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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.


97. Group encounters across cultures. July 23, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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In the 1980s, the exchange organization I worked for very much discouraged exchange students from telephoning home. The same was true of my daughter’s summer camp. Since there was only the camp phone number — no cell phones back then — the camp controlled the telephone use. In both cases, it was firmly believed that the parents’ calls to their children interfered with the children’s adjustment abroad or to the camp. That is what years of experience had told them: You can’t fully participate in the social life and the culture here if you’re constantly communicating back home. From a research perspective, I both respect the wisdom of years of experience and doubt the validity of a conclusion that isn’t based on some firm data. But until someone randomly assigns some exchange students or campers to endless phone class back home while another randomly selected group has their cell phones confiscated and monitors the adjustment of those in each group, we may tend to rely on the wisdom of experience even as it becomes increasingly hard to control the contact back home. But how would such research about cell phone use define adjustment success? It would most certainly be a measure of the individual student or camper’s satisfaction, learning, and interaction with others.

Coming from a very individualistic society, and having worked for an exchange program that sent individual students abroad to live with a host family, it’s not surprising that I have usually thought of the cross-cultural experience in terms of the individual from one culture who comes in contact with another culture. But I realize that this approach really misses the point. It may be even more common for a group from one culture to come in contact with another culture, and it is in this situation where cross cultural navigational skills are surely tested since your individual behavior is always on display to your own group.

Thinking back to exchange students (or summer campers), it makes perfect sense that one of the most frequently reported outcomes of their experience is an increased sense of autonomy and independence. A common re-entry adjustment issue for exchange students is the fact that their friends and family back home have very little interest in understanding the intense experience they just had bonding with other people in another culture. How totally different their experience would be if they were not the lone explorers of this new and fascinating cultural space, but rather came to the experience along with their parents and siblings! Yet it could still be an enriching experience for the family.

Inserting a group from one culture into another culture, whether a study abroad group, a group of refugees, an ex-patriot family, or even a group of New York work colleagues headed on a business trip to California, is a seriously different experience from that of the solo sojourner or the foreign manager from the head office. It isn’t a question of limiting or controlling the level of contact with those back home — they are they with you, and the social and cultural context that you share will also be present constantly as the group navigates the cultural waters of the new culture.  It is not possible, or even desirable, to dismantle the social hierarchy of your home group because it is your group, not just you personally, that needs to shift to accommodate the demands of the other culture.

The goal in these cases is not typically to integrate individually into the other culture (though this may be the goal for some group study abroad programs).  Rather, the group will seek to maintain its own culture’s goals and interests, and to enrich the group with the experience and interaction with the other culture. If this is a peace-building encounter, it is especially important that the group maintains its integrity and identity. The leader cannot force cultural adaptations and concessions to the host culture that the group as a whole does not want nor understand. In some cases, one member of the group may serve as a linguistic or cultural translator, but that may not be the same individual who leads the group or makes decisions.

A group cultural exchange calls on the individual members to consider their own culture in the context of the host culture. I have no model for this, but I would look for an outcome in which group behaviors became more flexible, and the group as a whole became more aware of its cultural context while considering how to integrate new possible futures.

Issue 65: The Smell of School May 4, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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pink_bookWhile cleaning out some files the other day, I came across an old article by Michael Paige in that strange blue-violet type made by a ditto machine. I realized that part of the educational value of the piece, in addition to whatever Michael had written, was its iconic value as a representation of the culture of education in the baby boomer years. Stacy, my incredibly bright and competent graduate school intern, had never smelt the dittoed quiz passed overhead to her by the student seated in front of her, or walked past the principal’s office where the dittos were being run off for whatever class needed them. It was the smell of school, though the odor has long left the Michael Paige article. I know because I automatically lifted the page to my nose. Nothing. Only then did I start to read the article and appreciated the fact that this ditto had been very neatly typed. There were no obvious remnant scratches that signaled a corrected typo. I felt like a curator from Antiques Roadshow, with an impressive knowledge of some ancient technology.


Jaipur picnic 1991

Much of our experience of cultures and places is sensory, and the sense of smell is one of the strongest ways we experience a place.  My memories of India include the smokey, spicy smells that I sometimes discover lingering in fabric or clothing made in India. And there are emotional memories that this scent evokes, much stronger than the memories evoked by photos like this one, taken in Jaipur late in 1991. The colorful saris against the beige ground are striking, but if I could smell the burnt edges of the naan bread baking inside those barrels again, I would feel myself taken back to that picnic on the mountain.

When people have trouble adapting to a new country and culture, or have trouble accepting immigrants moving in next door, they often complain most strongly about body odors, cooking odors, or the cologne that they may use.  An American host mother once told me about her dilemma of feeling nauseated at the family dinner table by the smell of the Sri Lankan exchange student’s cologne. She didn’t want to say anything to the boy, but at the same time she was so overcome by the odor that she could hardly eat her dinner. It wasn’t enough for her to know that this was just one of those cultural differences.

As Rachel Herz pointed out in her book, The Scent of Desire

“Our responses to the scents of one another profoundly influence almost all our social interactions and relationships. The feelings that emerge when we catch a whiff of someone else can range from unconditional love to repugnance and prejudice.” (Chapter 6)

So what is a host mother to do when she wants to love a newly arrived exchange student but is repulsed by his cologne? In this case, the host mother managed to communicate her feelings without perhaps wanting to do so, but she seemed less able to interpret the students feelings when he seemingly spontaneously stopped wearing the cologne after a few days.  For her, it seemed that a problem was thankfully and quickly resolved.

Although this happened decades ago, I would not be surprised if the scent of that particular cologne still leaves traces in their minds that would immediately recall for both the host mother and the student the way they each felt in those first days together.