Friday, 24 February 2012

How Important is a "Home Town"?

My last blog post "inspired" a Guardian journalist. I sincerely hope this current topic (my 50th on Intercultural Musings) won't be similarly picked up in tomorrow's paper!

When President Obama burst into an impromptu deliverance of "Sweet Home Alabama" recently, he felt obliged to change the lyrics to "Sweet Home Chicago" - obviously to emphasize that THAT was where his heart lay. Well, good for him, I say, at least he can be sure about his home.

Many people are not so lucky. I for one would be hard pressed to name anthing as a home town. Facebook, being American, takes it for granted that anybody has indeed got one...

But is it really that important? Does it really reflect on who you are just because you were born in X? One gets a bit bored with people saying "Well, I'm originally from Chortleworth, but am now living in Telford. Mind you, you can take the girl out of Chortleworth..." Yawn. There's a veritable cult about what is ultimately an arbitrary birth place. Fuelled recently even more by the indeed very "homely" Adele.

Even worse, I find, when people start imbibing the genius loci and say they're "proud" to be from XYZ. It really beats me how you can be proud of having been born (or gone to school) in an arbitrary location.
Maybe you could say "I'm proud to have lived through the shelling of Sarajevo and to have survived." But even here, gratetful would probably be a better word. But proud to be from Telford, Gelsenkirchen, Lille? Why? You didn't do anything to be proud of. It's just something that happened.

Most people would object to one saying "I'm proud to be blonde" - equally arbitrary. But a "proud" Lancastrian, Glaswegian, Bavarian is always welcome. People nod sagely and say yeah they're special those Lancastrians. They wouldn't say "yeah they're special those people with wonky noses", would they?

Sorry, after my latest experience, I have to be a bit cautious. Comment function is therefore disabled (this post only).

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

No Talking, Please! Germans on Twitter

I've written about the differences in intercultural social media usage before ( but a recent news headline that Twitter is growing exponentially in Germany leads me to dwell on the subject a bit more.

So after years and years of saying "Twitter - clearly overrated" and "That won't last" (their favourite standard put-downs to any new development) they've finally tagged onto the (somewhat spurious) idea that being on Twitter gives you social kudos, makes your "trändy", and lets you show off amongst your peer group.

I've been observing German twitterers for quite some time now - and my verdict is stark: They just don't know to to deal with Social Media. They excell at Foursquare, they try any trick in the book to up their Klout score, they like having masses of followers (and never mind that they're all trade related or want to sell an e-book). It's numbers and facts that count in Germany. My Klout score is..., I ousted xx as mayor... I bought a new iphoen XS2YZ -that's the Social Media currency that Gemans understand.

What they fundamentally do not see and get is the obvious (another characteristic of Germans in my experience - not seeing the wood for the trees), namely that Social Media is about communication.

Communication/conversation is a dark hole in German culture. For Germans, talking first and foremost means conveying information. And from that starting point, it isn't very far to "showing off with information which I 've got and you haven't". Conversation as a bonding agent in any form of interpersonal encounter is literally a non-starter in Germany. (If you've ever been to an awkward German office party where people have no problem with facing one another without saying a word for, oooh half an hour, you'll kow what I mean.)

Even the word "Konversation" has an entirely negative connotation in German, meaning "talking for the sake of it, not genuine". Talking, exchanging ideas, witty, light-hearted conversation is just simply not their forte.

At the moment, all kinds of articles on "The Purpose of Twitter", "Twitter to Up your Career Prospects", "Should Politicians be on Twitter" etc. abound - but the simple insight that Social Media means linking up to people conversationally, I fear, will for ever escape Germans.

For more information on the Art of Conversation, have a look at my book: Animated Conversations. Pfaffenweiler 1992.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Dickens and Pushkin as Saviours of National Identity

Wonderful. 200 years of Dickens. What could be nicer? Celebrations, BBC documentaries, author readings, competitions, blogs, biographies. Your favourite Dickens character? Your favourite Dickens novel? What would you have said to Dickens? What does Dickens mean to us in 2012?

Nice, if it wasn't so heavy-handed. It is so very obvious that poor old Dickens has his role to play in this "special year" for Britain: Jubilee, yeah, Olympic Games double yeah, Dickens yeah. Yeah us, Great Britain. And remember Dickens' Victorianism? Wasn't all hunky-dory then was it? People had it tough too, actually a lot tougher than you lot. Scavenging, no money, crime, alcoholism.. you name it, they had it. You've got it really good in comparison, so stop moaning and get ony with it. Best country in the word innit! So there.

1937, the height of Stalin's terror regime. Also, the centenary of Pushkin's death. An author who used to be labelled aristocratic and decadent now became a cultural figure of national identity. Kulturny'i were the people who read Pushkin, cultured folk, not backward peasants. And Stalin saw to it that everybody did indeed read Pushkin. And that every poet, writer, musician (Shostakovitch!) did their bit explainig why -oh yes indeed - Pushkin was their favourite poet. A national hero. The embodiment of the Russian soul. Legacy of what we're about. National source of Russianism, the essence of our literary heritage.

Pushkin sculptures sprang out of the ground next to the usual Lenin and Stalin ones. A literary figure became a national treasure. Pushkin's works became the ersatz-bible of the new state. Communist party, Stalin, Pushkin - your reference system if you're a modern Stalinist who loves his country. Hero of the masses.

Your favourite work by Pushkin? Err, sorry, Dickens!