Tag Archives: culture

bolinhas - FISL 2009

Bolinhas!

It pays to know your local market. Sun’s Brazil team had the bright idea to have 2000 small soccer balls printed with logos, to use as giveaways at FISL. Along with much other show stuff, these arrived in the bus that drove from Sao Paolo to Porto Alegre. Then they had to be stored in Read More…

It pays to know your local market.

Sun’s Brazil team had the bright idea to have 2000 small soccer balls printed with logos, to use as giveaways at FISL. Along with much other show stuff, these arrived in the bus that drove from Sao Paolo to Porto Alegre. Then they had to be stored in the hotel we were all staying at…

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When we finally got them to the show floor, they filled a tall column (which had holes near the bottom to extract them from):

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There were over 8000 attendees at FISL this year, so not everyone could have a ball just for the asking. And they did ask: we had a constant flow of people into the booth requesting a bolinha (little ball). They were cute, all right.

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The few little kids at the show got one automatically, but everyone else had to work for it, usually by doing soccer tricks:

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Even in Brazil, soccer ability is not a given in a geeky crowd like this, but three girls who were not only beautiful but knew how to play soccer had been hired to “coach”:

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They were very popular; all the young men and boys wanted to take photos with them (a few of them also asked for photos with Teresa and me, to our surprise), but they smilingly refused – that wasn’t part of their contract (and they would have spent all day doing nothing else, had they agreed).

The girls also kept the coffee machine running, a big plus for those of us working the booth, as well as the many who happily lined up for free coffee – this was a trick discovered by Sun Brazil years ago, now imitated (with less booth-filling success) by several other companies showing at FISL.

By the end of the fourth day the tower of balls was empty, but there was a reserve bag of souvenir balls for us hard-working Sun employees. I took four, and gave them all away before I got back to the US, the last two going to Bill and Sherry’s kids in Brisbane.

Cultural Hegemony: Who’s Dominating Whom?

A popular meme in American consciousness is cultural hegemony: the idea that American culture, as represented in widely-exported American movies, TV shows, fast-food restaurants, and brands, is overwhelming the traditional cultures of other countries. The fear is that this will eventually result in a sadly homogenized world in which everyone abandons their own customary foods Read More…

A popular meme in American consciousness is cultural hegemony: the idea that American culture, as represented in widely-exported American movies, TV shows, fast-food restaurants, and brands, is overwhelming the traditional cultures of other countries. The fear is that this will eventually result in a sadly homogenized world in which everyone abandons their own customary foods and entertainments to eat at MacDonald’s and listen to hip-hop.

This theory seems to be popular on both sides of America’s own cultural divide. The liberal left worries that we are teaching the rest of the world to be destructively, mindlessly capitalistic and individualistic. A more conservative viewpoint worries that we are “exporting the wrong picture” of America, an argument propounded by Martha Bayles of Boston College in a Washington Post editorial (see below).

There are two problems with this theory.

The first is that it’s arrogant. It is true that American popular culture is widely consumed worldwide. This is not simply because American media companies are good at selling their products – no one is forcing people to watch American shows. In many countries, local cinemas and TV stations show American stuff because their customers want to see it. Some governments work hard to censor what their people see, for political or religious/cultural reasons (or both). Nonetheless, their citizens often go to great lengths, sometimes breaking the law, to obtain and consume American media. It’s not being forced on them by those evil capitalists in Hollywood.

The cultural hegemony argument is also a subtle put-down of other cultures: it assumes that they are so weak or ignorant that they cannot be trusted to decide for themselves what they should see and hear. That these people should, “for their own good,” be protected from invasive American culture, so that their “native” cultures will be preserved.

(Aside: Preserved for what? As a quaint playground for American tourists who want the “authentic” experience when they travel in other countries?)

The second problem with the theory of cultural hegemony is that it’s simply not true. I’ve been in many parts of the world and, while you do see signs of American/ Western culture everywhere, most people value their own cultures and work actively to preserve them, consuming local media, food, etc. alongside whatever foreign stuff they like.

India is a great example of a society which needs no special measures to preserve its traditional culture – unlike, say, France (said she mischievously). Indians love TV, and have plenty of it: at least two or three channels for every major language (of which India has 14 or 15, including English), and at least one each for Muslims, Christians, Jains, and Sikhs (probably Buddhists as well, though I didn’t see this), plus one for each of the major branches of Hinduism. In addition to news and worship, there are channels dedicated to Indian-produced TV series and movies, and channels of Indian music videos. A few channels show imported TV, movies, and music, plus CNN International/Asia and BBC World, but these are vastly outnumbered by local fare – no case to be made there for Western culture overwhelming India! Which is hardly surprising: India has been absorbing and subsuming foreign cultures for 3000 years.

If there’s any cultural invasion going on, it’s occurring in the opposite direction. A number of Indian directors are doing well in Hollywood, some with films you can’t tell apart from any other Hollywood product (M. Night Shyamalan), others bringing Indian or cross-cultural themes to Western audiences (Gurinder Chadha), and/or adding Indian spice to otherwise Hollywood-standard movies (Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair”).

There’s a growing presence of American brands in India, but that doesn’t mean that Indians are adapting to American tastes. Reading a women’s magazine in Mumbai, I saw an ad for a very familiar American brand, Pillsbury. Attempting to sell devil’s food cake mix into India, you wonder? Nope. The ad was for a rice flour mix that could be used to make dosas, idlis, and vadas – distinctly south Indian treats. I’d be surprised if that product ever got to the US, and I didn’t see any ads for Pillsbury brownie mix or refrigerator cookies in India. American companies, far from trying to foist American tastes on Indians, are studying the local market and adapting their products accordingly. You don’t get to be a global brand by expecting everyone to like what Americans like – as most American multinationals are keenly aware, even if the American general public is not.

So, the next time you get worried about American culture taking over the world, look around you. If you can’t get to a foreign country to see what’s actually happening there, just look at your American hometown: how many “ethnic” restaurants do you have? And what is American culture itself, but a rich soup of the many cultures that Americans originally came from?

It’s not just Americans who buy into the “American cultural behemoth” myth: UNESCO has recently passed a resolution supporting nations’ rights to set a protected percentage of “local culture” to be shown in cinemas and aired on TV. Several nations have such laws, which Hollywood has been protesting as protectionist.

(via Jeff Jarvis)


Bayles’ articleso incensed me when I read it that I started to write a reply, then lost it for a month in the swamp of my email box. I don’t think I’ll bother sending it to her now, but here it is for your edification, though it’s slightly repetitive with the above.

Dear Dr. Bayles,

I read with interest your piece in the Washington Post, though not (yet) your book. I’d like to make a few observations.

Though a US citizen, I have lived overseas much of my life. I attended international schools, particularly, for high school, an international boarding school in India with students from all over the world. I did my BA in Asian Studies and Languages (including a study abroad year in Benares), and now live in Italy with my Italian husband and daughter.

In short, I think I’m qualified to comment, from personal experience, on how US popular culture is perceived in some other parts of the world.

I would first take issue with the study you quote:

One of the few efforts to measure the impact of popular culture abroad was made by Louisiana State University researchers Melvin and Margaret DeFleur, who in 2003 polled teenagers in 12 countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Korea, Mexico, China, Spain, Taiwan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria, Italy and Argentina. Their conclusion, while tentative, is nonetheless suggestive: “The depiction of Americans in media content as violent, of American women as sexually immoral and of many Americans engaging in criminal acts has brought many of these 1,313 youthful subjects to hold generally negative attitudes toward people who live in the United States.”

American women living normal American lives as depicted in films and TV are sexually immoral by the standards of some of the cultures mentioned. After all, in Saudi Arabia, it is not only immoral but illegal for a woman to ride unchaperoned in a car with any man who is not her husband or a blood relative. By such standards, almost anything a woman does outside of stay home, or hide her face when she goes out in public, would be immoral. How is the American film industry not to violate those standards and still depict American life as it actually is?

Depicting the freedoms that American women enjoy may be offensive to some cultures, but I would argue that those cultures NEED to be offended. Do you want to help protect cultural norms which oppress women as severely as Saudi Arabia’s does? What about cultures where any grown woman possessing a clitoris and the ability to feel sexual pleasure is considered immoral? Cultural relativism be damned – these women need to be freed, and if American movies help inspire them to fight for their freedom, I say bring on “Thelma & Louise” !

It is true that many American films and movies depict people engaged in criminal acts. Most of the time, these people are “the bad guys” and the plot has to do with bringing them to justice. Although there are films glorifying anti-heroes, I don’t think the majority of American films would lead any sensible viewer to the conclusion that American society condones criminal behavior.

From what I see in Italy, if Italian youngsters have a negative attitude towards Americans, this is more likely the result of America’s foreign policies than what they see in the imported media.

As for the depiction of Americans as violent – Americans ARE violent. As reported by Gregory S. Paul recently in the Journal of Religion & Society, “the U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates…” (as compared with other developed nations).

You go on to say:

…The 2003 report of the U.S. House of Representatives Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World stated that “Arabs and Muslims are . . . bombarded with American sitcoms, violent films, and other entertainment

I’ve heard this kind of argument many times, and my response is the same response I make to American parents who are “so concerned” about what children see on TV and in the movies: YOU HAVE A CHOICE. No one (outside of a Stanley Kubrick movie) is forced to sit in front of a television set with their eyelids propped open, helplessly absorbing hours of sex and gore. In America it happens because adults choose it for themselves, and don’t control what their children watch. In some countries, where much or most foreign media is censored, people go to great lengths to obtain American films, TV, and music, illegally and sometimes at risk to themselves. This is hardly bombardment on America’s part. The stuff is produced and people who want it, find it. American parents, not the media, are mostly responsible for what their children see and, even more, WHAT THEY LEARN FROM IT. The tendency in America lately is to want government to play parent and protect us from “bad stuff,” and now you want to export that paternalistic model to adults in other countries who, like adult Americans, are mature enough choose what they want to watch.

A final quote:

…much of which distorts the perceptions of viewers. The report made clear that what seems innocuous to Americans can cause problems abroad: ‘A Syrian teacher of English asked us plaintively for help in explaining American family life to her students. She asked, ‘Does “Friends” show a typical family?’

In describing the state of the modern American family, “Friends” is actually a good place to start. A group of young people in and out of relationships (both straight and gay), having children in and out of wedlock – yes, that’s pretty typical. If anything, these friends are fortunate: they form a de facto family that mostly stays together, there to support each other through the vicissitudes of life. Which is more than can be said for many multiply-divorced “traditional” families in America today. This isn’t a happy reflection on American culture, but it’s an honest one.

NB: I did email this letter to Dr. Bayles, but she has not so far (Feb 2006) dignified it with a reply.


Cultural Hegemony?

Oh, those poor Indians – they’ve lost touch with their native culture! <big grin>

Cultural Assumptions

What You Think You Might Know About Somebody… Might Be Wrong Years ago, before we were even living in Italy, Enrico and I spent a night in Courmayeur, on the French side of Mont Blanc, on our way to somewhere. Our hotel included breakfast (most of them do), eaten at large, bare wooden tables with Read More…

What You Think You Might Know About Somebody… Might Be Wrong

Years ago, before we were even living in Italy, Enrico and I spent a night in Courmayeur, on the French side of Mont Blanc, on our way to somewhere. Our hotel included breakfast (most of them do), eaten at large, bare wooden tables with benches. We were asked what form of coffee we wanted, then crusty rolls, croissants, jam, butter, etc. were brought, and we began eating, scattering crumbs all over the bare table just like everyone else.

The waiter overheard us speaking English.

“Are you American?” he asked.

She’s American, he’s Italian, we explained, as usual.

“You’re American!” exclaimed the waiter in horror. “Then you want this!” And he rushed to set the table with paper placements.

I wonder what traumatic encounter he’d had with an American to fix that notion so firmly in his mind.

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I picked up some pictures that had been framed, and remembered at the last minute that I should have told the framer to put two hooks on the sides, rather than one hook on the top as Italians always do. With the two hooks, I can run a wire between them and have the picture hang from a hook behind it, rather than seeing a hook in the wall at the top of every picture. This seems an obvious improvement to me, but Italians prefer a hook at the top, perhaps because that way the picture lies flat against the wall.

The framer was happy to do what I asked. “You must be English,” he said. “The English always want the two hooks that way.”

Once Enrico and I were on vacation in the mountains. He would go off hiking all day, I was working intensively and happily on my novel, but would go for brief walks to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery. To amuse myself on these walks, I collected wildflower seeds, to try planting them at home. I strolled along a level path that had once been a railway line, and found a huge meadow full of flowers. I was in there, collecting seeds, when a young man passed by, supporting his aged mother on her daily constitutional. Half an hour later, when they came back the other way, I was still there, intent on the plants.

“Crazy Germans,” the man muttered.

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Oct 21, 2003

Last October we drove to Munich for a friend’s birthday. On the way, we stopped in Vipiteno, a town on the Italy side of the German border. We’d been looking for an enoteca (wine shop) to buy Markus some wine, and found a very good one there. We sampled several good wines, and had selected two or three bottles when the shop owner asked us: “Who is this for?”

“A friend in Germany, it’s his birthday.”

“Oh, then you don’t need to spend so much. Just get him this [pointing to the six-euro stuff in the window]; he’s German, he won’t know the difference.”

We still got him the good stuff; Markus does know the difference.

Globalization vs. Local Culture

Originally published in Adventive’s I-Branding Digest, Oct 2, 2001 Context: I am American, but have lived half my life overseas, of which the last ten years in Italy with my Italian husband. From what I’ve seen in extensive travels and living abroad, most cultures are very resilient, and most adult members of any culture are Read More…

Originally published in Adventive’s
I-Branding Digest,
Oct 2, 2001

Context: I am American, but have lived half my life overseas, of which the last ten years in Italy with my Italian husband.

From what I’ve seen in extensive travels and living abroad, most cultures are very resilient, and most adult members of any culture are eventually capable of deciding for themselves what they do and don’t want to assimilate from a foreign culture.

Example: When I was going to high school in India 20+ years ago, an Indian businessman who had gone to university in the US opened a restaurant in Delhi (Nirula’s). It consciously imitated Americanisms such as fast food and 31 flavors of ice cream. Some of its patrons were foreigners like myself who occasionally craved a taste of “home”. But the huge majority were Indians.

When I returned to India four years later for college study abroad year, Nirula’s was thriving and had become a countrywide franchise. One of my classmates argued that it was an example of American cultural imperialism. From his point of view, the entrance of McDonald’s into India must have been even worse. And yet, and yet…

Obviously there is demand in India – by Indians! – for both Nirula’s and McDonald’s. In both cases, an American concept has been not merely transplanted, but adapted to its new environment. I don’t expect to ever see beef hamburgers served anywhere in India, but “mutton” and veggie hamburgers are selling very nicely. These restaurants also serve Indian snack foods that you would never find in an American McDonald’s.

American fast-food franchises the world over have adapted in similar ways to local tastes and cultures. In any country you go to, for a quick education in cultural differences, step into the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sure, the decor, colors, typefaces, etc. will look familiar – those are aspects of the brand identity that people are reassured by and want to retain. But the menu may contain quite a few surprises. McDonald’s in Italy serves espresso. And beer. And offers a choice of ketchup or mayonnaise with your fries.

Similarly, Indian languages and music have taken in what they like from the west and adapted it to their own needs. In the Seventies, disco music was as popular in India as the rest of the planet. Nowadays you get delightful mixes such as traditional bhangra made into dance music. This music is brought back across the ocean both by Indian emigrants and strange people like myself, where it can add a new dimension to the Western cultures which helped to create it – I’m told bhangra is very popular in some London dance clubs.

Oh, and another example: Coca Cola. Biggest brand on the planet, right? Remember a few years ago when there was a huge fuss in the US about “New Coke” vs. “Classic Coke”? “How dare they touch the sacred recipe.” Well, folks, the recipe for Coke in other countries has been different for a long time. In Asia it’s sweeter, because people there prefer it that way. In Europe it’s made with cane or beet sugar, instead of corn syrup (which I think tastes a lot better).

So who’s imperializing whom?

Note (Oct 7, 2010) – Interesting to see that Nirula’s is now using the tag line “It’s desilicious”. Desi is Hindi for “of the country,” i.e. Indian. When Nirula’s was founded, foreign was cool. Nowadays being Indian is cool. And that’s cool!

Reflections on Brand and Homogeneity

My daughter’s school year ended in mid-June (with three intense weeks of tests, quizzes, and papers), and we left Milan almost immediately for a trip up the middle of the United States. We started in Texas, where I have relatives, and pleasant memories from my days at the University of Texas (Austin). I love that Read More…

My daughter’s school year ended in mid-June (with three intense weeks of tests, quizzes, and papers), and we left Milan almost immediately for a trip up the middle of the United States.

We started in Texas, where I have relatives, and pleasant memories from my days at the University of Texas (Austin). I love that part of the country. It’s not stunningly gorgeous, but has a quiet beauty that I find very peaceful. And, our current president notwithstanding, I like the people.

From Austin we flew to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a dear friend of mine lives, then rented a car and drove to Lawrence, Kansas (high school friend) and then to Decorah, Iowa to visit my mother. We flew out of Minneapolis, staying with another high school friend and his family there on the way out.

I didn’t expect the drive to be particularly scenic, nor was it. What struck me was the sameness not only of the scenery (corn, corn, and more corn), but also of the signs. Everywhere you go it’s the same Wal-Mart, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, etc.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler in Future Shock predicted that Americans would be increasingly mobile, moving from town to town in pursuit of jobs. One effect of this would be the “plug-in” society, where homes, shopping areas, and even social lives are designed for maximum sameness across the country, so that people could make these moves with minimum psychological impact.

Toffler was right: Americans move far more than anyone else in the world, and much of the country has achieved a dreary and disturbing sameness. I can understand the attraction of brands: you always know exactly what you’re getting, even if it’s not very good. McDonalds’ the world over have roughly the same menus, prices, and levels of cleanliness; there are no surprises. I guess that’s why even in Italy, a country famous for its food, McDonald’s is popular with tourists. Many people prefer a certainty of mediocrity to the risk that something might be worse (or better, or merely different!) than they expected.

So America is indeed a plug-in society, where you can travel or even move from one town to another, and never notice a difference. The same chain stores and restaurants will be present, with the same layouts, products, and menus; you never have to learn anything new, it is all comfortingly the same as what you just left.

I experienced this most strongly some years ago, during a whirlwind trip around various parts of the US. At some point I found myself in a shopping mall, thinking: “Here I am in front of a Banana Republic store in a mall. And I have no idea what city I’m in.” I had to stop and think about it for some very long seconds before I remembered where in the world I was.