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. 

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The Cultural Diplomacy of Holiday Traditions

It’s two weeks until Christmas–the lights are on all over town, Christmas music is playing in all of the (very crowded) shopping centres and Leeds’ Christkindlmarkt is packed. My international students are loving it! Whenever I run into them in the city centre, they’ve got their phones out–they take loads of pictures of Christmas lights and decorations, market stalls and food. I love the way Christmas is celebrated in Britain, and it’s made me think about how holiday traditions can communicate culture. 

Being overseas makes you reflect on your own practices, including the way you celebrate holidays. When I came to the UK, I realised that my family’s traditions were not necessarily “American”–there is no single “American” way of celebrating anything, because we’re a melting pot (or salad bowl) of different cultures and we don’t even all celebrate the same things. 

My idea of Christmas is heavily influenced by Swedish traditions, through my Swedish grandma–opening presents on Christmas Eve after a smörgåsbord (julbord) buffet dinner that includes pickled herring, cold cuts, cheese & crackers. The “American” elements of my Christmas are probably the eggnog, the Starbucks Christmas menu, and seeing Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (marking the official start to the holiday season!).

For me, the most surprising thing about the holiday season in Britain is that it is 100% Christmas. There’s no Fox News-dubbed “War on Christmas” here. It’s all advent calendars, Christmas trees and baubles, Christmas jumpers and Christmas pudding. Christmas markets are brought over on trucks from Frankfurt–which is another interesting point about British Christmas: it’s very German. King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte (and later Prince Albert) brought the concept of a Christmas tree to the UK from Germany, among other traditions.

When I was a kid, we did an annual “Holiday Concert” in December. We sang a mix of Hannukah, Christmas (mostly Santa, not Jesus) and secular songs (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, etc.). Not so for British kids–even state schools (public schools) put on a nativity and hold Christmas fairs. My son’s school is not affiliated with any church, but they’re doing a nativity next week. Since September he’s been coming home from preschool singing “Away in a Manger” and “Little Donkey”, so it’s definitely about Jesus rather than Santa or snowmen. It’s because Christianity is the official state religion here–Church of England, which the monarch is technically the head of–but it’s so crazy to me. A higher proportion of the US population identifies as Christian than the UK population (71% vs 59%, according to a quick, unscientific Wikipedia check), yet we called it “Winter Break” and I still know the words to “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” twenty-plus years later…

Holiday celebrations are an excellent opportunity for learning about a foreign culture–they reveal values and beliefs, and ultimately, they show how much we all have in common. They’re about family and friends and food–pretty much every celebration around the world shares those elements. Anything that demonstrates this should be considered a valuable tool in exchange diplomacy practice.

To exchange participants, I would suggest they embrace local traditions, join in and ask questions–take an interest in the celebrations, try the food, compare your own traditions with those of the host country.

To exchange diplomacy program administrators, I would suggest they incorporate holiday events into their schedules. The Fulbright Program in the UK, for instance, has a Thanksgiving celebration for American grantees in the UK each year, which is lovely. The holidays can be a lonely, difficult time to be a foreigner, especially if nobody else is celebrating the same things you do. Maybe encourage participants to host their own celebrations and invite host country nationals, or other international students. I’ve hosted Thanksgiving and 4th of July parties for friends from all over the world in the UK, and I’ve been a guest at Lunar New Year celebrations–it’s a great excuse for a party, and you learn something about other cultures, too!

What I’m Reading

born a crime

I recently finished reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, and it is crazy. He was interviewed about it on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast, so I knew a bit about his story–starting with the meaning behind the title. He was a mixed race baby in apartheid South Africa, which criminalised interracial relationships, so he was “evidence” of his parents’ crime. It feels very outdated, reading about these anti-miscegenation laws today, but it wasn’t that long ago–he was born in 1984! I knew he was young, but I didn’t realize he was quite that young–and I think I also didn’t realize how recent (and crazy) apartheid was. Watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it all felt very long ago–but he only died in 2013.

Trevor Noah’s voice comes through clearly–he’s brilliant, insightful, funny, down-to-earth, and just comes across on the page like he does on The Daily Show. This clip captures a lot of the flavor of the book:

It’s full of stories from his childhood and what they meant in terms of shaping his life and worldview. His mother comes across as the heroine of the story–you find yourself rooting for her, laughing at her sense of humor, feeling amazed at her determination and drive. She’s an amazing woman.

The book’s also made me want to learn more about South Africa. I have a book on the South African Fulbright program, Outsmarting Apartheid, on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to finishing, but it’s a particularly interesting case study. When the US government was distancing itself from apartheid-era South Africa in other ways (i.e. imposing sanctions), they still maintained educational and cultural exchanges. It’s a great example of exchange diplomacy being used to work around the official government channels and reach the people directly.

In my research on Fulbright women, I came across the story of Amy Biehl, a law scholar and activist who worked with the African National Congress during the transition to democracy. She was tragically killed in political violence, and now having read Trevor Noah’s description of the townships, I can better understand what happened and why. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s important to recognise that this kind of violence wasn’t exclusive to Amy. She wasn’t necessarily targeted for being white or American or an ‘outsider’, as I’d assumed. Noah describes widespread violence in the townships, with fighting taking place amongst different groups of locals, too. In-fighting was one of the ways the architects of apartheid controlled the majority population. If you fight amongst each other, you won’t fight those who are keeping you down–a good lesson with continued relevance for class warfare, activist movements, etc.

 

Cultural Diplomacy and Brexit

In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the urgent considerations are the basics: food, water, shelter, healthcare. After those needs are taken care of, after some time has passed, victims start to realise the full scope of what’s been lost: their favourite pair of shoes, their photo albums and scrapbooks, the irreplaceable heirlooms, etc. Some things will be more important than others, and the absence of some missing items won’t ever be noticed.

Brexit is shaping up to be such an event–a disaster with far-reaching impacts in areas that we hadn’t fully considered or predicted–and some people won’t even notice them. I suspect that cultural diplomacy and cultural relations between the UK and EU might be one of them.

I’m starting to work on a chapter about the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO), a cultural diplomacy initiative by the EU that has recently moved its headquarters from London to Ferrara, Italy due to Brexit. As the name suggests, it’s an orchestra made up of young musicians from each of the 28 member states. They were formed in 1976 and have been touring the world as a European delegation to foreign audiences since 1978. They’re collaborating with Chinese musicians from the Shanghai Orchestra Academy as part of the EU’s Experience Europe campaign in China.

In a 2016 speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the orchestra was “the best possible ambassador for the European Union. Wherever it plays, the European tune becomes a political programme, and vice versa. And I am therefore pleased that we have a European Youth Orchestra. I would much rather see young people playing music together than politicians plotting against each other.”

The future of British performers’ eligibility will be determined by the current negotiations taking place, but it is likely that they will no longer be able to participate. Their website states that they only accept applications from EU member state musicians–so no Norwegians, Swiss, or Icelandic musicians. Under an FAQ about British eligibility, they write: “UK players ARE STILL eligible to apply in the autumn of 2018 for the EUYO 2019 Orchestra. The arrangement for future years will depend on the details of the agreement negotiated between the EU and the UK.”  (emphasis as original)

Most of the people who voted to leave the EU won’t notice or care about the orchestra’s move to Italy or the fact that British youth won’t be able to apply for it anymore. They’ll point to The Proms and insist that we don’t need foreign musicians to have a great orchestra.

But one of the reasons why I love this story and decided to research it further is that I know it does matter. An orchestra is a great metaphor for international cooperation, for the European Union’s motto “United in Diversity”. Each instrument makes a different sound, gets played in a different way, but they all work together to create an orchestra. You can’t play orchestral music alone. There might be soloists who shine a bit brighter in the spotlight than the rest of the group, but at the end of the day the success of an orchestra depends upon the contributions of all of its members.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in 6 months’ time when Britain leaves the EU. Negotiations are still going on, plagued by in-fighting in the UK Government (though seemingly unchallenged and untempered by the opposition party–apart from Sadiq Khan). There’s a great deal of uncertainty in this, but I do know that leaving the EU means leaving EU cultural diplomacy and exchange diplomacy activities, and thereby represents a loss to the ultimate goal of international mutual understanding and goodwill.

It’s the young people who will be hurt by this change–the talented young British musicians who want to join a competitive, prestigious orchestra that has been touring around the world for 40 years. They weren’t old enough to vote in 2016, so they were shut out of this opportunity with no say in the matter.

When the British people went to the polls and ticked a box next to a simplistic “Yes” or “No” question, they had no idea of the full scope of the implications that would arise from their vote–and I’m certain that there will be more cases like the EUYO that we’ll learn about in the years to come.

 

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)

What I’m reading…

For pleasure:

cover

I’ve had The Art of Stopping Time on my nightstand for a few weeks now and it’s been a great book to dip in and out of–each daily gong or task is only 2-3 pages, so you can skim through some and close read others, depending on what sounds interesting or useful for you. I love the variety on offer. Some have been high-level spiritual, conceptual mindfulness exercises, while others have been practical changes, like limiting your time spent on e-mail and social media. I’ve tried quite a few now, and my favorite so far has been the half-hourly breaks at work–it felt silly to stretch and get up and walk around so often, but I found it really did increase my energy and make me more productive, as Shojai promised!

For work:

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Thomas Birtchnell and Javier Caletrío, eds. Elite Mobilities (London: Routledge, 2014)

I’ve been reading this in my attempt to theorise exchange diplomacy in a piece that I’m writing for an edited volume. Elite Mobilities looks at the international flow of the 1 percent, examining their movement for work and pleasure, its meaning and consequences. It uses a critical sociology perspective to examine the elites and their travel, and brings together a range of issues in its analysis, including transport, tourism, class, consumption, and climate change.

There has been little work on the elite aspect of exchange diplomacy, probably because there is a stigma attached to the term ‘elite’–as if revealing the elite nature of participants would somehow make the exchange program seem less noble, less altruistic, elitist. (As an aside, several universities including Cornell and Leicester have used the slogan “elite, not elitist” to describe themselves–this gives some indication of the terms’ connotations)

At a conference once, I remember a Fulbright alumnus getting quite defensive about the term ‘elite’, claiming that he and other Fulbrighters were not elite, they were ordinary people, not particularly wealthy, influential or privileged. But, as another Fulbrighter reminded him at the time, it is still by its very nature an elite programme. It provides funding for graduate school, so applicants must already have a Bachelors degree, and that prerequisite already places them in the most highly educated group in society. Leader-oriented exchanges like the US State Department’s IVLP and British Council’s Leadership Exchange Programme, also draw upon elite pools for their participants, quite naturally.

I’m hoping to bring this emphasis on the “elite” into my conceptualisation of exchange diplomacy, to demonstrate that it’s not something to be feared or avoided. If the aim of exchange diplomacy is to influence future leaders, it only makes sense to recruit elite participants for exchanges. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory–it is only in practice that administrators will have to be careful in how they define merit and how they identify future leadership qualities. There should also be an wider effort to bring cultural and educational exchange to broader audiences, whether that’s through youth exchanges (high school or undergraduate), free public exhibitions and lectures, cultural centres with free outreach activities, and internationalising the curriculum of public schools. These things require funding that is often directed elsewhere, but they could ultimately influence more people than elite programmes of exchange diplomacy.