The universal language of cringe comedy

One of my favorite seminars in my postgrad media theory class is on Erving Goffman’s work on embarrassment. I put them in an embarrassing situation of having to give each other compliments, and then we reflect on what it feels like to give and receive compliments, discussing which is more embarrassing, and why. I also always take them through Goffman’s list of how people experience embarrassment–blushing, dry mouth, fumbling hands, etc.–and we talk about our own embarrassing experiences (they’re usually related to public speaking–it’s universal). 

I love how universal and human this seminar is–each year, I have a different mix of international and British students, but no matter where they’re from, everybody can relate to embarrassment. Talking about it in a theoretical sense always leads to confessions, vulnerability, and laughing with each other in this small (10-15 person) group. 

This year, I also showed them a clip from “The Office” to illustrate one of Goffman’s points about vicarious embarrassment–when we feel shame or embarrassment on behalf of another person:

“When an individual finds himself in a situation which ought to make him blush, others present usually will blush with and for him, though he may not have sufficient sense of shame or appreciation of the circumstances to blush on his own account.” (Goffman, 1956, p. 265)

I always think of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “cringe comedy” when I read that part. David Brent has no idea how embarrassing he is, and the audience is cringing with embarrassment on his behalf. So many of their other characters do this to us, too–Stuart Pritchard in Hello Ladies;  Maggie Jacobs, Shaun Williamson and Darren Lamb in Extras; Danny in I Give It A Year;  most of what they do with Karl Pilkington…

I was curious to see how my Chinese students would react to the original UK version of The Office–would they get it? Would they realise how cringey David Brent is supposed to be? I used this clip of his terribly inappropriate job interview, and I was thrilled to see that they did indeed get it. There was lots of laughing, groaning and eye-rolling in the room. Everybody was able to reel off the various social rules he broke, his awkward body language, his inappropriate questions, and her embarrassment cues.

I wasn’t able to find any academic studies of international adaptations of The Office, but that’s one I’d love to see…It’s been adapted in 11 countries and 9 languages, and the similarities are brilliant. Wikipedia has this great chart with details about the different versions–I think my favorite part is that the Swedish version is an office hygiene product company instead of a paper company, and that’s just like David Brent’s job in Life on the Road. 

Back to School

September has always been my favorite time of year–a time of new beginnings, sweater weather, the return of the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. It’s become a stereotypical ‘white girl’ thing to love autumn, but I’m not ashamed of it. Spring is often very wet, summer is too hot (especially this summer), winter is too dark–autumn is perfectly sunny and crisp. We got married on a sunny September day and we always schedule our outdoor family photos for September or October to catch the golden leafy backdrops. We live in a student-dominated neighborhood, which comes back to life every September after three months of feeling like a ghost-town. It’s a lovely time of year!3f05218v

Image From: Library of Congress: WPA Poster Collection

It’s always been back to school time for me, both as a student and as a lecturer. We happened to be in Paris over the “la rentrée” this year, and we spotted parents walking their children to the first day of school from our hotel balcony. (This post from last year did a lovely job of describing la rentrée) It was so fun to see the school supplies at Monoprix, with the matching pencil cases and binders and sac-a-dos. There’s something very humanizing about witnessing these types of shared events, like back-to-school, in another culture. Everywhere in the world, kids need to write and draw and colour and read, and they need to get kitted out for it.

As a little Back-to-School celebration, I donated to a couple of projects on DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding site for public school teachers in the U.S.–if you, like me, love buying school supplies but don’t have a list of them to buy for your own kid, consider donating school supplies, either in person or through an organisation like DonorsChoose.

Evaluating Cultural Learning: the Life in the UK test

One of the key debates in public diplomacy literature is the problem of evaluation. How can you tell whether a foreign audience has been influenced by public diplomacy efforts? There’s no easy way to quantify attitude change, or to predict long-term effects in the future.

In cultural diplomacy, this is particularly tricky. How do you measure how much someone has learned about a country’s culture? What questions do you ask about a broad concept like cultural life–what is included and what gets left out? Do you ask about a bit of everything–high culture, pop culture, sports, entertainment, literature, history, fine art?

Today, I took (and passed!) the “Life in the UK” test as part of my settlement application (I will have been here for 10 years this month, so I can apply for indefinite leave to remain now). Citizenship tests like Life in the UK or the US Civics test are not measuring the effectiveness of public diplomacy efforts, of course, but they are an attempt to measure how much a foreigner knows about a country’s cultural life. They could offer a template or guide for public diplomacy evaluation, to show what kinds of general knowledge categories a foreign visitor could reasonably be expected to know.

So what do they think foreigners should know?

  1. History–it was heavy on history, from prehistory (key developments in the Bronze Age/Iron Age, etc.) to key 20th century events (i.e. which war began when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland? Who was the first female Prime Minister?).
  2. Politics/Civics–who’s eligible to vote, how does jury duty work, what are the chambers of Parliament called, etc.
  3. “General knowledge”–much like a pub quiz, some of the questions were things that aren’t easily categorised. Which patron saint’s flag has a white diagonal cross on a blue background? What is celebrated on 26 December?

I prepared for it by taking lots of these practice tests online, but I found the real one was much easier than some of the practice questions. The main thing I struggled with was the English Civil War. We definitely didn’t learn about it in school in the States, and pop culture seems to have overlooked this era entirely (there’s so much about Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Victoria, WWII–some historical periods seem to get much more attention than others).

Did the Life in the UK test feel like an accurate gauge of cultural knowledge?

Not really. It felt like a fairly good general knowledge pub quiz, hosted by somebody with an interest in history.

In terms of assessing the cultural knowledge impact of public diplomacy efforts, I would suggest that multiple choice tests like Life in the UK or US Civics can give us some inspiration on what to do and what not to do. They should include a bit less history and a bit more about everyday life. They should be inclusive and reflect all aspects of society, be balanced in terms of class, gender, race, religion, etc. They should, like all assessments, be relevant for the objectives of the public diplomacy efforts–if it’s about language acquisition, for example, or a specific cultural exhibition, then questions should focus on that topic.

After almost 10 years of living in the UK, what would I put on the test?

–Knowledge of British food–identifying the ingredients of black pudding, white pudding, haggis, knowing what you put mint sauce on, knowing the debates over applying cream and jam (or jam and cream) on a scone, etc.

–Holiday customs–one practice question asked “Mince pies are eaten on what day?” with the answer being Christmas. That’s completely untrue–mince pies start showing up on supermarket shelves in September. Also, alcohol consumption and gifting is a big part of every celebration–even Mothering Sunday gift sections include spirits.

–6 degrees of separation game with British actors and actresses. Everybody’s worked with Dame Maggie Smith and/or Dame Judi Dench and/or Jim Broadbent.

–Weather. In order to understand life in Britain, you need to be able to talk about the weather and to know why they talk about the weather so much. (It’s a way to make small talk and they use it to gauge whether you want to have a conversation–also, the weather is crazy here and often worth discussing)

–Class markers–It’s not about the car they drive or how they dress. What shop is their Bag for Life from? (I’ve seen people use Waitrose bags at Aldi, but never the reverse, which tells you something about where the two shops rank)

Montenegro and the role of values & culture in diplomacy

One of the stranger international affairs headlines (apart from Steven Seagal’s envoy appointment) in recent weeks was Trump’s criticism of Montenegro in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. It was part of his criticism of NATO and Article 5 (which has only ever been invoked by the US), but it seemed particularly out-of-left-field, even for Trump.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” (Politico’s coverage)

There are a lot of issues with this, obviously, but rather than spending time picking apart Trump’s bizarre statement, I’d like to highlight the way the UK ambassador talks about and with Montenegro as a point of contrast.

HMA Alison Kemp recently spoke at a panel marking the 140th anniversary of UK-Montenegro relations. In her remarks, she emphasised the role of culture in international relations:  “In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. ” The anniversary celebration events include cultural diplomacy activities, including a Montenegrin art exhibition and concerts in London and a Play UK festival in Podgorica.

Kemp’s speech gave some interesting insights into the Government’s current mindset and approach to world affairs, which have often been obscured by the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, the gaffes that often seem to happen when Brits are around Chinese delegations, and the sideshow of last month’s Trump visit. I also particularly liked her thoughts on the role of culture & values in diplomacy more generally–very much in line with the “humanising IR” approach:

“As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.”–Ambassador Alison Kemp, 27 June 2018

Beyond Trump & Putin: Increasing Exchanges Between the American and Russian People

Dr Thomas Garza, Associate Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies at University of Texas, wrote an excellent op-ed in The Hill about the Helsinki summit, in which he advocated an increase in exchange diplomacy between the two countries.

He pointed to key events in the history of US-Soviet/Russian relations, emphasising that even in the tensest moments of the Cold War, there was an emphasis on bilateral talks and keeping a conversation going, including between the American and Russian people.

He explained that the summit between Trump and Putin was “a staged opportunity to provide the optics of stronger relations between the two countries without providing any of the necessary substance. The absence of immediate records of the substance of the talks and, consequently, of any evidence of progress in forwarding a new era of bilateral exchange and collaboration, leaves one wanting some tangible results that relations between the two countries – not just between the two presidents – were stronger.”

Dr Garza recommended a renewal of the type of exchange diplomacy that was used towards the end of the Cold War, and in its aftermath, to create a transparent, open relationship between the people of each country. “Moving forward, we would all benefit from a return to a more citizen-to-citizen oriented diplomacy much like that of the Gorbachev era that increased contact between our countries, not only in a summit setting, but also in bilateral exchanges and initiatives.”

Would it help? Can we treat Trump and Putin as a sideshow and get on with the important work of improving relations at the micro-level of citizen-to-citizen exchanges? Is it really possible to conduct transparent, bilateral talks while there’s so much confusion, chaos, distrust, etc. going on? I suppose that’s what they managed to do during the Cold War, though. Soviet-American cultural exchanges increased during the detente period, with thousands of students, scholars, leaders, musicians and other artists travelling in both directions. Ordinary citizens could interact with other ordinary citizens, see everyday life first hand–or experience foreign cultures without leaving home. Russians could see Duke Ellington perform in Moscow, and Americans could see the Bolshoi Ballet in New York.

While I accept the argument that exchange diplomacy worked well during the Cold War, I’m slightly more skeptical of its possibilities in today’s context. I don’t think the current problems between the US and Russia can be repaired through more contact between the American and Russian people. I have the impression that we don’t really have a problem with each other–I think it’s more about concrete actions than mutual understanding. The Americans are critical of human rights violations, journalists ‘disappearing’, the invasion of neighboring countries, etc. Trump supporters have adopted his vague language of it being “a good thing” to get along with Russia, because they don’t know/don’t care about these issues. And we don’t know for sure why Trump insists on criticising America’s European allies while praising Putin, Kim Jong-Un, etc. but hopefully we’ll know more about his motivations before the midterms in November. (Press on, Robert Mueller!)

For more on US-Soviet exchanges during the Cold War, see Yale Richmond’s 2003 book Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. Like many authors who’ve written about US State Department exchanges, Richmond offers an insider’s perspective, as he was Director of Soviet & East European exchanges in the department’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs during the 1970s. The book is fascinating, filled with great anecdotes of lives changed and perspectives altered through exchange diplomacy. It’s somewhat overly positive–a good example of what Ludovic Tournes and Giles Scott-Smith recently described as a “hagiographic” tendency in the literature on exchanges–but certainly offers a compelling account of activities between the two key players in this vitally important period of exchange diplomacy history.

IVLP in The Economist

One of the U.S. State Department’s largest, oldest exchange diplomacy programs, the International Visiting Leader Program (IVLP) was profiled in The Economist last week:

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/07/05/americas-amateur-diplomats

The article emphasises the role of host country volunteers–ordinary, everyday people who welcome visitors from other countries, and ultimately influence the visitors’ perceptions of the host country. One volunteer called the experience “surrogate travel”, because you get an opportunity to interact with people from other countries and learn about foreign cultures without actually leaving home. In my own experience, I know I’ve learned a great deal about parts of the world I’ve never visited from my students and colleagues–and perhaps I’ve provided some “surrogate travel” to the U.S. for some of them without realising it!

For more on the IVLP, Giles Scott-Smith’s Networks of Empire (2008) and article on Margaret Thatcher’s IVLP experience (2003) are brilliant.