Chaim Noy on his new book, Thank you for Dying for Our Country

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Interview by Lindsey Pullum

You’re in line to ride a rollercoaster and, while waiting for your turn, strike up a conversation with the family ahead of you. They have never been to Israel, but seem nice enough and press you to tell them about your latest project. You only have a few minutes before the rollercoaster comes to whisk you and the family away—how would you describe your book?

I have always been interested in national identities, specifically in Israel, and the ways people understand and perform them. In my book I look at what visitors write in visitor books in a major national Israeli site in East Jerusalem, called the Ammunition Hill National Commemoration Site. These books are interesting because, as a whole, they give a fascinating sense of how people respond to and embody national themes and narratives. I see the texts visitors write as ways of participating in the retelling of national identity. When you look closely into these succinct texts, you can see how rich they are in fact. They show different positions with regards to identity, and different things that visitors choose to respond to (and ignore). For instance, while most of the Israeli visitors address the museum and its staff, most North American tourists address the dead soldiers, and yet other visitors address God. Add to that that many visitors draw images, and the book is really highly visual, like and album that combines images and texts.

All this is even more interesting because the book is located inside a museum, and what people write in it immediately becomes part of the museum’s display. In the way the book is presented, the museum actually prompts visitors to write about certain themes and in certain ways, so it is also very interesting to study the book as a public medium. Finally, I was able not only to read visitors’ text, but also to observe visitors write them. In most cases visitors write the texts together (collaboratively), which taught me a lot about how these bits of performances of national identity are being composed. For instance, parents (usually mothers) instruct their children what to write and how to do it (“don’t write ‘I’m happy’, write ‘I’m impressed’—it’s more respectable this way”). So the entire writing scene at Ammunition Hill was fascinating for me.

Interesting you mention rollercoasters! My last article is an ethnography of rollercoaster riders, and their experience with the photographs that are taken of them while on the ride. I studied riders’ images in theme parks in Florida, which are similar in many ways to the curated environments in museums.

 

You have previously written two books on the Israeli backpackers’ experience. Your latest published work has focused more on museums and texts. Can you comment on your process for deciding on a research project? How did your previous research influence this latest book?

I love this question because often these decisions are not discussed in the academy. My recent book furthers my earlier interests in contemporary cultures and the consequences of tourism and travel, specifically in political contexts (though what contexts aren’t political?). In my previous book I studied backpackers’ narratives. I asked how the stories they shared with me in in-depth interviews were, in effect, storytelling performances whereby the meaning of the interview occasion itself was negotiated (as well as the identities and roles of the participants). The backpackers enthusiastically told me about extensive “libraries” of handwritten letters and documents, which they wrote to each other about their travels. These collections, located in Southeast Asia and South America, were a way of circulating travel-related information, experience and lore. I was fascinated by this, but I didn’t have the funding to study them. This, however, incited my research interest in studying what I later called ‘tourists’ texts’: the role of texts (and entextualization) in travel, and the places, practices and technologies relating to their production and circulation. Knowing I wanted to study texts within such sites, and knowing I wanted to shift from interview-based research (where I supply the provocation) to ethnographically-based research (where the museum supplies the provocation) I then chose a location that was convenient and relevant. The Ammunition Hill Memorial museum was located in the city I love: Jerusalem (where I was born and raised, and where I raise my daughters). This was a matter of access and convenience, and it also accorded with other critical studies I did on political tourism in East and West Jerusalem. On my first visit to Ammunition Hill, where I was scouting the site, the visitor book really impressed me. It was a large and imposing book, made of parchment, and part of a memorial installation in one of the museum’s most ‘sacred’ halls. The minute I saw the book I fell in love with it, and knew I was going to study it.

Language is crucial to your study of texts within the visitor’s book at Ammunition Hill Memorial museum. You analyze language ideologies in terms of handwritten texts and repeated styles of entries. Yiddish and Arabic are absent from the discussion of code-switching even though each language is spoken by certain publics in Israel (99). Is bilingual code-switching with specific regard to these two languages an aspect of your research you would have liked to include more of but couldn’t for some reason? Were Yiddish and Arabic simply not present in the visitor’s book itself?

That’s right: I would have loved to discuss Yiddish and Arabic texts in more detail in the book, yet as you indicate, the texts are mostly in Hebrew and English, with only occasional texts in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French. Different reasons account for the absence of Arabic and Yiddish. As for Arabic, the site is located in East Jerusalem, within walking distance from large Palestinian neighborhoods. So physically accessing the site isn’t very difficult. It’s just that the site celebrates—and embodies—the “unification of Jerusalem” as the Israeli/Zionist narrative has it, and so it is clear why Palestinian audiences wouldn’t be attracted, to say the least. Additionally, the site is frequented by Israeli soldiers (on weekdays it serves as a recruiting/drafting center), and that too is a deterrent for Palestinian visitors.

The story with Yiddish is different. I’ve heard Yiddish being spoken at the site, by Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors (Haredim) who live in nearby neighborhoods that have gone through demographic changes in the past two decades or so (from secular populations to religious and Ultra-Orthodox populations). Also, the Ammunition Hill Site is spacious and has plenty of shade, and the entrance is free, and this attracts nearby Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents and their families. So Yiddish is certainly heard, but when Haredi visitors write in the visitor book they do so in Hebrew (or English). When I asked them about this, they answered that they “wanted to be understood,” indicating that they are well attuned to the spoken/hegemonic languages, and choose to use them when expressing themselves publicly. I would also say in regards to Ultra-Orthodox visitors, that they are the only visitors I’ve seen writing ‘bluff’ entries in the book. By ‘bluff’ I mean texts that are signed by fictitious authors (such as a young Haredi visitor signing on behalf of a “very famous and important Rabbi”). Some groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish are anti-Zionist, and not subscribing to Ammunition Hill’s national Zionist narrative (by performing bluff entries and sometimes explicitly expressing anti-Zionist sentiments), is their way of using this platform for protesting hegemony.

 

At one point you mention how the anticipated performance of visitors does not match the actual performance (121). This is especially present in contested entries of the Ultra-Orthodox visitors (122). You argue that the book connects visitors’ biography with Israel’s collective past and collective future (107). Were there any visitors who fell outside of the “anticipated” visitor demographic that surprised you? How does this idea of collective past/collective future relate to non-Jewish Israeli interlocutors?

I seem to have anticipated this question in my response above. I’d add that within the context of museums, specifically in the dense environments of heritage and commemoration, authenticity is a hard currency. And handwriting—embodied in visitors’ inscriptions—plays indexically right into this economy: the handwritten texts are seen as connected to the visitors who write them in an embodied and unmediated fashion, publicly authenticating and presencing their visit and their participation in national commemoration. In the Ammunition Hill visitor book, handwriting is a way of paying tribute and homage to the nation and its fallen heroes (indeed, sometimes visitors leave flowers and notes in the book, turning it into an album of sorts), which is valued for its authenticity. Indeed, as you nicely put it in the question, the book serves as a material platform that physically and viscerally connects visitors’ biographies with Israel’s collective past and future. Ultra-Orthodox visitors improvise on this ‘holy’ tie, and are the only group I’ve seen do so in this way. For other groups of visitors, including those with harsh critique of the site’s ideology (right wing ideological critique of the site, which is itself very conservative), the critique rests on this tie, not on disrupting it. Of course, the only way to learn of this disruption (untying the connection between visitor signature and who the authors actually are), is to be there and to see how texts are composed and written. These observations reveal more tensions between writing and authorship (what Goffman termed “animator” and “author”), as for instance when mothers author a text for their children to write and sign.

 

Most of your research was conducted in the mid-2000s. Have you seen any changes with the visitors’ book at Ammunition Hill or had any interesting follow up experiences at the site?

Yes. My research at Ammunition Hill was completed organically in 2012, when the visitor book was removed because the museum was undergoing major renovations. The museum is currently closed and will reopen in 2017, celebrating fifty years of Israeli victory in the 1967 War and the “liberation and unification of Jerusalem” (under Israel’s annexation and occupation of East Jerusalem and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). So it’s over a decade now that I’ve been visiting the site, studying it and its visitor book (actually, visitor books: the site holds more than one book, including its “VIP visitor book” as they call it). During this time, I gained insights into the site’s language and media ideologies, as well as into visitors’ actions in that space. For example, a new commemoration hall opened recently, with a new design that is oval-shaped with the portraits of the dead soldiers. This design echoes the iconic Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Israel’s official Holocaust memorial site), itself echoing the Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. (Note the semiotics: soldiers are commemorated in a way similar to holocaust victims). At this new hall, too, a visitor book is offered, along with personal letters, diaries and artifacts belonging to the dead soldiers. By locating historical handwritten documents side by side with visitors’ handwritten texts, the site reconfirms its ideology about language, the centrality of authenticity for performing national identity, and its mode and manner of ideologically mobilizing visitors into nationalism.

Since 2011 I have been studying museum platforms in two other Jewish heritage museums (now in the United States): the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, and the Florida Holocaust Museum, in St. Petersburg. I am working on a comparison or juxtaposition of these museums, the different participatory (hand)writing platforms they offer, and what and how visitors compose texts there.

Anthony K. Webster on his new book, Intimate Grammars: An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry

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Interview by Juan Luis Rodriguez

 

Sometimes we hear Navajo poets but don’t really recognize what they are saying even when they speak English to us. This is one point your book makes really clear for the reader. Can you introduce your book to us and share some insight into why is it that people so often read or listen but not really get Navajo poetry, even when it is written in what seem to be a transparent code (English)?

Many thanks for reading the book, for engaging the book, and for the kind words about the book. I think that there are profound and debilitating expectations, in the sense that Philip Deloria uses this term in Indians in Unexpected Places, about Native peoples and, in particular, Navajos, that point readers to particular kinds of understandings, particular kinds of readings. There are, to borrow from Bakhtin, “a world of other’s words” that inform our readings of Navajo poetry—often times, that world of other’s words are not Navajo words, but the ways that Navajos and Native peoples have been imagined. My book was an attempt to put the words of Navajo poets at the center of my analysis, and to try and tease out something of what they were trying to tell me. José Ortega y Gasset, in his piece on “The Difficulty of Reading,” begins—I think rather famously—by saying that, “To read, to read a book, is, like all other really human occupations, a utopian task.” Where “utopian” is really seen as a worthwhile endeavor and where to “read” is seen as full or complete understanding of a text. From this follows Ortega y Gasset’s two axioms: every utterance is deficient (not saying enough) and every utterance is exuberant (saying too much). Our expectations of Native peoples, which we (as Americans, anyway) are socialized into in a host of ways that scholars from Robert Berkhofer on have highlighted, of what, for example, Navajos can and cannot be, of what they can and cannot say, in what languages they can and cannot express themselves, feed into these deficiencies (putting in too little) and exuberances (putting in too much). And when people approach Navajo poetry, they often hear what they want to hear, see what they are predisposed to see. Like the lady tourist in Blackhorse Mitchell’s story at the end of the book. This is especially pernicious when the poems are written in Navajo English, which is sufficiently similar to be misrecognized as some kind of “failure” in writing some imagined “mainstream” English. And this, as Barbra Meek has argued in “Failing American Indian Languages,” is a persistent way of imagining Native peoples: as failures—failures to hold onto their “traditional” languages, failures to speak English “correctly,” etc. Getting beyond that, or at least creating some kind of reflexive self-awareness, means “really listening”—and that’s a capacity, according to Navajos that I have talked with about the matter, that needs to be worked on, that needs to be cultivated. My book tries to point out something of the way one might go about listening, really listening. I don’t claim, obviously, to understand exactly what Navajos have been trying to tell me, but I do hope that I’ve provided enough ethnography—that is context—to provide a glimpse, or a possible—and I hope reasonable—glimpse—to make what they are saying interpretable. I think it useful to paraphrase Ortega y Gasset here, to say that, to understand, to understand humanity (to engage, that is, in anthropology), is, like all other really human and humane occupations, a utopian task. My book is utopian in that sense. We will never completely understand each other, but the task is to try to understand our fellow human beings, what is relevant and near and meaningful to them, and to recognize our limits in so doing; when I was in graduate school—in the mid to late 90s—we called this “partial knowledge;” glimpse seems a more useful metaphor for this, and I make much of that in Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics, though it recurs in this book as well. We should be careful, not just with each other, but also in not pretending we understand more than we do.  We can’t listen if we imagine we already know everything.

 You develop the idea of intimate grammars in relation to Elizabeth Povinelli and Michael Herzfeld’s work on intimacy. Yet, intimacy in your work seems a little different because it is associated at once with surveilled boundaries between self and other and felt emotional attachment to linguistic form. Can you talk a little about the tensions between these ordeals of language and the pleasures of aesthetically pleasant verbal art in creating a space of linguistic intimacy?

A long time ago, my notes tell me 3/31/98, I finished reading Michael Herzfeld’s Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State, and it lingered—lingered in the way books sometimes linger. There was something about it, this idea of things we do among ourselves that give us a sense of ourselves, but that we are often embarrassed by when others, not us (they, if you want), see it. Especially important for me was his concern with the question of iconicity, with the resemblances of something to someone. I then, much later, read Elizabeth Povinelli’s chapter on “Intimate grammars: anthropological and psychoanalytic accounts of language, gender, and desire,” and I sensed a kind of common theme there, though to be honest I have not honored Povinelli’s concern with the psychoanalytic at all and I have—like we often do—made, as you noted, of intimacy something rather different. What I was interested in was a kind of social and personal intimacy—which is more in keeping with Herzfeld’s use of the term. But Povinelli has this wonderful passage in her chapter on the uses of “he,” “she,” and “it” and the ways that “Conservative language critics” dismiss such feminist language projects; but what struck me in reading that was the persistence of such usages that violate some imagined standard English; the tenacity of such forms in use and—while not explicit in Povinelli—the possible pleasure and delight in using such “transgressive” forms.  Now it just so happens that one of the features of Navajo English is a kind of free variation with the use of the pronouns “he” and “she” (I have multiple transcripts of conversations where the speakers shift between “he” and “she” while talking about a single person)—as far as I can tell, in Navajo English the pronouns “he” and “she” do not code for gender. This was often read, of course, as “confusion” on the part of Navajos speaking English—the same kind of “confusion” as when Navajos “thought” Christians worshipped trees because they prayed to God which sounds like gad ‘juniper tree’ in Navajo. In both cases, of course, the confusion is not with Navajos, but with outside expectations—not understanding that Navajo English pronouns don’t code for gender or missing the obvious interlingual pun between English and Navajo (and the hilarity of the Christmas tree in such punning). Navajos that I know are often quite aware of this alternation of “he” and “she,” and while they may recognize it as an object of outside scrutiny, it’s also something they have a certain amount of felt attachment to, a kind of pleasurable expression of we-ness. A classic bit of intimate grammar. So there is this pleasure in the uses of linguistic forms—and other forms as well (I make note that lip-pointing for some Navajos is also a bit of intimate semiosis, something pleasurable, but also something that can be scrutinized by others)—and also the simultaneous recognition that such forms are objects of scrutiny. And of course, these linguistic forms gain such felt attachments through use, and in so using such forms, they come to feel non-arbitrary and consubstantial. Poetry is one such use of languages. These linguistic forms don’t just index an identity; they come to be feelingfully, to use Steve Feld’s term, iconic of that identity. So, intimate grammars are linguistic forms in use that may delight—give pleasure and expressive satisfaction—even under scrutiny.

Ellen Basso’s haunting and brilliant piece on “Ordeals of Languages” reminds us that there are times when we do not speak; to, for example, maintain some imagined civility—when we are complicit, at times, in our own subordination. And, when like both Navajo and Navajo English, your language has been an object of scrutiny and marginalization or dismissal for a long time, there are times when you don’t use the Navajo English forms, or you don’t speak Navajo in an off-reservation town or in the presence of elders who you worry may be hypercritical of your Navajo. And then, of course, since my focus is on verbal art, on poetry, about how all of this plays out in the poetry written and performed by Navajos. What struck me is the pleasure of saying, of writing, in these intimate grammars for Navajo poets, and the courage that such acts require. Many Navajo poets, certainly not all and not always, provide ways to imagine growing intimate with languages; stigmatized and dismissed as those languages may at times be, they can be deeply feelingful (partly because of that marginalization). Laura Tohe’s poetry on the boarding school experience (which I explore in Chapter Two) evokes a way imagining Navajo and growing intimate with it. To take another example, Navajos who told me that in reading the Navajo English work of Blackhorse Mitchell they could hear their grandparents in his writing—Bakhtin, again, reminds us that our words are always already other people’s words, and sometimes, sometimes if we are lucky, we can recognize those people, we can hear the voices of particular people—grandparents or other relatives; this is yet another way of becoming intimate with languages. I think, and here I merely echo a point repeatedly made to me by my advisor Joel Sherzer years ago when I was a graduate student, one important task of the linguistic anthropologist is to look at places, in its myriad senses, where people take pleasure in their uses of languages, where they find aesthetic delight in their uses of languages.

One of my favorite poems that you analyze in the book is Blackhorse Mitchell’s Beauty of Navajoland. What strikes me about this poem is how Mitchell refuses to let visitors to the Navajo nation off the hook for ignoring what is obvious. But at the same time, his use of English words like beauty and ugly are not necessarily what others make them to be. The semantico-referential function of the poem produces a critique of oblivious tourists and, at the same time it addresses a moral and aesthetic Navajo sensibility with words that overlap but do not mean the same in Navajo English. Can you tell us more about the play of denotational vs. poetic function in this example?   

It’s a really fine poem, and Navajos that know the poem think it a strong poem—one that gets them thinking about the world as it is and, in so seeing the world as it is, it offers the possibility to change the world (which seems like what strong poems should do). In the book, I think I describe this as recognizing that poetry is not just about the world, but of the world and being of the world, poetry offers the possibility to change the world—which is what some Navajo poetry seems to be trying to do, to get people to listen and hence to think or imagine, which is the beginning of getting things and people to change—a process of restoring things from something like hóchxǫ’ (ugliness, disorder, out of control, etc.) to hozhǫ́ (beauty, harmony, order, control, etc.). There’s a sense, to paraphrase Kenneth Burke, as I am wont to do, of some Navajo poetry as equipment for living. Now in Navajo English terms like ‘beauty’ and ‘ugly’ are false friends—in the linguistic sense—with the terms in a kind of Midwestern English, call that my English. So I tell the story in the book about hearing people described as ‘ugly,’ and my Midwestern (Indiana) sensibilities (a compulsion for politeness) were jarred by that. Until, after a while, probably longer than it should have taken, I realized that ‘ugly’ was being used to describe that person as being ‘out of control’ or ‘disorderly’ and in need of a ceremony. So in talking with Mitchell about his poem, I began to realize that the ‘beauty’ in the title and refrain, which is meant as a kind of echoic mention of what a tourist said about the Navajo Nation, needed to be understood as talking about hozhǫ́—which is a kind of moral order. And in that sense, as the poem makes clear and the conversations that I had with Mitchell about the poem (several transcripts of those conversations are included in the chapter), the Navajo Nation is not beautiful, rather it is ugly or disorderly or out of control—and these are all moral terms. Conceiving of beauty as only pretty scenery misses the deeply moral component of ‘beauty’ for Mitchell and for other Navajos as well. So too with poems—seeing them as beautiful in form only—misses the moral work of such poems, their capacity to get people to really think. If all you hear is the beauty of form in a poem then you probably haven’t been really listening. Mitchell makes this point rather explicitly, I think, in the transcript in Chapter 3 when he is talking about one of his teachers congratulating him on a “great” poem, but it seems clear to Mitchell that the teacher failed to “see” what he was saying in the poem—and the poem, as Mitchell tells it, is about not wanting to be in school behind barred windows. The repetition of ‘beauty’ and its ironic use seem to highlight—in the sense of poetically foregrounding—the importance of attending to it, this concept of ‘beauty,’ in a more self-consciously reflexive way—that is to ask, am I understanding what Mitchell is saying, getting closer to an understanding on his terms (our utopian task as a sort of beautiful failure), or am I just following my habitual grooves here and understanding on my terms (that is, not really listening).

One thing that is clear from your book is that attention to details of grammatical choice can produce tremendous insight into the moral and political stances taken by Navajo poets. This is beautifully put in your analysis of optional grammatical choices in Chapter 5. Now, let me turn the tables on you and address your own grammatical choice. In your introduction, you have one of the shortest sentences I could find in your book. You wrote: “Languages are cultural.” The shortness of the sentence caught my attention and I hope I am not over reading into it. I take this shortness to be iconic of a pause in your thought, and as an invitation to pay attention to your own intimate grammar. When I read it, I thought of you packing ideas for the reader and inviting us to unpack this sentence in the course of the book. The two things I kept present at all time then were the plural form in languages and the adjective form of cultural. Would you care to elaborate on those two intimate grammatical choices?

Without pretending to know exactly what I was thinking when I wrote that, let me try and sketch out something of the context in which such an utterance might emerge. First, I think it a bit of an axiom for linguistic anthropologists—that languages are cultural. So I don’t think it particularly novel on my part. And the voices that I hear in that short phrase are multiple. Two spring to mind immediately. The aforementioned Joel Sherzer was and is fond of short little statements that seem to encapsulate a great deal without saying too much—and so there is some of that in there, I would imagine. Indeed, I may have heard him say something very similar at some point and then imagined it as my own formulation. As for the adjectival form, there is an echo of Edward Sapir in there, especially in the use of “cultural.” Sapir often talked about “cultural” as against “culture”—and I’ve found that a useful way of thinking about such matters. We do not encounter cultures so much as cultural practices and the like—or perhaps, better, people engaged—wittingly or not—in cultural practices. As for the plural marking on language, it seems to me that a key feature of our object of study—as linguistic anthropologists—is never “language” (or worse, “Language”), but particular languages within particular sociocultural and historical moments (another key feature, of course, are the human beings who use said languages). So foregrounding the pluralness of languages seems important, it gets us away from thinking that Navajos speak some bounded thing called Navajo, and that if they speak—as they do—a variety of other languages, that is somehow “unexpected” (to use again Deloria’s formulation), in need of explanation. The quickness of the phrase, as well, as I reconstruct it now, does indeed seem like an invitation for thinking—the way, for example, the short poems by Rex Lee Jim are invitations for contemplation (the way, I now suspect as well, Joel’s aphorisms were also invitations for contemplation).  And so, yes, I’d like the reader to try and make sense of “languages are cultural” as they read the book, to come to understand why that is so and what, possibly, that might mean—especially in the case of Navajo poets and poetry. One rather unfortunate tendency has been a view of languages and cultural practices as somehow separate, that languages are somehow not cultural (which leads to a host of rather silly formulations about “language and culture” or “language in culture”, etc.). But I don’t want to overstate, to infringe on your imaginative work, on your imaginative capacities, by talking too much about what it should or should not mean.

I don’t want to end this interview without talking a little about the influences in your book. Four linguistic anthropologists who recently passed away loom large in your work. Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, Keith Basso and Dell Hymes. What do they mean for your work and for the book?

In many ways, I can’t imagine my book having come into existence without the influences of Keith Basso, Paul Friedrich, Dell Hymes, and Dennis Tedlock (among others). All of them, in one way or another, took verbal art—and poetry—as important to the work of linguistic anthropology, they saw the role of actual human beings, that is individuals, as important as well to the work of linguistic anthropology, there was, in all their work, a careful attention to linguistic details that ramify and ripple across social and cultural doings, and a recognition of the pleasure and delight in the using of languages. They all saw languages in a broad and multifaceted way and, hence, eschewed a narrow vision of language. They all saw languages as a human phenomenon, deeply entangled with the lives of actual people. They all pushed back against any theory of language that removed human beings and verbal artistry from the equation. They rejected a sharp division between linguistics and anthropology, seeing the two as deeply intertwined. And each, in their way, not just through theory, but through a sensibility, a sensibility about languages and about people, influenced my own sensibility about languages and about people.

Obviously, Tedlock wrote a blurb for the back of my book and so there is a kind of directness about his influence on the book. But, Tedlock’s The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation should still be required reading in linguistic anthropology. His concerns with translation, with the sounds of language (including ideophony), with questions of performance, and with the cadence, the rhythm, of talk, all inform my own ways of thinking about Navajo poetry. There are also a couple of lovely articles—can we say that about academic articles?—that are really quite thoughtful in their explorations of sound, translation and of poetics; “Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability” and “Written in Sound: Translating the Multiple Voices of the Zuni Storyteller.” Though I don’t cite them in the book, I’m sure that they have influenced my thinking in a variety of ways. And, of course, Tedlock’s concern with the dialogic emergence of culture and the importance of the dialogic in anthropological writing has certainly influenced my own work as well.

Friedrich’s work was also hugely influential on my thinking, especially a couple of essays from the 1979 book Language, Context, and the Imagination (a title which comes close to summarizing some of my interests as well)—“The Symbol and Its Relative non-Arbitrariness” and “Poetic Language and the Imagination: A Reformulation of the Sapir Hypothesis”—as well, of course, as his later book The Language Parallax: Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy. Friedrich’s view that poetic language is a crucial site for understanding linguistic relativity really lurks in a number of chapters in the book—and I make it a bit more explicit in a review essay I did for Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and a piece in Semiotica (both published in 2015). Friedrich argues in his non-arbitrariness piece that one reason to see the symbol as relatively non-arbitrary is the “subjective intuition of the speaker,” and that lurks in my sense of the felt attachments to linguistic forms in my formulation of intimate grammars.

Hymes’ influence—especially In Vain I Tried to Tell You: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics—on my work is, I think, rather obvious. Paul Kroskrity and I edited a volume from Indiana University Press on The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice, that gives a bit more than a hint as well about that influence. But, a kind of careful attention to expressive devices, which occupies much of the discussion of Chapter 5, is influenced by Hymes—I think particularly of “How to Talk Like a Bear in Takelma.”  More prominently, I think is Hymes’ concern with narrative inequality (much of that collected in his Ethnography, Linguistics, and Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice), the places where a variety of ways of speaking can be and are marginalized and devalued, becomes a lens to think through, for example, the reactions to and misreadings of the writings of Blackhorse Mitchell (witness the reviews of his book Miracle Hill that I discuss in Chapter 3). Ethnopoetics, this attempt to understand, in that utopian way I spoke about earlier, locally meaningful and feelingful ways of organizing discourse—poetry here—is really central to the project of this book. And, for Hymes and Tedlock and Friedrich and Basso as well, that meant attending to linguistic form—often linguistic forms that were marginalized or ignored in certain narrower visions of languages (forms like puns, expressive devices, ideophony, etc.)—and the kinds of felt satisfaction in using such forms. Poetic forms don’t exist in a vacuum, hermetically sealed from the world. They are fully implicated in wider fields of meaning—and those are often about perduring structurings of inequality; what gets counted as poetry and what gets excluded are not neutral endeavors. There’s a wonderful piece that ties much of this together, “Tonkawa Poetics: John Rush Buffalo’s ‘Coyote and Eagle’s Daughter’”, from a volume edited by Joel Sherzer and Anthony Woodbury, Native American Discourse: Rhetoric and Poetics (which turns 30 next year)—and that piece is also a defense of a particular way of conceiving of languages and the work of anthropology, a tradition he traces through Boas, Sapir, Whorf and Hoijer. A defense well worth continually making, I would add. It’s a tradition I see myself in as well.

Basso’s influence can be seen in a variety of places in the book (some of which I have already suggested). Certainly my interpretations of the portraits of tourist encounters that frame the book are read, in part, through the lens of Basso’s Portraits of the Whiteman. There is, again, his sensitivity to the aesthetic delight of linguistic form, the pleasures in saying, for example, Western Apache place-names. The importance of attending to the insights of those you work with and to acknowledge those insights. Blackhorse Mitchell’s influence on my thinking, I hope, is evident throughout much of Intimate Grammars. I came of age in graduate school in the mid to late 90s, and Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache came out in 1996 (though some of the chapters had been published prior) and has, for a long time now, seemed like a model of how to practice a certain kind of linguistic anthropology—a linguistic anthropology, as I suggested earlier, of attending to people and to linguistic details, “that linguistics and ethnography are integral parts of the same basic enterprise,” which, in shorthand, is that utopian task of understanding our fellow human beings and the cultural worlds in which they and we live.

Anthropology and Advertising

by Susan Lepselter

Image result for whopper virgins

I remember once going to a mall with a fellow graduate student in anthropology. It was early on, perhaps our second semester. My friend moved slowly through the department store, her eyes wide, her head turning slowly at the display of commodities. Everything had been denaturalized by our studies. The goods were an uncanny materialization of all the theory we were newly steeped in.  She picked up a lipstick and stared at it.  Use value dissolved in the air around us. Another friend made a bumper sticker for her beat up car: Reification is capitalism’s master trope. We all loved how the bumper sticker reified that sentence.

How does a thing come to life and become “transcendent,” as Marx put it, through exchange? For anthropologists, studying the social, affective and imaginative life of commodities can involve examining how people feel about the things they buy, how we value them, use them in unexpected ways, represent them, and identify with them.  Advertisers study similar public practices, feelings and ideas about the things they market. For Marx, of course, the “mystical” aspect of the commodity fetish came from how it reified the social relations of labor.  Today, it is difficult to think about a commodity without considering the life with which advertisers imbue it.

Many advertising agencies think of ethnography as an improvement over less nuanced approaches to market research.  The goals, politics, ethical concerns and commitments of the two endeavors differ. But the agencies still track a common thread: the comparative interpretation of places, people, markets, often with a colonizing echo.

Because I am interested in the affective and imaginative life of objects, I became curious about the connections between anthropology and advertising. It’s a connection that is consciously developed in the advertising industry. The industry uses tropes of ethnography, culture, difference and social context as it creates venues for commodities to enter public consciousness. You could look at the relationship between anthropology and advertising from multiple perspectives, from cultural critique to the pragmatic need to help anthropology majors envision jobs in that business. For this post, I first critically read an ad that performs an idea of cross-cultural exchange; and then I interview Jenny, an anthropologist in advertising, to understand how her industry thinks about the commodity in relation to culture.

“Cultures” and “markets” are everywhere conflated in the neoliberal world; advertising can bring that conflation to the surface of things.  Of course, anthropologists have been talking about the entangled histories of colonialism and ethnographic representation since Writing Culture rattled things up in 1986.  But we don’t always notice how discourses about culture and representation have shifted and taken up other forms in other contexts.

Take the “Whopper Virgins” campaign for Burger King, which featured a long advertising project involving cross-cultural travel to an exotic place and a subsequent story about it. Representatives from the agency (Crispin Porter and Bogusky) traveled to three geographically remote areas around the world – rural areas of Romania, Thailand and Greenland – to meet people they narrate as pre-contact, and to film the encounter.  But “pre- contact” here referred specifically to the local unfamiliarity with fast food hamburgers, The Whopper and the Big Mac.

In these three places framed as outside the modern global grid, potential consumers were considered to be pure: “virgins” who were still innocent to the taste of McDonalds and Burger King, (and therefore ultimately able to pronounce the inherent superiority of the client’s product, the Whopper. )The story of this ad expressed a dream that far transcended sales. Here taste could just be returned to the original biological sense, the natural sensing palate, stripped of habitus. The tasters were still “virgins.”

The trope of virgin land waiting to be penetrated by civilizers has circulated since at least the 1600s; of course, the idea of virgin land ignores the presence of indigenous populations and denies the land as an already-realized place. In centuries of European imagery, virginal female land is depicted as ripe for planting, fertilizing, becoming fruitful.  In the Whopper Virgins project, the older colonization narrative of conquering land merged into the story of discovering and conquering a new market.  In the ad, these locals are depicted as friendly, reciprocal, and wearing traditional clothing; they don’t know how to hold the burger, they sniff at it suspiciously, laugh, and then hesitantly take a bite. Here, an exotic innocence renews the malaise of civilization.  And so within the conceit of this story, all of these different specific places become a single place, the place of virgins, the place where one can still find authenticity, a fountain of taste. The desire for consumable difference flows through the commercial, the longing for a cultural purity that can be both apprehended in its otherness and incorporated into sameness, desired as a virgin and then deflowered.

Image result for whopper virgins

The Whopper Virgins campaign is unusual, for an ad, in this mission to a faraway place. Most campaigns play on deepening, expanding and elaborating the commodity-laden familiar—the thoughts, practices and desires of people at home. When ad agencies adapt anthropological methods to the goals of their research, they think about and theorize what culture might be.  Their references to anthropology are explicit. One agency website quotes an anthropology major who is now an ad executive: We all have to study people and know who they are, what they want and why they want it. The key is research. And when we research, that’s anthropology at its finest. http://current360.com/anthropology-advertising-study-people/

What is the structure of this connection in practical terms? I begin to approach this question by speaking with another anthropologist who has made a career in the industry. (She has asked not to use her real name; I will call her Jenny.)

After earning her PhD in anthropology and teaching for a few years a visiting professor, Jenny applied for a position that an ad agency had posted on the American Anthropological Association careers site. She sketched a brief trajectory of how the industry has changed its structure over the years to incorporate a more nuanced, interpretive understanding of culture and consumption based in part on anthropology. Once, she says, ad agencies divided their work between “account people” and “creatives.”  The account people, she explained, are oriented towards the client:

“They are Roger on Mad Men; they go golfing and drink martinis with the client – traditionally,  [like on Mad Men] that’s their image. Now it’s mountain biking and Burning Man.

“The creatives write the script and make the work. They work in teams: an art director and a copywriter. They are allowed to be unwashed, up all night, eating granola bars in the agency—making stuff. “

In the past, Jenny says, these two divisions, the “account people” and the “creatives,” comprised the agency.

“The account people would find out the assignment from the client and tell the creatives, who had to write the ad. But then –the world changed.”

Now there is a third division, people who do a specific kind of research to orient the agency’s creative work towards culture. Depending on the agency they are called planners or strategists.  The planners (as I will call them here) are not simply market researchers.  Market researchers did not interpret the latent cultural meanings of their findings; they relied on the literal, the face-value data gathered in brief focus groups and surveys. But planners don’t rely on what Jenny calls the “verbatim” messages of market data. Rather the planners research social forces and meanings that contradict or transcend the explicit answers people might supply on a form. When there’s a difference between what people say they want and what they actually buy, the planners step into that gap.  They call this dissonance “tension,” and use the contradiction to make unlikely, surprising, attention-getting and artful ads – for example, this one that does not deny, but rather intensifies, people’s anxieties about the corrosive effects of cell phones on attention and human relationships.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55kOphD64r8

Jenny said, “The creatives used to hate the market researchers, who would represent the consumers. The creatives just wanted to make cool stuff. But the market researchers added this other element:” [They went beyond “let’s make a cool ad”] to ‘What do moms want?’ “

Sometimes, they found, what “moms want” contradicted not just the consumers’ explicit answers but also the creatives’ ideas, the artful conceit they wanted to execute.  And often, too, the market researchers’ data revealed other contradictions internal to the data itself: “when things test terribly but people actually love it,” Jenny said. It wasn’t enough to just create an ad strategy based on people’s explicit answers. There were what she calls “latent meanings,” positioned by broader cultural trends, which demanded that survey answers read and interpreted in its social context, on a larger scale. “When you talk to people and take their verbatim answers it leads to stupid work,” Jenny said.

“People  [interviewed after a movie] say things like ‘I wish there was no villain and it could all be princesses.’ But of course they don’t really want to go to a movie like that.” The wish to erase the villain was about something else. Traditional market researchers relied on literal survey answers, which told them more about what consumers thought they should want but not what they would actually consume.

Current planning and strategizing always looks for side angles and perspectives on their material. “A woman on the survey said she would never eat a burger because she’s on a diet. That’s what she says—but then of course she would eat it.” The strategists explore that tension. Tension refers to what she again calls “latent cultural feeling.”

“You look at what people say they do not like about the product. Say, a mini-van. People say they don’t like it; that [not liking it] is not just about the car but the end of your sexy life and beginning of your being a suburban mom. Not just ‘what is the style of the car and does it have heated seats or not.’  (A campaign that tried to exploit this specific tension with irony backfired when Brooke Shields was hired to deadpan that people were having babies in order to make use of the Volkswagen’s German engineering.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDZSxFLcMVg

This interest in latent cultural feeling is why Jenny’s first agency tried specifically to hire an anthropologist. “The ad I answered (posted by the AAA) said they did not want anyone from the advertising world or the business world.” Concepts from anthropology get sewn into the fabric of ad strategies. She explains: “So take for example an idea of the gift, or reciprocity, from anthropology. A gift is not a gift only, it is enmeshed in a world of practices. We in anthropology think that’s obvious—but the business world thinks that’s quite a shocker.” She laughed. “You come and tell the agency: you know what, if you give someone a gift card and they can buy themselves what they want it doesn’t work as a thoughtful gift.”

“Business people,” Jenny said, “understand use value, and they understand badging. ‘Badging’ is [the process of] saying something about you. You want to save the environment and wear Tom’s shoes. If you carry an expensive [Hermes] birkin bag you are showing you are really rich – or that some man loves you a lot. Old fashioned luxury. They want us to show what things mean.

“Anthropology has always known that there is a coherent system, a link between, say your religion and what you buy. This was novel for business thinkers, because they thought of things separately, normally.” The business perspective is not necessarily attuned to the meanings of commodities, she says, but on how “they can measure the success [of the campaign]. From a cultural perspective it’s harder to measure the success except how attitudes shift.

“The way you’re taught to think in anthropology is helpful in business, because they don’t see it that [systemic] way, they are inside it, and they don’t realize how the world is changing. For example, take the secret shame people feel in sitting on the couch and watching TV. Now, instead there is a premium on getting lots done at once.

“Thinking that way is the biggest advantage that business people see in having an anthropology background,” Jenny said.

And sometimes, they focus on the global, comparative focus of anthropology. “I would get emails that said “tell me the anthropology of gum” and you can look at practices all over the world like qat in Yemen, or the betel nut. You can look at chewing as a practice comparatively. Those are fun questions.

“If you don’t want a career only looking at one thing, this lets you. And if you write a brief a certain way to go after what, for example, people are ashamed of, you can change things.”

Our conversations have made me more constantly conscious of my own — and everyone’s — part in constructing the symbolic domain of commodities. The meaning of the ad, like the meaning of any utterance, emerges through the dense histories of both the addressor and the addressee. The commodified object, that “very queer thing” concealing human relationships in the labor that made it, comes alive on both sides of the ad.

Links to Recent Blogposts about Trump’s Locker Room Talk

For those of you who are thinking about discussing the leaked video of Trump which he is labeling “locker room talk”, here are two good blogposts to spark discussion:

Deborah Cameron discusses why the fact that this is locker room talk is precisely the problem:

https://debuk.wordpress.com/2016/10/09/on-banter-bonding-and-donald-trump/

 

Ben Zimmer discusses how media outlets are handling the profanity in their stories:

https://stronglang.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/a-banner-day-for-profanity/

 

Omar Victor Diop’s Project Diaspora: Self Portraits at Indiana University

*Image – Omar Victor Diop, Frederick Douglass, 2015, Inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper, Courtesy of the MAGNIN-A Gallery   Consider four digital reenactments of significant portraits, a Moroccan Man, Frederick Douglass, Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, and Juan de Pareja. … Continue reading

Elizabeth Keating on her new book, Words Matter

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office by [Keating, Elizabeth, Jarvenpaa, Sirkka L.]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Since the book is written for a general audience, could you say a little about how you would explain the book to linguistic and media anthropologists who are considering using this in a class, and want to know what it is about.

For teachers of linguistic anthropology concerned with having an impact on students’ understanding of language and culture, especially beyond the classroom, this book links the classroom with the paid work world. Concepts and methods in linguistic anthropology are highly relevant to job skills. For one thing, there is understanding how local one’s own communication habits and expectations of others are. For another, understanding how communication really works builds better skills to repair misunderstandings. This book rather unabashedly makes a connection between learning about linguistic anthropology and becoming a more flexible, interested cross cultural communicator. One of the main points in the book is that because of technology, many people are working in virtual teams, or virtually with colleagues in other places. This results in little face-to-face time, or time to hang out and learn about others’ habits, preferences, and life stories. There’s little environmental context. Without the ability or time to learn from each other, there is a role for linguistic anthropology principles to play in generating understandings. I’m thinking of general principles like how people do things with words, that meaning is negotiated, social roles, socialization, the workings of convention in meaning, common ground and context, etc. In the book there are examples taken from engineers’ workdays, engineers trying to design things together in virtual teams, while living and working in four different continents.

The value in the classroom is the application of linguistic anthropology concepts to the engineers’ struggles with their inadequate communication model.  The book proposes a better communication model based on linguistic anthropology. We discuss how culture affects language use, with examples from the engineers and from other researchers’ work. To take a simple example, if the students have never thought about differences in question asking behavior—that it might not be felt to be appropriate in a certain group to ask a question (or only appropriate for the boss to be asking questions)– they could have unpleasant surprises at work if they assume that an absence of questions means everything is understood.

In most linguistic anthropology and media classes, students are preparing for many different types of careers, some in similar settings to the engineers. It’s useful to have a way to link linguistic anthropology to students’ desire to prepare themselves for work after university. When my co-author asked one of her graduate business research assistants to read the draft book manuscript, he said afterwards that he didn’t think he should be paid, since he learned so much. Another reader from the business world said he finally understood the reason behind his colleague’s “exasperating” behavior of not asking questions.

 

How do you think your focus on engineers in particular shaped your ethnographic exploration of cross-cultural communication?

The focus on engineers shaped our engagement with cross cultural communication in several ways. The first group of engineers we studied in Houston were suspicious of the situation thrust on them by management—that they had to work with a group of engineers across the globe who had unfamiliar habits and approaches. The engineers in Houston were already under a lot of pressure to build a state of the art energy plant under time, budget, safety, and environmental constraints. Working with engineers in another part of the world made their job even more challenging, because they had to work with them in a virtual sense, that is, they couldn’t sit side by side or cubicle to cubicle; they couldn’t see what was going on (puzzled expressions or problem sequences) and participate in so-called informal learning. The engineers they were suddenly working with were in a country where man hours were cheap and materials had always been expensive and scarce (so much so that in former times the engineers in that country could go to prison for using too much steel, they told us). But the Houston engineers lived in a country where it was the reverse: materials were cheap and people expensive. Imagine these two groups designing an energy plant together. One group is assuming a design requiring many maintenance operators, and one requiring as few operators as possible. How to become aware of the other’s habitual ways of thinking before too many hours of design work are done? There were also differences in how you show someone you respect them (by saving time or by spending time?) Although technology was making these work collaborations possible, technology was also a handicap to the engineers being able to learn about each other. This affected how we approached the topic of cross cultural communication. The space of collaboration, the technological interface of computer screens and phone sets, was uniformly absent of distinct cultural cues.

When we looked, through a linguistic anthropologist’s research-based view of language and meaning, at their attempts to better communicate, it was clear that their communication model was faulty. They professed the familiar conduit model of communication. They tried to fix problems by being “more clear and direct.”  We focused on: How could the engineers approach their collaboration with a view of language, not principally as a conduit for information, but as a tool with many other capabilities?

 

Could you say a little about the experience of writing with someone from a business school? I know of many collaborations between anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, but this may be the first I have come across of an anthropologist authoring with someone from a business school who is not also an anthropologist (since business schools sometimes show remarkably good taste and hire anthropologists). And I am curious about how this shaped some of the challenges of writing a book together.

This is a great question.  First let me say that I gained a lot in the process. My colleague is not a specialist on language, but rather on virtual teams and management. Her focus is on how people can most efficiently achieve short and long term goals in a business profitability and creativity sense. She was focused on the practitioner aspect at all times, and fairly uninterested in the minutiae of language dear to a linguistic anthropologist’s trade. The authority of our findings in the book had to depend more on assertions linked to prior language research rather than relying on discovering the findings through a very detailed data analysis of the engineers’ conversations and documents.

My business colleague continually reminded me that business practitioners have minimal time to read added material, and they operate in the “three power point slide” framework. After experimenting with different ways to join business and linguistic anthropology goals, we decided to use the engineers as actors in the narrative to keep the content focused on situations likely to be familiar to a reader, or situations that a reader has already experienced and been frustrated by. We created the phrase “Communication Plus” (for communication plus culture) to convey to the reader that they already have a great deal of knowledge about communication in their own culture, but they have to add knowledge about culture’s influence on communication.

It was necessary to take a prescriptive stance in the book in order to justify a practitioner’s time spent invested in reading the book. A lot of the engineers we worked with read poetry and appreciate literature and social science, but they also appreciate getting expertise in a manner they can immediately use. Business authors have no problem being prescriptive. My co-author would have been happier if the book was very short, with very short paragraphs. I felt it was necessary to have as much material about language and anthropology as possible. I am happy to say that over the course of the time writing together, my business colleague became convinced of the power of the close analysis of transcriptions of conversation, in this case conference call meetings. I became more aware of the pressures on people to perform in the constantly changing, globalized work world. Cross-disciplinary research and writing requires extra investment in time for the authors, managing differences and gaining some knowledge of the other author’s vocabulary, research goals, validation standards, methods, even what counts as a ‘finding’ or what’s cool. Similar to the engineers, we were both frustrated with each other’s practices and habits of thinking at times.

 

Are there insights you had about the interactions you observed that you were unable to write about because it would require too much specialized knowledge on the part of your readers to explain the ideas adequately?

I was not able to write about indexicality in a way that showed the importance of the concept and its ubiquity in communicative encounters. It’s a very abstract term that most people haven’t encountered before. I found that Garfinkel’s notion of ritual status degradation was very useful in analyzing what many of the engineers complained constantly about (feeling treated as non-humans by others due to the symbolic expression of respect taking a different form). Although Garfinkel meant something grander like pulling down the statue of Lenin or politically motivated imprisonment, the notion of ritual status degradation gets at the great seriousness of “small” slights like problems with greeting rituals among the engineers. No salutations in emails provoked surprising anger.

Similarly, I found that Goffman’s notion of “spoiling” identity was a useful way to analyze problems I saw the engineers experience when they disagreed about what the “right” (“good engineering”) design was, conflicts that became intractable because “wrong” was just different or unfamiliar. Writing about ritual status degradation and the spoiling of identity didn’t work well in the book, though. What worked better was a discussion about cultural differences in theories of the person (ideas about personhood that explain differences in things like greeting patterns and why the wrong pattern can be so offensive). It worked well to discuss the idea of language as action (looking beyond content of utterance and the referential function of language). I would have liked to bring more conversation analysis principles into the book.

 

Since the 1980s, anthropology has had a vexed relationship with the culture concept – often to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles. In this book you talk about culture and cultural misunderstandings without any caveats, and I am hoping you can say a little about your embrace of culture as a strategic decision or intellectual commitment.

I’ll illustrate some of the problems you are alluding to with an anecdote which addresses your question. My co-author and I were working on an article for an engineering journal, before we began the book. She said, “okay, we have to define culture.” I stared at her, incredulous. Isn’t this the honorable work of still generations to come?, I thought. Isn’t this misdiagnosing the solution to our ignorance? She didn’t see the problem, not having been a party to the discussions anthropologists have about this (discussions as you say “to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles”). The engineering journal reviewers also insisted on a definition, as part of their editorial job of questioning our scope. I got inspiration from Duranti’s and Keesing’s discussions about culture, and we added reference citations for Schein of MIT’s work on organizational culture,  Foucault’s work on institutions, Wolf, Bourdieu, Bateson, Parsons, Kuper, Lave, Garfinkel, and Henrietta Moore’s piece on concept-metaphors in anthropology.

A second anecdote concerns what happened each time we went to an engineering firm to introduce ourselves and get started collecting data. In the beginning of the project we were three, and we arrived on site together: a business professor, an engineering professor, and an anthropology professor. After the introductions, the engineers invariably focused all their attention on me (of course business and engineering were already quite familiar to them, but for those of us experiencing the recent assaults on the Liberal Arts, in demands for proof of our continued relevance, this was a great endorsement). The engineers said things like “yes, we really need to know about culture” and “we hope you can help us understand culture better.” They knew cultural misunderstandings were affecting their projects’ success and their job satisfaction. They had had some very frustrating and expensive experiences, but they didn’t know exactly how to learn from them. I would say my embrace of culture came from the engineers. There were particular aspects of culture more relevant to their situation, their situation being little if any face-to-face contact, lots of email correspondence (where requests and problems with responses to requests were frequent), group conference calls, expert-expert interactions, non-native English, and few, if any, shared work hours of the day. Some of these problems I’ve already mentioned. I found talking about identity an accessible way to discuss cultural influences on work collaborations. We tried to show how cultural practices that were annoying and threatened relationships (such as being too direct or being too indirect) had a moral basis. Not getting expected behaviors, as Garfinkel showed in his famous breaching experiments, results in people attributing malicious intent (people are held accountable). Being aware of the range of perspectives in human societies is a step to avoiding these ascriptions of harmful intent.

Talking on the scale of culture easily leads to overgeneralizations and oversimplifications and I’m sure they are in the book. We found that the engineers, and others we interviewed like them, have an appreciation for diversity and are aware of the inaccuracies and hardships that can stem from overgeneralization and overattribution. Embracing culture was the way I felt we could bring linguistic anthropology to a readership dealing with globalization.