2014.11.23 The opposite of Taboo

When we foreigners involve ourselves in conversations with locals, we sometimes step on some toes. We may unknowingly touch upon subjects that are taboo in the local culture.

In the U.S., even here on the more liberal west coast, sexuality is one of the taboos that is almost never broken unless in the cause of a bigger issue like violence, equal opportunity, or health care.

And unless you are among people of similar observation to your own, staying away from politics and religion is also wise. (Seeing this written, it occurs to me that all are closely enmeshed.)

This general observation about taboos would hardly come as a big surprise to anybody who has been abroad for more than a week.

But you can also come across as rude if you refrain from being interested in whatever is foremost on the collective local mind.

If you are visiting California these days, you may hear a lot about drought. Even if your business is not in the agricultural realm, making polite sympathetic noises or commenting on the brown landscape will be a sensitive reaction if a local is not happy about the sunny California weather.

(I know, if you just flew in from a miserably rainy Northern Europe, that may be difficult.)

I have in this previous article commented on how important sports is to many Americans as a theme for small talk.

I admit that I have not been very astute when it comes to showing enthusiasm for ball games. It is partly stemming from ignorance about the rules of games that are not played regularly outside the U.S. but mainly because I just didn't grow up watching sports.

What opened my eyes to my cluelessness was this article by the linguist Michael Agar: "Looking For Culture In All The Right Places" (it can be downloaded from his homepage Ethknoworks LLC.)

In the article Dr. Agar talks about a rhizome, a plant that has a huge net of roots. If you proverbially "pull it", you will disturb much more "cultural soil" than your would have guessed from the size of the plant.

Sports could be such a rhizome in American culture. It covers obviously what goes on in the court or on the field but also sports represent a lifestyle, dreams and aspirations - not only of glory in the field but of college scholarships and a way out of poverty, childhood memories of playing ball with dad, connection with fellow fans, tailgate parties, youth and strength...

It is because of this multi-faceted cultural spaghetti that the issues about NFL's behavior is a big deal. NFL has been less than forthcoming about brain injuries among its players and in its responses to domestic abuse in the ranks. Our "favorite uncle" has been found to be a serial offender: how are we going to deal with the weekly family gatherings - should he still be welcome at the table? The alternative will mean changing an important aspect of the American identity.

By the way, that is probably not the part of sports that you should talk about first if somebody asks if you saw the game last night.

But it illustrates the bind American fans are in - they would have to reinvent their whole social life if football were taken out. It is too easy for newcomers just to condemn football fans for lack of principles. (And we don't really know what happens behind the scenes in European soccer, do we?)

You can't know in advance what may be a rhizome of the culture you are visiting. A clue is the metaphors used in the language. Americans use sports metaphors all the time. To the French it is food. But you have to know the local language well to catch these references.

If you hear more than one of the locals referring to something, follow Dr. Agar's advice and ask what this is about since it seems important. Showing a little bit of interest in something your host revers is being more culturally aware than I have been about sports.

Will it be an excuse that a former Danish Minister of Sports and Culture openly admitted (my translation): "I feel about sports as I do with sex, it is more fun to engage in that it is to be a spectator." Mind you, this person was responsible for the ministry that regulated "spectating" in both arenas.

(Hitting both a rhizome and a taboo in one quote. Not bad for a days work.)