Competitive Envy

There is an icky US car commercial that is being aired during this year’s Winter Olympics season. I feel as if it is taking on a problem of international relations that does not need to be played out in this way.  The commercial harnesses international clichés to be ironic.  And it makes me very ill at ease. 

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Curly Hair

One thing that internationals were exposed to around my dinner table when I lived in France was the launching of a conversation about the physical appearance of men and women in different countries.  This discussion was used tongue-in-cheek (by me) to replace those weird dinner party games that I saw played by adults of my parents’ generation, such as “pass the grapefruit.”  My discussion topic was a way to be intimate while talking in abstractions that no one would consider entertaining at work or in another setting.  Usually our dinner parties included at least one American (me), a German (my husband) and a few French people. Often they also included Portuguese or Slovak friends as well.  

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Uncategorizable

Two nights ago a man, a farmer, who I have known and idolized since I was 8 years old, passed away at the age of 87.  Raymond was uncategorizable.  You might not believe me, since I just told you that he was a farmer. Clear-cut category, right?  You would be wrong.  In addition to being an American History buff, he loved opera. Raymond had traveled far beyond his native township in Wisconsin, not only because he served in the Navy for four years during the Korean War, but also because he was curious.  Raymond stopped by to admire my mother’s tulips on our family farm last June.  I was afraid that it was a good-bye visit, because his health had been failing for some time. But Raymond hung on for six more months.  What made the visit feel like a good bye was that he explained so much of himself to me, and the stories added to the rich texture of my perception of him as uncategorizable. 

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
The Big Apple

My husband and I took our boys, 10 and 12, to New York this fall.  My kids like to visit big cities, having spent a lot of time in Paris, Chicago, and Munich (OK not so big).  After arriving in Penn Station at 9:30 p.m. my youngest did stride confidently and alone toward a men’s restroom until I caught up with him to say that, here in New York City, he had to be accompanied by a parent to public bathrooms at night.  He wasn’t being so much naïve about safety as he was sure he could deal with whatever might arise.  So I told him he was wrong.  I lived in New York City when I was a young child (ages 3-5), and I was taught otherwise.

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Trop Fac(e)

A few years ago an American academic living in Paris mentioned to me that kids coming back to France (and maybe other European countries) after a year of high school in the United States (the famous “junior year abroad”) typically have one thing to report: “Trop fac(e)! So easy!”  In French schools the level is higher, she asserted. FYI, this was very important to her to believe because her kids were attending high school in Paris (at international school, which she considered to represent French schooling).  I pushed back: “Everything you say implies that US schools are not as good as French ones.  But then there should be some evidence for that.  Like the PISA report?  And there isn’t any such evidence.  So, do you have new data or are you just perpetuating a cliche?”  She said the latter.  Bravo for the insight.

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Language Luck

My four sons speak the languages English, French, and German, and they all got to that tri-lingual state in approximately the same way. That way involved luck and good fortune, and only modest challenges. Take Alex, my oldest stepson.  He was born in Boulder, Colorado and was then whisked off to Konstanz, Germany with his German father, my husband, and his French mother.  From the age of three (and until 18), he was raised in France.  For the most part, his parents spoke to him in their native tongues.  When Alex was 12 years old and had become my stepson, we spent a sabbatical year in the United States, after which he and I spoke to each other in English.  There have been booster shots in the form of classes and travel.  But mostly Alex got the gift of tri-lingual gab from the hard work and complicated lives of his four parents. 

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
German

Here are two clichés that, I think, derive from people who do not speak a word of German: one is, “German words are long” and the other is, “German is stilted and serious” as a language.  To my mind, both of those clichés are far off the mark.  And the fact that the first is wrong is what makes the second so incredibly wrong. I ask myself sometimes, did Mark Twain actually speak German?

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
L-O-N-G meals

The other day I was floating around in a lake near Munich with a girlfriend whose 17 year-old daughter, wearing a very skimpy bikini, had just waded into the water. The daughter has such a narrow body, is so not wide in any way, that I frankly stared at her. I was particularly exercised because the girl had been stuffing Kasekuchen(cheese cake) into her mouth with abandon during Kaffeekuchen. Following my gaze my girlfriend stated “Nicht meine Gene” (“Not my genes”) with mock bitterness.  
Not my genes either. I had picked on a small piece of Kasekuchen for a whole hour, fearful that it might take up residence -- without invitation -- somewhere on my body forever. 

Read More
Speedos

My father and mother bought an 80-acre farm between Reedsburg and Mauston, Wisconsin in 1968. This felt right to my father because our family had just moved to Hyde Park, Chicago and he felt a bit out of sorts. He himself had grown up on a farm in west-central Kansas. Hyde Park was way outside of his comfort zone.

Read More
Unique

My friend Karen moved back to the United States from France in 2011, around the same time I did.  Before that huge move (she had also lived in France for many years), Karen expressed concern about losing her unique status.  “I won’t be the American living in France anymore,” she sighed. 

I knew just what she meant. The American in Paris.  Well, at the time I was the American in Clermont-Ferrand and she was the American in St-Jean-des-Ollières. I know, that probably sounds less poetic.

Read More
Contact

There is a social psychological hypothesis that was tested in extensive research a long time ago.  The hypothesis is called the Contact Hypothesis, and it was proposed as a way to reduce intergroup prejudice and conflict.  The general idea is based on the intuitive notion that if you just get to know someone, you will like him more, or at least hate him less. The reality is that contact only works favorably under social conditions that are in fact wildly difficult to achieve in the real world. Contact can lead to greater harmony if the following conditions are met: the groups or people are of equal status, they have shared goals, intergroup cooperation is required, people of the two groups have to actually interact, and there is recognition of common laws and authority.  When those conditions hold, people from different groups start to shed their preconceptions and prejudices.

Read More
The Scientific Fraud of Professor X

A Dutch professor in my own field of social psychology was busted for scientific fraud almost two years ago.  The report of a committee that conducted a lengthy investigation concluded, last November, that Professor X had fabricated the data for at least 55 of his papers, and for 10 doctoral dissertations written by his graduate students.

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Anti-Charm

One of my advisors in graduate school was Polish, a survivor of World War II.  On the way to immigrating to the United States, he passed by and resided in several countries including the Netherlands and France.  When I was living in Aix-en-Provence, taking a sabbatical year in France that would lead to my spending many more years in that country, he visited and stayed in the rented apartment of a mutual American professor friend in town.  I remember visiting the apartment. It was one of those places described as having “du charm” on vacation rental websites. This means that it was built a couple of hundred years ago and that the kitchen sink was a sort of flat slab of marble with a shallow basin in the middle.  The electricity was wired in the 1930s.  The shutters were warped and closed with difficulty, and the façade of the building had not been resurfaced for decades, further adding to “le charm.”

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Guns

A little over a year and a half ago, when I thought about all of the reasons I was wildly excited about moving back to the United States after years and years of living in France, American gun laws were not among them.  I put a list on Facebook of my anticipated American pleasures, and Ar-15s were absent. Didn't even cross my mind. Defense of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, especially coming from a Constitutionalist, was something I was not waiting to listen to.  I knew I would be as impatient as myself listening to literal readers of the Bible. 

Read More
This is War

Recently I had visitors from Europe, who are friends of my children.  One night I took them out to dinner at a restaurant, and the elementary-school-aged visitor announced to the table, “In American restaurants, if there isn’t anything left over at the end of the meal, you haven’t been served enough food.”  I am not sure when he had last eaten in an American restaurant, but I didn’t ask. And yes, I have heard Dutch people make boisterous announcements about France on ski lifts in the French Alps, and Americans opining loudly about Italy in the Uffizi.  I’ll never, ever get away from this behavior, I thought.

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
The Cliché of Liking

I met someone at a party recently who said they had happened upon my blog.  I forgot to ask why or how. “It’s really interesting,” he said.  And then after a moment, he added, “You didn’t like living in France, huh?” Actually, he is Austrian, so he probably didn't say "huh?" but rather something closer to, "nicht wahr?"  I asked how many posts he had read, and he admitted that he had read only one, the post called Top-down vs Bottom-up.  Oh, I said, it is true that I didn’t like the institutional structure that I worked in.  Or perhaps any of the educational structures in France. 

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Elites

As far as I am concerned, there is a chasmic difference between being a great person, a person of tremendous substance, and being a competitive person, a person who is desperate to have substance. And as far as I am concerned, pedigree has nothing to do with the embodiment of substance.  I dismiss most forms of elitism out of hand.  My experience is that they are so deeply disappointing; defined by a sense of promise unfulfilled.

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
T’as Mal Où ?

For some reason I grew up shockingly naïve of social stereotypes and clichés. This could explain my interest in discussing them here.  My friend Mark used to collect jokes at Hebrew School, and then dutifully recount them to me, his little Lutheran friend, in our 6th grade homeroom class. Many of the jokes relied on stereotypes about Jews. I almost never got them.He’d go on and on and then come to an (to me) anti-climatic punch line.  “I don’t get it,” I’d admit. “Jeez, think about it. Jews are supposed to be tight with their money…” he’d coach.

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment
Fly-Over

I am always the last to hear about the introduction of truly idiotic expressions into the language. I am still catching up after moving back to the US from Europe just over a year ago, and I am not always paying close attention.

But, "Fly-over States?"  Seriously? 

Read More
Paula NiedenthalComment