Monday, 21 June 2010

Rich Pickings for the Interculturalist

These are heady days for anybody interested in intercultural issues – starting with BP's various gaffes, which are not just PR disasters but show a lack of cross-cultural understanding…. and then the various on-goings with the England football team that are not just a sporting issue but indicate a breakdown in inter-European discourse.


Can anybody understand each other- even when they're allegedly speaking the same language? It seemed communication was almost at breaking-point when BP's Tony Hayward testified at the US congress this week. US governors from Southerrn States - well spoken and immaculately prepared - were reduced to apoplectic rage, shouting "Yes or No, Mr. Hayward???" when once again British Hayward proferred an "Oim afraid I can't tell you that" response, or tried hedging with "Oi believe that's the case". These weren't just the prevarications drilled into him by Brunswick PR. Almost every other language (certainly European) uses the words "yes" for affirmation and "No" for dissent. Not so British English - a veritable pitfall for anybody who didn't grow up with it. Say "No thank you" (which sounds polite enough to most ears) to the offer of a cup of tea, and you're classified as rude in England. "Very kind, but I think I'm alright for the moment." would be the correct response. Another example – in British English, it’s fine to say “I think so, yes” when what is meant is “yes”, whereas to many other cultures it sounds like a statement of uncertainty. Or indeed obfuscation. Americans do not share this habit or passion for circumlocution. To them, a refusal to answer yes or no smacks of obfuscation and weaselliness. Brunswick PR would have been well advised to look into this.

The England Team and Fabby-o Capello

Another intercultural hot spot is the on-going uneasiness between the England football manager Fabio Capello and his team. This is fascinating as again a linguistic culture-clash becomes a problem of national concern. Maybe it was never a good idea to employ a manager who could not speak a word of English when he started, and is only vaguely beginning to make himself understood now. It seems quite incomprehensible how he manages to convey intricate issues (well ok, we are talking football)... But that is purely a language issue and not an intercultural one. The expectations of an unrelenting, seemingly autocratic Italian used to hierarchical structures in 1970's Italian club culture sit uneasily with an oafish (and to many Brits equally incomprehensible) Rooney, say. Peevishness, resentment, frustrated blokeishness ("We always just sat in our rooms", J.Terry) form an explosive alliance which obviously does not bring out the best in everybody. As one football commentator put it "The squad thought he was different".


Wayne Rooney is also an interesting intercultural phenomenon, although this time it's unrelated to language. In England, Rooney enjoys near-messianic cult-status amongst broad swathes of the population. The image of him draped in a St George's flag has become iconic. Foreigners however, just see him as an un-prepossessing, slightly flabby teenager who rants and grunts at fans. Rooney is so much the epitome of what English football is all about - the will to win, to crusade and conquer, pride in wearing the shirt, an unintellectual approach to the point of oafishness… that his image will never translate into any other culture. Which guarantees two things: Rooney will be "England til he dies", as no European football club would want to be saddled with him; and secondly that he will never be a marketing torch-bearer for international football, like say David Beckham.

Interculturalism has so many fascinating aspects, but it all depends on your perspective: Like an Australian friend commented the other day when told about all the undercurrents and likes and dislikes between nations. "You Europeans are funny".