My Motivations

So, the first reason to start such a blog is to realize that the extent of bias, ideology, and neuroticism in international perception and relations is mind-blowing.   I recently read the articles on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn incident in four French and two American newspapers, and my hair stood up.  The explicit message in the French papers was to turn all the anger on the US justice system.  A clear lack of understanding + hatred of that system was expressed by all but a certain group of Parisien women.  Not only people's own psychology (their biases in finding and assessing information) but also the media (and their problem of using concepts that do not even translate between American and European countries and languages), actually undermine international relations.

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But I Must Have Some Bias

My bias, I admit, is to be really disappointed in the nature and the process of international contact and stereotyping.  To understand why I want to discuss clichés that get thrown back and forth across the Pond, I’ll have to start with my own development on that score.  I can admit my own faults here. 

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The Problem with Concepts, Part I

The problem with stereotypes and clichés has to do with the problem of building and using concepts.  Concepts are people's beliefs about the features that make up a category of things (like, "cheese"), where those features come from ("cheese has calcium because it is made from milk), how frequently a given feature is present across category members ("calcuim is a feature of all cheese" whereas "having holes" is not), and the way to use those features to interact with category members ("bleu cheese makes a good sauce").  People have to have concepts or they would be in the process of relearning how to do the same things all of the time.  Once we have learned the concept of “cups” we know where these things are stored, how to handle them, and what kinds of liquids go into them.  The concept of cup is very useful.   When we want to serve coffee, we do not have to ask around to figure out what to put it in.  Same thing with billions of other concepts, from the concept of “hair brush” to “salad” and “rototiller.”  We know what a lot of things are, we know names for them, and how to use them.  So life seems pretty fluid, where it would not otherwise.

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False Advertising About Places

A couple of years ago I met a lovely couple, a German married to a Brazilian, who live in Minneapolis, MN (USA).  After basically doing their schooling and making their life in the Twin Cities, they had moved to the south of France for a while.  Three years in the south of France was enough for them, and they moved back to MN.  I wondered out loud with them how that went over with their friends in France.  I asked, “How did you explain that you were moving from Montpellier to Minneapolis?”  It was easy, they replied, “We just said that we were going home.”  I was impressed. 

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Judgments About the Silliest Things

Sometimes when I listen to people from one country describe the people from another, I can’t believe what they are actually talking about.  The behavior or difference they are discussing seems to be so neutral or unremarkable that I can’t believe that it has been noticed at all.  The silly little behavior that they are describing is, of course, actually an iceberg.  Below it lies a much bigger structure.

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Smiles are the Tip of a Huge Iceberg

A number of years ago, my friend Jennie and I decided to write a book together about living in France.  We were tired of all of the (anglophone) books out there that repeat the same  stories about going to the market, or waiting for the artisan to come, or talking to the rude neighbor, or being amazed by the wine or the amount of wine.  Or the fact that Mitterrand had a mistress and everyone was OK with that.  In 14 years maybe 50 people have told me this as if I hadn’t heard it yet.  We were incidently also tired of the same types of books written about the U.S…. the stories about fast food, or ignorance of something, or ways of being religious, or being religious at all.  Or especially of how easily people tell you the story of their life on a bus, but then do not invite you to Christmas dinner, dammit  (I am putting myself to sleep now).

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The Problem of Knowing

I once happened on a website written by some young Dutch students.  They wrote that there was a problem of teen pregnancy the U.S., and they knew how to nip it in the bud:  If only Americans were not so messed up about sex, and were just more open like the Dutch, then the teen pregnancy problem would go away.  I thought I’d just go ahead and send them plane tickets to Appalachia and let them talk openly about sex til the cows came home.  In the exact same way and in a variety of domains, Americans have expressed the thought that if some country way over there would just do things the way Americans did, then there would be more of this good thing, or less of that bad thing.  Things would just be a ‘hole lot better.

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They’re all the Same to Me

I was sitting at a party some years ago and another guest told me, because my accent had brought up the fact that I was American, that her brother was a chef in a French restaurant … in Hollywood. “We have visited twice.  It is amazing: America is just like the movies,” she said.  She went on to describe her niece’s birthday party, with hired clowns and magicians around a swimming pool.  While I did a pretty good job of looking interested, I was feeling some surprise because, at the time, “Million Dollar Baby” was all the rage in France.  I was born in Missouri, and while we moved away when I was still a baby, I have been back often enough to know that southern Missouri (the Ozarks) is nothing like L.A. and that the clown thing was definitely not happening in that film.

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Clichés are the Funniest Things

My friend Leonel, a social psychologist from the University of Lisbon, gave a talk on stereotyping in our laboratory a few years ago.  He noted that when he mentions that he is from Lisbon, people think of the picture to the right.  I laughed because (although this is not the exact picture), the image was funny, and I also laughed because Leonel has a great sense of humor and he always makes me laugh.  

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Taking a Break from it All

People in different countries of Europe, and from Europe to North American and right back again, judge each others' work habits and schedules, and judge them often and vocally.  Of course, with current international business practices and the supposedly helpful diversity trainings (which, from what I have seen, are largely sources of successful transmission of  clichés), this should be seen as unsurprising in some ways.  The  economies are in real competition, although the structure of the economies is totally opaque for many of us.  Discussions that Deutsche Börse, the German stock exchange, could buy the New York Stock Exchange (Wall Street) are very confusing to the average person (like me).  Wall Streeters will apparently vote on this on July 7, and Deutsche Börse shareholders will do so by July 13; but I don’t even understand the implications.

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C'est le Pouvoir

The current Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) situation raises the question of power in international relations.  According to my Israeli friend, Eva, most things can be  explained by referring to the concept of power.  The very use of the initials DSK, for example, can be seen as a demonstration of power.  I learned this from my friend Sébastien who, with twinkling eyes, told me, “Oh, the K is very important.  Very. Important.”  The fact that DSK was picked up at JFK (airport) is thus rather poetic.  The last two letters present lovely  consonance in many languages.

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Conceptual Combination and Acronyms

What is the attraction of a hair salon that is called Self Coiff?  This name mixes the American individualism cliché with the superior French haircutting one (my hairdresser here always assumes that I will not be able to get my hair cut or highlighted when I spend three months in the US).  I remember the first time I saw this  chain of hair salons.  What could thisSelf Coiff  mean, I wondered?  When you get up in the  morning and run your hand through your hair,  as I do now that I have children, or when you shower, shampoo and do a brushing, as I did  before children, isn't this a Self Coiff What could it possibly be and why would anyone want to go there?  I still do not know, having never really wanted to stop in.

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Wandering into the Fray

My friend Marie-France had kissed me good-bye as I was leaving Aix-en-Provence, and told me to drive straight north to Lyon from Aix, and then turn left and drive another hour and a half west.  She knew this, but had never actually been to Clermont-Ferrand.  Indeed, my announcement to friends in Aix that I was moving to Clermont-Ferrand was met with aghast looks, much lip pursing, and eyebrow raising. 

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Gesundheit!!

A number of years ago I read a book called Medicine and Culture, which was a comparison of medical practices andphilosophies in Germany, France, England and the United States.  Some conclusions, based on studies and statistics from the 1980s, were already outdated when I read the book.  But it was a great read, and the analysis of medical philosophy was timeless.

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The Eating Conversation

No matter what food behavior I describe, people think I am “not a typical American.”  And my descriptions vary widely.  For example, I was born in Columbia, Missouri.  We moved away when I was 6 months old, but my parents were there long enough for my father to enjoy frog gigging and develop a taste for frog’s legs.  Did you know that English word before, gigging?  I had forgotten it.  Frog gigging involves going out at night with a flashlight, stunning the frog with the light, and snagging it with the “gig,” a pronged spear.  Then, just like in France, you skin the frog and fry up or sauté the legs, usually in lots of garlic and butter.  My father loved frog legs and always ordered them in French restaurants when he was visiting.  I like them too, and people always claim I must not be a typical American.  

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The Holiday Eating Conversation

The first time my in-laws came from Munich to spend Christmas with us, I coasted on automatic and ordered a goose from the local butcher.  I sliced up the red cabbage very fine while browning the lardons(bacon cubes) for sweet-sour  red cabbage, and then scored the brussel sprouts  while thecream cheese and dill sauce bubbled on  the stove.  I stuffed the goose with prune and walnut stuffing, and let’s face it, I embodied my mother preparing Christmas Day dinner for my father.  

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