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".


  1. One of my colleagues has what amounts to a verbal tick by which he replies "yeah-no" to most questions!

    Tony Hayward's testimony is not really a fair test of the English language, I imagine he was rather mindful of admitting to liability which could cost his company, hence his general refusal to answer yes or no to any questions. I'm not sure how common demands for yes/no answers are outside this context and related political interrogations (or whether they are common in other languages).

  2. Ha ha! So true. In the run-up to the previous World Cup, I bought an England flag at Sainsbury's (marked down to 1.99) for my English husband. Instead of flying it from the balcony, he used it for a dust rag (is a rugby fan; not football). As for the differences between American and British English - and nuances in both - this is a running conversation we've had for ten years now. Rooney may be a decent football player, but he lacks Beckham's class.

    It appears that BP is deliberately obfuscating, concerned about their liability in lawsuits. As for public relations, clearly not their strong suit!

  3. Fascinating blog Margit. Inter-cultural discourse and understanding is clearly far more than just about the ability to speak other languages (although of course that helps...;). It's about the ability to understand, dissect and handle what I would call "codes" - sign languages of cultural signficance. Interpreting Rooney and the St. George's flag is almost impossible unless you have followed English cultural change over the last 15 years, and the vicissitudes of Anglo-cultural identity development - witness English vs. Scots vs. Welsh. Plus the overtones of conquest, of Medieval jousting - again, who could pick this up other than the initiated. In fact, perhaps all attempts to interpret someone else's cultural "grunts" or "signs" ( and this could include poetry) is futile unless they are deeply familiar with the context and historical embedding of any utterance made. Sounds confusing? At least it's it clear that is unclear....innit.

  4. Realistic Radicle23 June 2010 at 11:39

    I find the portrayal of Rooney a little disquieting from an interculturalist. The aping of the medias "oafish" view of Rooney and his lack of "intelligence" is a judgemental portrayal of the working class that he comes from. He obviously does not adhere to international middle class sensibilities, but I would expect an interculturalist to be able to see through this evaluative class portrayal.

    Rooney will never be portrayed in a way that the child of the middle class Beckham has been, and it is a shame that this is the case in modern Britain. Please try to refrain from adopting English class evaluations onto individuals without trying to understand why the portrayal is widespread.

    We have seen the attempted gentrification of football since the dawn of Murdochs televised football revolution. This has led to remenants of the games working class roots such as Rooney, and to a degree Terry, as well as large swathes of supporters accross the country, being portrayed s loutish, uncultured and ignorant. This cultural class attack on a sport which had been the bastion of working class tradition for much of the twentieth century represents an interesting cultural move in modern Britain. Why do Britains middle and elite classess seek to control and dominate, what amounts to the last legal bastion of working class culture in the UK? And why do we, who exist outside of that culutr choose to be influenced by such an agenda.

  5. Interesting viewpoint! But to me "Intercultural" will never mean non-evaluative. Your own cultural viewpoint can and definitely should assure that. Associating modern English footbal with working-class culture smacks (to me) a little bit too much of nostalgia, today's mercenry milionaires are hardly a good example to carry on William Cobbett and Raymond Williams. Also, I find it a very English fallacy to make everything "the media's" fault. Rooney is not "portrayed" that way, his image is not falsified at all (even with my very critical media hat on)- or do you think if you met him in the flesh he'd hold forth with a pervuasive suada about historical materialism? The real dialectics of British media reporting is that very often things and personae are exactly as protrayed. Go figure!

  6. Realistic Radical23 June 2010 at 13:28

    In my opinion, an intercul;turalist should at least attempt to see the lens that has been built within a culture to view certain people and groups in that culture. Whether or not Rooney would be able to hold forth a persuarive suada on anything is unimportant, and the suggestion further solidifies the middle class educated sensibility about what is valuable in a person.

    I do not only hold the media soley responsable for this, although they bear a strong burden, I actually hold the movement in British middle class culture, which dumifies and dehumanises the few working class success stories in Britains recent past, responsible for this.

    Yes, Wayne Rooney is a millionaire, and yes he is a mercenary, but is he so dissimilar for those who grew up like he did, but were not fortunate enough to "make it" They are also portrayed in a similar oafish and brutish manner, in both the media and common discussion. Examples of this include on TV with what has become known as "poverty porn" where middle class people condecend to poor families, and show off how poor and backward and unforunate these people are, and how great the benevolent middles classes are to help them.

    Also this can be seen in many different spheres of british society, including the portrayal of certain public figures for their class background. Other examples than Rooney would include John Prescott, John Terry, Michael Martin, and i could go on and on.

    I agree with you that football is no longer a domain of the working classes in the uk and has been largely co-opted by the middle class, however it is interesting how its working class remenants and roots are portrayed in British society.

    To say that the way things are porttrayed in the media is actually how they are, seems very niave to me and completely misrepresents the fact that the media has vested class interests in our society, and has a platform to further those interests. Their own lens, and by that i mean the lens of owners, editors and mainstream journalists effects the messages which they further and results in the portrayals we regularly see.

    So tell me, what is it that makes Beckham so palettable as opposed to Rooney. Is it the blond hair and blue eyes? Is it his soft spoken middle class demeanour, is it his dress sense and ability to blend in with the classes. Or is it that he is like one of us while Rooney is just the great unwashed Shrek hiding in the corner

  7. Oh dear... what a rant:) I'm afraid that's how other nations DO see Rooney. They care very little about his origins, as Europeans simply aren't as class-obsessed as the English. All they see is somebody is unprofessional, not in control of himself, and fond of abusive behaviour. Love it or hate it, people are judged on their conduct - especially by other nations.

  8. Realistic Radical23 June 2010 at 16:12

    It's not a rant. It is a cry to an interculturalist to try and look more deeply into how a certain culture, and the people in it, are being portrayed.

    Incidentally, unprofessional, as you are aware, is an extremely evaluative label which has all kinds of cultural connitations implicit in it. As for not in control of himself, If you are familiar, as i am sure you will be, with Dr Hammers and others Conflict Style work, then you would surely agree that the "not in control of himself", could easily be seen as an evaluation of someone with an engagment conflict style.

    My main issue is not how other countries see Rooney, as i expect this to be tinged with the lens of the mobile international middle class. My primary issue is hearing these stereotypes being parroted on a blog which claims to be intercultural. The job of interculturalists is to help people to see how cultural constructs cause them to percieve things based upon the lens they look through, and allow them to control their perceptions of the other to allow people to understand each other and work more effectively. The blanket steroetypes and the elitest subtext of the evaluation in your article would suggest that this is not your goal as an interculturalist.

    To say that people are judged on their conduct , and are not judged based on the evaluative lens of the culture of the viewer would suggest a deep lack of understanding of the intercultural field. The people judging Rooney are doing so from the perception of his actions in their own culture.

    Can you give me one single example of an action which Rooney has taken which is abusive or unprofessional, bearing in mind that in terms of the football field Beckaham is guilty of a far higher level of unprofessionalism and abuse than Rooney has ever been. (Petulently lashing out at an argentinian during a match)

    I look forward to your response as an interculturalist.

  9. Dear Margit,

    I enjoy your blog very much. You and I see events as they unfold around us and have similar reactions: what do they say about culture?

    As an American, however, I bridled at one of your statements. You stated, "US governors from Southerrn States - well spoken and immaculately prepared."
    1) The Congressional committee that confronted BP CEO Tony Hayward was comprised of US Congressmen. Even with a small letter "g", the word "governor" here is misplaced. Congressmen are representatives, who stand in for a certain number of constituents from their respective States. A "governor" is one who directs from a position of executive authority. In their State, this position is held by a Governor.

    2) A well-spoken Congressman from a Southern State is a contradiction in terms. Most residents of Southern States in the US are either rural or come from an agrarian heritage. Being well spoken is not necessarily perceived as a positive trait. Those who aspire to positions of authority and respect do not gain that position by speaking well, per se, but more by building their constituent base through their networks and relationships. This contrasts sharply with the Northern States where the political power bases are usually built around those who can best represent causes or interests. One historical example in particular that highlights this difference is the difficulty that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had in translating Dr. King's rural strategy, which was quite successful in the South, to an urban setting. Rev. Jesse Jackson was instrumental in understanding the differences between the way Northern and Southern power bases are built. The point of this is that the more a Southern political representative can portray him or herself as a "good ol' boy," meaning that they are "of the people" and not "of the establishment," the more successful they are. Language use is clearly a part of this image building. This is why you will see Congressmen and Senators from the South who may have lived in Washington DC for 20 - 30 years still speaking with the accent and dialect they grew up with as a child. It reinforces their authenticity.