Tag Archives: United States

You’re Fat! A Look at Global, Weight-Related Bluntness

OK, so I may have put on 10 pounds since I got married. This would have been fine had I stayed away from major gatherings like the wedding I attended yesterday.  But such was not my fate.  It was a very culturally diverse Los Angeles wedding and many in the crowd had not seen me since my wedding five months ago.  Reactions to my more “jolly” physique ranged from a quick look to the waistline to the obligatory “marriage treating you well, huh?” and I barely avoided the more direct, “You’re fat” that my wife says my mother-in-law is more than capable of delivering with characteristic Filipino weight-related bluntness.

How to react?

How do you bounce back from a bout of bluntness?  Do you laugh it off?  Do you take offense?  In answering that question it helps to remember what cultural context you are dealing with and whether the bringer of the bluntness meant for his or her statement to be offensive, whether it was a joke or whether it was meant as advice.

Direct vs indirect cultures

When I was studying Spanish in Latin America, I quickly learned that nicknames were often physical.  As people warmed to you they could assign you a completely arbitrary nickname like “gordo” (fat) or “flaco” (skinny) and you weren’t supposed to take it personally.  It was a sign of endearment.  Sometimes the descriptions didn’t quite fit – as in someone called “gordo” wasn’t too tubby in real life.  I was lucky to have friends that explained the custom to me.  If you tried calling random friends “fat one” in Swedish culture you would quickly discover a less charitable side to the Scandinavian experience.

The difficulty in knowing whether something is culturally appropriate is that general assumptions about direct vs indirect cultures don’t always apply.  For example (and this statement is going to revel in stereotype), American culture and communication is often seen as being fairly blunt and Filipino culture is seen as being concerned with face-saving and polite indirectness.  If you are in need of help from a friend in the US, you probably would just tell the friend you need help.  You may end up doing the same in the Philippines, but depending on the situation and how sensitive the actual verbalization of the need for help, Filipinos may want you simply to see their situation and offer to help.  This is obviously a tough one to navigate and most non-Filipinos have to learn how best to handle sensitive situations through trial and error.

Here’s the catch though:  A newcomer to Filipino and American culture may decide that since American culture is “blunt” and Filipino culture is “indirect”, it’s OK to tell someone they are fat in the US but that you can’t do so in the Philippines.  NOT SO.  Most Americans would rather do themselves bodily harm than have a heartfelt one-to-one with a chubby friend regarding his or her weight issues.  Walk into a Filipino Christmas gathering though and a number of aunties will take it upon themselves to, regardless of your gender, ask you “What happened?  Why are you so fat??”  It’s mortifying but true.

Chime in or stay out of it?

So do you join in as a newcomer?  Should you, as a traveler in Latin America or crasher of Filipino potlucks, declare friends and acquaintances fat or skinny?  I would go with a cautiously adventurous approach.  Often there’s an initiation period when you move somewhere or otherwise join a cultural group.  Much the way it can be annoying when someone joins your friendship circle and starts trying to use clearly “inside” humor too quickly, trying too hard to be funny or to fit in, often backfires.  Take some time to settle in, spend your social capital carefully and get some local advice when in doubt about what to say.

And now I’m going running…

 

LEAVE A COMMENT

LIKE CULTUREMUTT ON FACEBOOK

Bjorn Karlman

 

Running On Empty: New Information on Post-Iraq Invasion Blair

Empty Gas Tank 2

Tony Blair was going to resign as UK Prime Minister back in 2004. After inciting the biggest culture clash in modern UK history by supporting Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Blair was a very depressed man. The End of the Party, a new book to be published March 1, 2010 by the The Observer‘s Andrew Rawnsley says (according to The Guardian), “Tony Blair descended into such a deep depression after the Iraq war that he told Gordon Brown and John Prescott (both key figures in his administration) that he would quit No. 10 [the PM’s office] the following summer.”

The End of the Party describes how Blair’s special envoy in Iraq briefed Blair at the end of his time in Iraq that the conditions were “unbelievably bad” and would deteriorate further. ” ‘What can we do?’ pleaded Blair. ‘We have told them [the Americans] again and again what we think is necessary. If it doesn’t happen, what can we do?’ Greenstock was left with the image of the prime minister ‘tearing his hair’ over Iraq and ‘throwing his hands in the air’.” (The Guardian)

In supporting what was seen by the British public as an oil-greedy mistake by a blood-thirsty dimwit with Daddy’s agenda, Blair committed the unpardonable sin.  The British public was much more skeptical about the war than the American public. While American reactions to Bush’s actions were often divided along party lines, British disdain for Blair was overwhelming.  Blair was openly referred to as Bush’s poodle, a sell-out willing to compromise his integrity to preserve Britain’s then-coveted “special relationship” with the US.

“He was very low, he was very lonely and he was very tired,” Rawnsley quotes Blair’s friend and colleague, Tessa Jowell, as saying about Blair at the depth of his misery.  Blair’s stress level was so high that he says he “spaced out” several times during the time-honored British tradition of Prime Minister’s Questions and would frequently wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

As if the extreme disapproval with his decision was not enough, Gordon Brown (favored as Blair’s successor), was furious when Blair regained some self-confidence and reneged on his decision to resign. An eyewitness of one conversation (quoted in The End of the Party) says, “Gordon was just losing it. He was behaving like a belligerent teenager. Just standing in the office shouting: ‘When are you going to f*****g go?’ ”

It took Blair’s wife and several close allies to get him through the worst of his anguish.  “Come on. Buck up. Buck up. Think of what you’ve got to achieve. You’re the best politician in this country by a mile,” said his friend Peter Mandelson, who himself had survived many a political storm.

Eventually, the embattled Blair did pick himself up but the damage had been done.  One of the most popular politicians in recent UK history had been forever sullied by allying himself with the trigger-happy Texan who permanently marred not just Middle East relations but the foreseeable future of Anglo-American partnerships.

Bjorn Karlman

European America Bashing Going Out of Vogue?

USA world dominationIn most of the countries I’ve lived in (including the United States), there is always a group of people that is hellbent on some quality America-bashing.  America’s global policing, its economic bullying, it’s worldwide export of popculture, George W. Bush – the list seems endless when it comes to beef with the United States.  Before living in the US, I would gladly participate in these bashing sessions.  It just felt right somehow –  a way to get back at the country equivalent of the chubby playground bully with too many toys.

After moving to the the United States for college, my views started to change.  Part of it was having American friends.  Instead of seeing America as summed up in the ideology of a certain political leader, I saw real people.  While l thought of Bush’s post 9/11 foreign policy in the Middle East as sheer lunacy, I was able to separate my thoughts on this very polarizing leader from the many conversations that I had enjoyed with American friends of mine that seemed very balanced in their views regarding America and its place in the world.

As I began to identify myself more and more closely with the United States, a sense of loyalty to my adopted country emerged and I caught myself defending the United States abroad.  When fellow Europeans would point out the death penalty and the huge economic disparities in America as evidence that the United States was a backward playground for cowboys, I would counter with the fact that huge parts of the American population are very vocal in their opposition to these very same things.

In a May 13, 2007 article from The Washington Post titled “4 Myths About America-Bashing in Europe”, William Drozdiak talks about what he calls the “love-hate melange” between Europe and the United States.  He asks: “Why has U.S. stature in the world eroded?  Opinion polls cite widespread dismay with the Iraq war, our dog-eat-dog social model and the arrogance of an imperial superpower that places itself above international law.”  Despite all this, Drozdiak claims that there is a “reservoir of goodwill waiting to be tapped among foreigners who would prefer to see the United States succeed rather than fail.”

He makes the point that European political leaders are actually fairly pro-American.  France’s Sarkozy is very supportive of the United States.  Angela Merkel in Germany has made a number of high-profile visits to America. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the current PM Gordon Brown are both good friends of the US.  Also, especially young Europeans seem to want to study and work in the US.

As for social models, Europe is learning the pitfalls of running welfare states and is looking to the United States for ideas on possible reforms.  Of course, American popculture is all the rage.  Finally, Europe is not limited to liking only American Democrats.  Although most hated George W. Bush, nobody wants flimsiness in foreign policy à la Clinton’s early 90s policy that allowed the Balkan attrocities to take place more or less unchecked.

Since Drozdiak’s 2007 article and despite the ongoing strife in the Middle East, Barack Obama’s outreach to this part of the world does not go unnoticed in Europe.  Obama’s diplomatic overtures won him the Nobel Peace Prize.  The dramatic facelift he has given the United States in terms of international diplomacy and goodwill has made this one of the easiest times to travel as an American in Europe for decades.  So there’s hope for a warming of relations in the next decade.  Especially if baby boomer American tourists leave their ghastly white sneakers stateside when they hop the pond.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Bjorn Karlman

How to Tell Anyone, Anywhere That They Are Not Funny

2477I’ll admit it: I am terrible at telling jokes.  I’ve got two or three reliable ones but even they fall flat with alarming frequency.  I always mess something up.  I forget the punch line; I omit a key detail; I forget where I am and tell a joke that only works in Sweden – you get the picture.  I could live in denial and make believe that peoples’ laughter comes from them laughing “with” me as opposed to them laughing “at” me, but my friends have disabused me of any such thinking.  They’ll try to assure me that I can be humorous in a very general sense but then they get a serious look on their faces and say, with all the love they can muster, “But I really don’t get your jokes.”  Now let me be clear:  I have not only been told this in one country: worldwide friends have told me one way or another to steer clear of the jokes.  As I have picked myself up and dusted myself off each time, I have taken note of how people around the world tell you that you are not funny.  Here’s my guide – region by region – to telling anyone, anywhere, just that:

Scandinavia

Hit them straight.  Scandinavians are fairly direct in their communication style.  “I don’t understand” is fine if you really don’t get it.  If you are friends with a Scandinavian you can be even more direct: “That wasn’t funny at all”.  Scandinavians are used to this as their brand of humor is, to say the very least, different.  And it goes both ways, they will tell you that your jokes suck without blinking an eye.

United Kingdom

A little more tact may be in order.  I personally think Brits are some of the funniest people on Earth and love the likes of Ricky Gervais (British version of “The Office”) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat). Some people really do not like British humor though, and it’s OK to say so.  Brits love apologies (sit in any British train station and listen to announcements about train delays or cancellations: The announcer will apologize for EVERYTHING) so try, “Sorry, I think this British humor is a little over my head, give me a few weeks and maybe I’ll pick it up…”  Of course, if the intent is to avoid hearing any more from the amateur comic in question, don’t invite them to keep trying out their material on you.

United States

Laugh.  Americans are a tough bunch to speak for in any general sense because of the sheer diversity in represented cultures.  But warmth goes a long way, so show some appreciation for the fact that your American friend was trying to be funny.  If you are from a more reserved culture, realize that while people in some cultures communicate through understatement (the Brits are a perfect example), Americans often communicate through over-statement.  They may say something is “the funniest thing ever” or “the most hilarious show I have seen in my entire life”.  They probably don’t mean it. Smile enthusiastically, laugh a little and then switch the channel to FOX News – it won’t be funny at all.

South America

When I lived in South America I met some people that I found really funny and some people that made me want to take a fork to my eye.  Naturally, the cultures I came across – Peruvian, Argentine, Uruguayan, Brazilian, whatever – all came with their own brand of humor.  Most of the humor I came across was delivered with high volume, enthusiasm and a lot of passion.  Trust me: You looked like an idiot if, after the punch line, you just sat their and scratched your head.  So here’s what I did: I laughed at everything and then, if I didn’t get it, turned to local friends and whispered, “Why was that funny?”  South American communication stresses diplomacy and warm interpersonal relations so if I did admit to not finding something funny, I first made sure my relationship with the joker was established and safe.

Asia

Bluntness is a bad idea in Asia.  Throughout my childhood in Hong Kong and the Philippines,  I heard stories of rude, clumsy foreigners and their embarrassing antics. Communication had to be indirect, polite and always had to allow for the other party to “save face” (maintain dignity/honor).  So you did NOT tell people they were not funny.  I felt that some of the best communication in Asia happened through careful situational maneuvering.  So, if someone is not funny, smile at their overtures and then tell some of lamest jokes you know in a long, agonizing sequence (explain them as being really funny where you come from so as to avoid looking facetious).  The original offender, so completely bored by your bad jokes, will likely never try to tickle your funny bone again.

One last word – humor, if culturally appropriate, is extremely effective in communicating and problem-solving across cultural barriers.  So if you are traveling or if you are meeting with people from different parts of the world, pay special attention to what they find funny.  A shared laugh covers a multitude of cultural missteps and blunders.  Often, the first sign that you are accepted by people is that they start joking with you.  So let loose and laugh with the people you meet.  And when you come across the obligatory bore with his tired jokes, smile, remember where you are, and tell him what he needs to hear, how he needs to hear it.

Be part of CultureMutt:  LEAVE A COMMENT

Bjorn Karlman