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Dolls, Mascots, and Human Touch January 9, 2016

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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pink_bookThe woman in the physical therapy center came in with a life-sized baby doll that she carried everywhere. She was not the only woman in the continuing care center to have a baby doll. The center apparently provided baby dolls for the residents who wanted to hold them, or perhaps they were shared. While she worked with her therapist, the doll, “George” sat on a chair to the side. Another woman wheeled herself into the room. She seemed to move up and down the corridors constantly, never speaking to anyone as far as I could tell. But now she made a beeline for “George” picked him up and said “Hi. How’re ya doing?”

I thought of this episode when I read an article this morning’s New York Times on the ubiquitous use of mascots in Japan and the industry that makes them. One of the theories for the popularity of mascots in Japan was that they provided an outlet for affection: A way to hug a human-like thing that is culturally acceptable in a low touch society.

I wonder if the same is true for the dolls given to the residents in the care center. Last month AARP The Magazine featured an article on “The Power of Touch” that suggested a therapeutic value of touch, particularly for older people who may be “touch-deprived” in the US. Are the dolls a substitute for real human touch?

hands touching

One of the first things one learns in studying other cultures is that the social rules for touching another person vary widely from one place to another. We sometimes talk about a personal space bubble that may have different dimensions depending on your cultural history and experience. Sometimes there are very strict prohibitions against touching another person or a person of the opposite sex. This can create some awkwardness in ordinary social greetings in other countries. An Indonesian exchange student I met here in New York immediately explained: “I can’t shake hands because I’m not allowed to touch women.” This is not an unusual situation. When making friends across cultures, it can help to speak directly when you recognize that the rules for touching are different. But what of those from high-touch cultures who are missing their hugs and kisses in a low-touch society? The good news is that people can be flexible and adapt to each other’s needs and concerns when they start to understand each other.


Issue 90. Culturally Conditioned Response January 13, 2010

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Uncategorized.
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The University of Rochester Medical Center recently released a report of research headed by Dr. Robert Ader that tested the use of placebos as part of the treatment for psoriasis patients. Though many studies have found placebos to be surprisingly effective in the double-blind studies that are standard for medicines, this study looked at characteristics of the administration of the placebo as elements that lead to a conditioned response, like the salivation of Pavlov’s dogs when they heard the dinner bell, and considered how placebos could be used effectively as part of the treatment, with a focus on immune system diseases. Is a conditioned response less than a belief? Can we knowingly take placebos and still expect improvement because we believe in our conditioned response? Or would we start distrusting our medicine because it’s probably mostly placebo and therefore unlikely to be effective?

A few years ago I read an article in the New Yorker  about a color consultant named Leslie Harrington who studied 27 possible pill colors with populations in 12 countries. The consulting was related to selected the color that could be most effectively marketed in different countries, but perhaps if Ader’s research team is correct, Harrington’s marketing research is also likely to show which color pill will be more effectively medically as well.

Of course, other aspects of dispensing medicine are involved as well. Which would you trust more: a placebo that tastes bitter or one that tastes sweet? Would pills, capsules, liquids, or powders prove most effective as placebos? Can a placebo be too tiny to be effective? Certainly not in cultures where tiny grains of homeopathic medicine would commonly be used for many types of illness. All of these questions about perception and beliefs involve culturally-based assumptions about health.

This brings me to the fascinating article in the New York Times Sunday magazine by Ethan Watters earlier this week. In “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” Watters looks at the export of not just American medical treatments for mental illness, but also the symptoms as US and European psychologists, medical professionals and pharmaceutical industries make their science and products available around the world.  According to Watters’ article, research has long shown that “people with schizophrenia in developing countries appear to fare better over time than those living in industrialized nations.” An anthropologist named Juli McGruder from the University of Puget Sound looked into this question in her study of families of schizophrenics in Zanzabar who frequently believed their family member was possessed by spirits. This belief prompted them to do certain things to appease the spirits, so that the patients were “coaxed with food, feted with song and dance” all of which, it seemed, led to a better result in the long term for these patients than for their American counterparts, who are believed to have a chemical imbalance and whose families try to help them take full responsibility for themselves. Find time to read the whole article.   

Tuesday I took a yoga class as I often do. It provides a stretch of the body and a stretch of the imagination, and plays with the relationship between them. Mostly, it just feels good. But yoga itself is a complicated belief system about the relationship of health, energy, the heart, the blood flow, the mind, and much that is spiritual. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the explanations about how some posture massages my inner organs, or the explanations about how a posture with your feet up in the air helps the blood flow back to your heart. I keep thinking that the blood still has to get up to those feet when you’re upside down, and the inverted position of the feet and heart can’t be that important in the equation. But if I suspend these beliefs for the 60 or 90 minute lesson and try to follow the instructions of the teacher, I feel stronger, stand taller, and feel calmer. Maybe yoga is my placebo, or one of them.

I can’t help thinking that intercultural experiences also require this suspension of your own belief system and openness to another one. And it may also be true that in a similar way you can benefit from an action that is at odds somehow with your own beliefs, as long as you’re willing to loosen them a bit.

Issue 83. Respect October 19, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
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ORANGE_BOOKOne of my current projects involves looking at language use in the context of describing a school’s goals related to intercultural education. This started with a small case study I was inventing for a workshop, but blossomed into a fledgling research project. “Respect” is a word that comes up frequently as a value to cultivate in the students in both the US and French cases I selected, and it becomes particularly relevant in dealing with differences: cultural, social, economic, intellectual, or physical. Some type of respect can be commanded through fear, and we also say that someone “earns” respect. If we want to improve the way we deal with differences, we are talking more about giving respect, about respecting as an action. It’s absolutely necessary and sometimes surprisingly difficult.

I recently received a message from someone in reaction to a comment I made on another blog. It was a breezy comment, not terribly well considered, in which I was dismissing the importance of another person’s point of view — a person I didn’t even know. But that was the person who chose to write me to complain about my comment. After offering him an apology and exchanging some emails back and forth, we still do not agree, though now on friendly terms, and we have done some work on respecting each other by connecting with stories of our parents. But respect is still difficult.

Respect isn’t a skill or a body of knowledge; it’s an attitude, an approach, and an action that describes a connection to someone or something. Respect is recognizing and believing in the importance and value of another being, or even of ourselves, and communicating that recognition through our behavior. The absence of respect may be more noted by others than its presence because respect is often quiet. English uses the convention of nouns and verbs, but like many words in the English language, respect is both a noun and a verb, and it always takes an object. I thought of the exercises that I was taught in school so many years ago, in which we diagrammed sentences to give a visual structure showing the relationship of each word to the whole. But words themselves are complex things and contain many concepts and relationships.
I often feel overly academic when I draw a model of a concept like this. Am I taking something simple and making it way too complex? That’s possible. But here’s what I discovered in putting this together: For me, believing is the sticking point. It’s the gut reaction. Intellectually or philosophically, it’s straight forward. Of course every person is valuable and necessary and important!

What happens, though, when I believe my way of doing things is more efficient? Or that my opinions are supported better by the facts? How can I respect when I really believe I have the better idea?

Years ago, my daughter came to me crying because a friend told her that she had given a stupid name to her doll. “Why did you say that and hurt her feelings?” I asked the friend, who answered, “Because I really believe that Kimie is a stupid name for a doll.” Honest, perhaps, but certainly lacking in respect.

I found an interesting discussion of the difficulty of teaching respect in The Journal of General Internal Medicine in an article by Doctors Carla L. Spagnoletti and Robert M. Arnold. Doctors also may find it hard to “feel” respect at times for their patients, but it may be helpful, the authors argue, to start with learning the behaviors, the language, and the symbols of respect that are culturally appropriate, and to practice them even when the feeling of respect isn’t there yet.

I believe this can also be approached from the intention to respect: to suspend your beliefs, to decide to assume that another way may be better than yours, and just to explore what that might mean. This is also an intention to develop your relationship with another person.