in the Seattle Times. Nadkarni gives voice to the doll and mentions the importance of tying back your hair when climbing trees, including her habit of using a “very attractive red bow”. After all, Treetop Barbie/Nadkarni remarks, “There’s no reason why scientists have to look messy or unattractive.”

Lind, Amy (2008). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Gestures: Context is everything

A recent media account discusses the addition of a number of hate symbols to the Anti-Defamation League’s database, “Hate on Display” . Those include images and logos used by white supremacist groups, such as the  Rise Above Movement from Southern California or the recently-formed American Identity Movement. The surprising addition to the list, however, was a commonly used hand gesture, the “ok” sign, forming a circle by connecting the index finger to the thumb, with the other fingers spread out. In some communities, especially online, that gesture has become associated with white supremacy and the far right (outstretched fingers as “W”, the circle and hand as “P”, for “White Power”). That apparently had its origin in a prank by users of the 4chan website in 2017, then consolidated by the use of the gesture by the Christchurch, NZ shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in March.

That certainly does not mean that anyone using the gesture is a white supremacist.  The usage and cultural context will determine both intent of the user and the message received. In the US in most contexts, the gesture will likely continue to be understood as “that’s fine” or “a-ok”. However, in other countries that gesture has had different meanings. In Germany, for example, the gesture has a vulgar meaning (representing the human anus) traditionally equating to “you’re an asshole”. In Japan and other cultures, the gesture is used to symbolize money (i.e. representing a coin), or to ask for a bribe. In France, the symbol has been interpreted as zero, thus transmitting the meaning as worthless. In some Arab cultures, it represents the evil eye, therefore used as a curse. Complicating those meanings, however, is the wide influence of US culture through popular media, so that in some cases, especially among younger people, the gesture may be used in accordance with US mainstream culture. That phenomenon has been seen in the spread of other gestures as well, such as the middle finger as an insult gesture. How the gesture is intended will likely be signaled through other indicators, such as facial expressions or body language.

Another interesting hate symbol added to the ADL’s list is a hair cut: the “bowlcut“, a style that looks like a bowl was used in cutting someone’s hair, as in the early Beatles’ look. In this case, however, the reference is to another white supremacist, Dylann Roof, responsible for the attack at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Other white supremacists have referenced Roof’s haircut by using screen names that incorporate the world “bowl” or use the word in catch phrases. According to the ADL,

Roof promoters also create and share Roof-related memes across the Internet, including depictions of Roof as a saintly figure with a halo around his head.  Even more common are memes featuring Roof’s bowl haircut, either by itself or digitally affixed to other people’s heads. In one shared image, Roof’s haircut has been superimposed on a shield designed to resemble the divisional insignia of Waffen SS military units of Nazi Germany.

Other hair styles have been associated with white supremacy as well, namely mohawks and especially shaved heads, known as skinheads. That shows the importance for members of groups (especially traditionally outlier groups) to show group adherence through explicit symbols, dress, or other aspects of personal appearance.

Inappropriate arrogance?

Megan Rapinoe celebrating

Alex Morgan celebrating

The US Women’s National Team won the FIFA World Cup in soccer (football). They have had a very successful tournament, not having lost a single game. But they have been controversial as well. That started even before the tournament started, as the team sued the US Soccer Federation over a significant discrepancy in pay (and in other areas) between the men’s and women’s national squads. The controversy continued after the US team beat Thailand in their opening game 13 to 0, being accused of bad sportsmanship for running up the score and for overly enthusiastic goal celebrations. There have also been comments off the field that have been in the news, particularly star Megan Rabinoe’s emphatic statement of disinterest in visiting the White House, should the team win the World Cup.

It’s particularly the nonverbal behaviors around the goal celebrations that have aroused controversy. In part, the criticism is a natural result of the US being ranked number 1. On the other hand, there has been body language from the players’ celebrations that has been interpreted as arrogant and even culturally insensitive. That has been the case for Rapinoe’s power pose with outstretched arms and especially for Alex Morgan’s tea-drinking mockery. The latter came in the match against England, where tea time is an essential cultural practice. Such body language has been criticized for disrespect of opponents.

The US players have responded, especially comparing their behavior and public reaction to that of male players. Morgan commented,

I feel that there is some sort of double standard for females in sports, to feel like we have to be humble in our successes and have to celebrate, but not too much or in a limited fashion. You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is. And when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I am a little taken aback by the criticism.

As in other areas, there does indeed seem to be a revealing discrepancy when it comes to what’s acceptable in the behavior of men and women. It’s not just lower pay and lower respect, there is also a higher bar of expected appropriate nonverbal behavior among female athletes – all evidence of the power gulf between men and women resulting in gender discrimination. That extends well beyond the US.

Another undercurrent of criticism of US players celebrations derives from an interpretation of the player’s behavior as instantiations of US feelings of superiority and national arrogance. While that may frequently be on display when it comes to US behavior at home and abroad (maybe too loud and frequent U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A chants?), I think it’s misplaced in this case. There has been so much pressure on the US team due to their ranking and to the public attention to key players that I judge the celebrations as understandable outward manifestations of letting off steam.

Interesting that Ellen White, star of the English National Team herself used the tea-drinking gesture after scoring a goal in the 3rd place game against Sweden (which was later disallowed due to a hand ball). That was clearly a response to Alex Morgan, intended to signal English pride. BTW, in terms of exhibits of patriotism, the Dutch team offers a wonderful model. All dressed in national orange color and vocally very supportive of their team, the Dutch fans have been at the same time the most popular among the national fan groups in France, where the tournament took place. Although devoted to their team, they have not gone overboard in demonstrations of patriotism and have easily gotten along with fans from other countries. They demonstrate that you can be proud of your country but respectful of other cultures at the same time.

When words belie the message

“Don’t interfere in our election.” That sentence could be expressed in a variety of ways, as a serious insistence, a cautionary warning, or a mild plea. The tone/volume of voice, and intonation are likely to be telling, as well as the facial expression and body language. President Trump today at the G20 Conference used that sentence in a unique way, in addressing President Putin of Russia and his staff. It was clearly expressed as a joke, as Trump waggled his finger at Putin while smiling, as Putin smiled as well. The meaning was clear: The words spoken were not to be taken seriously, as Trump does not believe Russia interfered in the 2016 US election, or at least he does not want to admit that may have happened, as it calls into question the legitimacy of his presidency (as Jimmy Carter claimed today). The lack of concern on the part of the US President clashes with the consensus of his own intelligence agencies, which have clearly stated that Russia did in fact interfere.

Trump’s demeanor and behavior offered a dramatic contrast to that of Prime Minister May of the UK, who was stone-faced in her obligatory handshake with Putin, after describing Russia’s behavior in poisoning a Russian dissident in England as “despicable”.

A rush to judgement

Confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial

“Hot takes left behind a hot mess.” This was the assessment in this week’s “On the media” episode from NPR of the incident in Washington, D.C., involving a Native American elder (Nathan Phillips), playing a drum and chanting, and a group of high school students from Kentucky. The initial reporting of the encounter resulted from a shared video clip that showed a white young man (subsequently identified as Nick Sandmann) wearing a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat and standing very close to Phillips and smirking. The high schoolers were in D.C. for the anti-abortion March For Life, while the American Indians were part of the Indigenous People’s March. Given the apparent disrespectful and mocking attitude of Sandmann and his fellow high-schoolers, there was immediate condemnation of their behavior on Twitter and other online platforms. This was largely tied to the non-verbals being communicated by Sandmann’s dress (MAGA hat showing support for President Trump), his facial expression (expressing amusement/disdain), body language (standing too close, seemingly challenging Phillips), eye contact (direct, non-blinking, possibly threatening), and skin color (together with the political views shown through the hat, signaling a sense of superiority over a member of a minority group). The incident carried more significance due to where it took place: in front of the Lincoln Memorial, on the same steps where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. called for racial harmony in the U.S. with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

The reaction to the video went viral and led to many immediate actions, such as an apology from the students’ Kentucky high school and calls for the students involved to be named and shamed. However, since then, other videos and narratives have emerged that give more context and nuance to the confrontation. Most people assumed that the high schoolers had taken the initiative to approach the Native Americans. But, as Phillips explained, it was he who approached the high school group, because he feared a confrontation between them and a third group present, the Black Hebrew Israelites, who had been taunting the students earlier as “dirty cracks”, “incest babies,” and “pale-faced terrorists”. As discussed in the “On the media” broadcast, this changes the dynamics and interpretation of the interaction. It shows the problematic nature of our instant news and social media world, in which it has become commonplace to see immediate and strong reactions to events that have reported from a single perspective or without full context. That includes exposing identities of purported shooters or other individuals identified as being involved in crimes. Often such information is reported without the necessary words of caution or tentativeness, with the individuals reporting the information as absolutely factual. In too many cases, that certainty turns out to be misplaced.

Anger on display (or not): Ford and Kanvanaugh

Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh

The explosive Senate hearing last week involving US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault is still resonating this week. The two not only told different versions of what happened at a high school party 36 years ago, they differed significantly in how they expressed themselves. That includes paralanguage — tone, volume — and body language. The situation is of course unique and it’s problematic to extrapolate too far from the specific exchange to general differences in communication styles between men and women (a topic studied extensively by scholars such as Deborah Tannen). Nevertheless, I do believe the exchange fits into familiar patterns of communication that are gender-specific and socially-determined.

Ford’s testimony was calm, measured and deferential, while Kavanaugh was aggressive, belligerent and bullying. Some have commented that of course Kavanaugh was angry, since he was convinced he was innocent of the charges. However, there’s no doubt that Ford was just as convinced that she was telling the truth – many Republicans, including the President, found her testimony to be “credible”. Yet, she did not yell and engage in angry outbursts and accusations – despite the fact that the assault she alleges (attempted rape) would amply justify that behavior.

In a commentary yesterday on NPR, Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, explains that contrast by pointing to the social acceptability (in the US at least) of verbal displays of anger by males, but not by women: “He had in his arsenal the ability to use anger, fury, tears in a way that he felt confident would resonate with the American people”. According to Traister, those same tools were not available to Ford, at least in the sense of being socially acceptable as used by a woman. They are even less likely to be available to women of color in the US:

I think it’s almost impossible for us to conceive of the voices of women of color as being heard loudly enough because they have been so unheard and so marginalized for so long. In fact, it’s women of color who have been the leaders and the leading thinkers of so many of our social movements, in ways that have remained invisible to us.

For Traister, the anger that Ford suppressed in the hearing is likely to re-emerge in a different form:

My argument is not that women’s anger is always righteous. It’s that it’s very often politically potent and yet we’re told not to take it seriously, still. I think that it’s the anger that women are feeling across the country that is having a catalytic connective impact. And this is part of a long process — social movements take a long time. The kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that’s going to extend deep into our future.

It’s been interesting to follow as well as the analysis of the encounter from the perspective of nonverbal communication, as in a minute by minute analysis by Jack Brown. His conclusion, from studying the body language: “Judge Kavanaugh’s nonverbal behavior indicates he’s lying as well as deliberately withholding information (lies of omission). He believes he is guilty of sexual assault.” On the other hand, Carol Kinsey Goman, another body language expert, comments:

Habitual and well-rehearsed liars can become quite comfortable with their falsehoods. But the same response is true for liars who believe their own lies. When Ford and Kavanaugh say they are “100% positive,” they may both genuinely believe it.

This echoes an assessment by another analyst, Patti Wood:

Wood says that a key piece of Dr. Ford’s testimony was revelatory; when she said that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge’s laughter — “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense” — is the strongest impression in her memory. “If Kavanaugh did it and he was laughing, he may not have seen it or felt it as anything but ‘horseplay,'” says Wood. “He may not have had it register in his memory as anything wrong or bad. And if he was drunk, he may not have remembered it at all. This is important because his anger is so strong and he seems so emphatic, and he could actually feel he never did anything like this.”

We will see this week what conclusion the FBI investigation reaches. It seems likely that we will never have factual information that settles the claims once and for all. In the absence of conclusive evidence or convincing witnesses, we will have to continue to rely on our interpretations of the words and behavior of the two individuals involved.

Nonverbals at the World Cup

The World Cup is being played now in Russia and it is offering a lot of entertainment for soccer [football] fans. It’s also interesting from a cross-cultural perspective, as teams come from around the world this year, including, for the first time 4 Arab nations (Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco) and 3 Nordic entrants (Iceland, Sweden and Denmark). This represents a variety of cultures, which makes for interesting interactions.

One of the cultural manifestations is in nonverbal communication. There is body language galore, with players using gestures and grimaces widely, often to protest referee actions or to indicate their pain after being fouled. Many players are skilled at pantomime, “diving” or “flopping” at the merest touch from an opposing player. Several players have shown particular talent in that area.

Double-headed eagle

What has generated the most attention and controversy has not been related to the play on the field, but rather to nonverbal actions with political motivations. Two players for Switzerland, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri made a hand gesture, the double-headed eagle, widely understood to symbolize the Albanian flag. Both players are ethnic Albanians, originally from Kosovo, and they made the gesture in a match against Serbia, the country responsible for a crackdown on the Albanian population in Kosovo which ended only with Nato military intervention in 1999.

Three-finger salute

Serbians were angry over the gesture; the Serbian Football Association filed a complaint in which they labeled the use of the gesture “provocative”.
Serbians have their own nationalist gesture, the “three-finger salute”, which Serbian player Aleksandar Kolarov displayed in celebration after scoring a goal in a game against Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, the team from the former Yugoslavia that is still in the tournament is neither Serbia nor Kosovo (although the Swiss team is in) but Croatia – so far no nationalist gestures from that team.

Banging pots for independence

Catalan students advocating independence

Catalonia votes today on independence from Spain, that is to say, many Catalans will try to do so, although it appears there will be many roadblocks to voting created by the federal government, which has declared the vote illegal. It’s not clear what the outcome of the vote will be, but it’s likely it will not settle the question of Catalonian independence, just as the vote in Scotland in 2014 has not prevented a movement for a new vote for independence.

A recent story on NPR points to how vital the Catalan language is in the Catalan identity as being distinct from Spanish. Catalan is, in fact, not a dialect of Spanish, but a separate language derived from Vulgar Latin. It was suppressed in Franco’s time, but since then has seen a dramatic resurgence. In the NPR piece, Catalan specialist, Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, describes how Catalan identity differs from that of the Basques, another group which has sought independent status: “Basque nationalism is ethnicity…But this, it’s basically a language movement. We are Catalans because we speak Catalan.”

Young Catalans largely support secession. In fact, at the University of Barcelona students have occupied buildings in support of non-interference from Madrid. One student commented on NPR: “I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan,” says Marta Rosique, 21. ” I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan…And then there is a government that tries to do as much as possible so that Catalan doesn’t exist anymore! There is something that tells me to fight for my own identity, for my own language.” For that student, at least, identity and language are interchangeable.

An interesting aspect of the movement has been the non-verbal demonstration of support for independence through the nightly 10 p.m. banging of pots and pans on Barcelonan terraces and balconies. This began last month, after the Spanish government started sending in army troops to prevent the referendum. This is a form of social protest familiar in South America (known as cacerolazocacerolazo, or casserole). The pot banging may be low-tech, but it’s loud and coming at a time when Barcelonans are starting their evening eating and socializing, which gets going later in all of Spain than in other European countries.

Take a knee

Colin Kaepernick

In the last two days, US President Trump has tweeted 15 times about professional (American) football players either dropping to one knee or linking arms during the playing of the US National Anthem before games. While the players (and in some cases, coaches and team owners) were expressing solidarity with those players (starting with Colin Kaepernick last year) who dropped to a knee to protest social injustice and police brutality, the President interpreted those actions differently, as expressing disrespect of the anthem and the US flag.  The US professional football players’ action is quite different from the non-verbal behavior often associated with sports teams, which typically involves intimidating the opponents, rather than expressing social or political stances. A well-known example is the war dance of the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team, based on the indigenous Māori “Haka” tradition.

As pointed out in a blog post on “Mashed Radish”, the action of dropping to one knee has a long history outside of sports:

The gesture of taking a knee is a dynamic and complex one, and one that many soldiers…do to show respect for their fallen fellows or to take a rest while on a mission. Catholics also traditionally take knees—or genuflect—before the altar, as did subjects before rulers in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Marriage-proposers also traditionally take knees when asking for their partner’s hand in marriage. Kneeling, here, is at once submissive and reverential, showing humility and adoration.

The use of the expression to “take a knee” (now appearing in hashtagged form as either #TakeAKnee or #TakeTheKnee) is examined in a post yesterday on Language Log.

The action of dropping to one’s knees unexpectedly can have a dramatic effect. This was the case in Willy Brandt’s “Kniefall von Warchau” (the Warsaw genuflection) in 1970. As German Chancellor, he was on a visit to the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1943), when, after laying a wreath, he suddenly dropped to his knees in a gesture of humility and repentance for Nazi Germany’s atrocities.

Handshakes: not always innocent

Handshakes have been in the news lately. On his overseas trip, President Trump greeted a number of world leaders, usually with a handshake. The President, according to CNN, “seems to view the handshake as a sort of battle of wills and a battle for power all wrapped into one”. The CNN article discusses a number of examples. Most recently, there was a lengthy, combative handshake with France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron. According to a Washington Post reporter, “They shook hands for an extended period of time. Each president gripped the other’s hand with considerable intensity, their knuckles turning white and their jaws clenching and faces tightening”. Handshakes most often are a simple component of a greeting or departure ritual. But sometimes they have more significance. In an interview yesterday in France Dimanche, Macron said this about the handshake: “Ma poignée de main avec lui, ce n’est pas innocent…Il faut montrer qu’on ne fera pas de petites concessions, même symboliques” (My handshake with him was not without significance…It’s important to demonstrate that there will be no small concessions, even those of a symbolic nature). Macon was using the handshake as a gesture of defiance and independence, resisting the alpha male persona of the US President.

In the US a “firm” handshake, along with the pulling and tugging often used by Trump, is seen as normal male behavior in the business community. It’s not the same in the rest of the world; a handshake is seen as a friendly gesture, not an opportunity to be aggressive and show dominance. As commentator Joe Navarro remarks, that is particularly the case in diplomatic circles: “Diplomacy is about getting along. One of the things we do with our handshakes is we establish comfort. We’re saying, ‘I’m your friend. I’m the person you’re going to be working with.’ That’s what the handshake is supposed to be for, not some sort of sophomoric challenge between two alpha males.” In some parts of the world, business transactions, including negotiating over prices, occurs while men continue to hold hands. In that case, it is less a contest of wills, than it is a symbol of working together to reach consensus. Not a bad model for diplomacy.

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.

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:


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

Burkinis & European integration

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

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

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