7 Things I’ve Learned About History Since Moving to the Land of the Future

April 25, 2014

“Why on earth did you study history?” I was asked last night, and on many days since I arrived in what is perhaps the world’s most future-oriented place. What answer can I give to an engineer or venture capitalist who can’t rotate his perspective enough to look backward, or see the importance of doing so? I usually say that I love to explore the rich context of our modern world, so much of which was influenced by the past. Or that history, like all the humanities, is a mirror that shows us a different version of ourselves.

But such answers will not satisfy many people here, and in wondering why, I realize I’ve learned a few things about history and its uses since learning the way (to San José):

1. America ≠ California and American History Californian History.

I write a lot about nationalism, because it is one of the ways we identify as part of a group, with shared history. I feel very Canadian, and not very Ontarian at all because I don’t see Ontario’s history as disconnected from that of the Canadian historical narrative. So I assumed it would be very “American” here, like places I’ve been on the East Coast and Midwest.

I was wrong.

The United States, though a young country, seems to be very aware of (certain parts of) its history. After all, how many other countries refer so frequently to and preserve so faithfully the intentions of their founding documents? America has an acute sense of its founding myths, and the historical reenactment culture here is an ongoing source of fascination and delight. (Who wants to be that Union solider who gets shot the first moment of battle and lies on the field the rest of the day in period costume? Is there a hierarchy, and does one get promoted each successive year based on seniority until eventually he is General Lee, or is it merit-based and depends on how well you keel over in your fleeting moment of glory? Such pressing questions.)

California Republic

California is not, however, America. It is, as the t-shirts say, “California Republic,” with its “Governator” and strange direct democracy and fiercely independent, contrarian streak. Very few people here identify as “American” so much as “Californian,” and they don’t seem to share the same historical touch points. More common are nods to the Spanish and Mexican roots of the region, through the missions and street names, or a focus on the history of global trade and cosmopolitan capitalism.

2. People have a different definition of “history” in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a whole other animal altogether (a shark, perhaps?).

In a place where the next iOS release, must-have gadget or earnings report is breathlessly anticipated, “history” becomes something that matters mostly in your browser. “Legacies” and “artifacts” are usually bad things to Valley dwellers, being outmoded or standing in the way of progress. The tech industry does not look kindly on the past – or rather, doesn’t think much of it at all, an indifference which is, as we all know, much more the opposite of love than dislike.

San José then…

Silicon Valley isn’t kind to its physical history either. The historic orchards and cherry trees that once ringed San José have been paved to make way for sprawling, two-story rental accommodations and carefully landscaped corporate lawns. Giant redwoods are regularly felled to allow for a better view of the advertisements on the side of buildings (seen from the freeway, of course). Dome-shaped Space Age cinemas one frequented by Steven Spielberg are in danger of being torn down, likely so newer, bigger malls can rise up in their places.

Even churches, those bastions of beautiful architecture, look like something out of an IKEA catalogue, all light wood and glass – nary a flying buttress in sight. It’s a full-on assault of the past by the present, in the name of the future.

3. Transience produces ambivalence and a lack of investment in the past.

Many people are new here, as the region’s explosive growth in the last 30 years can attest. Others are “just passing through.” So a lot of people feel disconnected from anything greater than their jobs or family/friend networks here, and there is a pervasive sense of rootlessness.

So why bother to invest in their communities? Or care what they used to look like? So goes the logic and thus the “San José Historic District” encompasses a single square block, with fewer than ten historic monuments. These are mainly just buildings that have survived – earthquakes, vacancy and neglect. This website catalogs the “boneyard of unwanted San José monuments” that are slowly crumbling away near the freeway and very shiny corporate HQ of Adobe.

Santa Clara County Courthouse

The courthouse, crumbling in disrepair. San José is falling down, falling down, falling down…

It’s not all that surprising though when you consider that…

4. …it is personal history that fosters pride and connection.

Perhaps I and others feel disconnected from the history here because so much of historical connection depends on identifying with who made the history in the first place. Several recent studies from the British Commonwealth (Britain itself, Canada, and Australia) and the US indicate that museum attendance increases where a greater percentage of the population identifies with the ancestry of the area. That is, if you are of Scottish origin in Toronto, you are more likely to be interested in a museum about Canadian history, which was largely architected by Scots, than if you are a Native Canadian whose world was essentially trampled on by those same Scots. You’re likely still less interested if you are a recent immigrant to Toronto from Bangladesh. Feeling as though a part of you helped to make a place what it is makes it more real and more interesting. Rightly or wrongly, you feel as if you have more of a stake in the future because “your people” had more of a stake in the past.

Even people that grew up here can barely recognize it, so feel as though a part of their past has been taken from them. Wherefore the cherry blossoms and apple orchards that used to dot the landscape of the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight”? One woman told me her family used to live bordering a fruit farm, and moved six times as the farms were paved over by housing divisions, until “we lived backing on to the mountain, and there were no farms left.”

…and San José now.

And yet, I can only feel that history is critical, from my experiences in Toronto where historical consciousness, like love and Christmas, is all around.

Thus:

5. History is often the most beautiful part.

I used to love walking through downtown Toronto because every so often a beautiful Art Deco or neo-Gothic gem would emerge amid the drab tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s. Variations in architectural style provide interest and colour in an otherwise monotonous world of glassy office towers and utilitarian apartment buildings. Grand plazas, churches and monuments make statements about what is important to a place, and what it values.

What do these people value? It is worth cherishing and celebrating the few beautiful examples of history that exist here.

Like this one!

 

6. Historical traditions provide comfort.

This surprised me. History, of course, is about customs passed down as much as it is about actual events or physical buildings. Traditions ground us and give us some consistency in a world that changes rapidly. This is part of the reason weddings, funerals, and general church-going still exist. We need traditions to mark the big events in life.

We also need traditions to mark out who we are and how we should behave. To take a small but non-trivial example I wrote about recently: our clothing sends out signals about who we are and what we expect from life. There are no standards of dress here, at work or at play. Twenty-five-year-old men dictate the business ambiance, so beards, flip flops and holey t-shirts abound, and you can’t find a restaurant in California fancy enough that you can’t wear jeans.

It is utterly unconventional, which is perhaps just a bit the point. Wearing jeans to a meeting with someone in a suit will instantly destabilize them. It’s the same idea with non-standard working hours, perfected by the tech industry, and turning work into play (both the work itself and the space in which it is done). Even the critical and traditional accent in “José” has all but disappeared, which leads me to wonder if people in future will think this city was pronounced as something that rhymes with “banjos.”

It is groundbreaking to blow up established norms, but also somewhat unsettling. And history is necessary, if only to have something to conscientiously reject.

7. Culture clusters around history.

Life without history would not only be ignorant and untethered, but very boring.

People often view San José and its surrounds as soulless, and it’s easy to see why. One need only look at the cultural draw San Francisco has on the region to appreciate why places with deep roots are attractive. Most of San Francisco’s biggest tourist attractions are historical landmarks. What would the City be without the bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building, or Pier 39? Just a bunch of expensive apartments and hills, really.

History infuses places with meaning, and communities gather to add more layers. So next time someone asks me why on earth I would bother to study history, I think I will tell him that it’s because I care about beauty and culture and connection to the people and places around me — and that if he wants to live in somewhere even half-decent, he should too.

History, paved over

History, paved over

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Coffee vs. Alcohol: A better brew?

February 28, 2011

Almost everyone enjoys a good brew, but some brews are more acceptable than others, it seems. Around the world, coffee consumption has far outstripped that of alcoholic beverages, with around 2.9 pounds (or around 30 litres) of coffee consumed per person, on average, in one year. Compared with an average consumption of 5 litres per person, per year of alcohol worldwide, it seems we are much more inclined to be hitting a Starbucks than a bar on an average day.

Global average alcohol consumption

Global average alcohol consumption

Coffee is also a critically important trading commodity, second only to oil in terms of dollar value globally. I won’t get into the cultural influence of Starbucks, Tim Hortons and the like, but the impact on consumers and on the business world has been significant – much more so than any individual brand of alcohol in recent history.

Coffee is a relatively modern beverage. There is no Greek god of coffee, like there is of wine (though if there were, no doubt he would be a very spirited half-child of Zeus who enjoyed bold flavours, waking up early, and being chipper). The first evidence of coffee drinking as we know it today is generally placed in the fifteenth-century Middle East. Evidence of wine and beer consumption, in contrast, dates to 6000 BC and 9500 BC, respectively, or even earlier. Yet for such a young contender, coffee’s rise in popularity has been impressive.

No doubt in part this rise in Europe related to the appeal of the exotic, like the chocolate and other goods that originated in Turkey or other Arab countries. It is also likely that, like sugar, coffee was just tasty and appealing in its own right, and those who tried it liked it and wanted more. And certainly there is the social aspect, the rise of coffeehouse culture across France and Britain in the eighteenth century, which brought together politics, business and social interaction in a public forum as never before. The purported offspring of the coffeehouses, such as the stock market, French Enlightenment ideals, and even democracy, were significant. In a TED talk I watched recently, author Steven Johnson slyly remarked that the English Renaissance was curiously closely tied to the changeover from imbibing large amounts of depressants to large amounts of stimulants with the rise of the coffeehouse (go figure).

The best part of waking up?

Today, it seems that coffee has generally been linked to a host of other caffeinated beverages that are considered “good” (such as tea and cola) and alcohol has been linked with commodities that are “bad” and “unhealthy” (such as drugs and cigarettes). Why? Perhaps it is because colas, tea and coffee are unregulated, entirely legal, and (to a point) even considered safe for children, while the opposite can be said of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

Is the association fair? Hardly. While the dangers of addiction may be greater for the latter group, and public drunkenness more severely chastised than public hyperactivity, coffee and sugary colas (as fantastic as they are) are hardly the healthiest choices of beverages.

I suspect it is something else, something in the inherent nature or promotion of coffee that makes it seem less threatening than alcohol. Coffee suffers from none of the religious ordinances forbidding its consumption the way alcohol does (though, interestingly, coffee was also banned in several Islamic countries in its early years). Is has also never endured the smug wrath of teetotalers or wholesale prohibition.

Alcohol is generally placed into the realms of evenings and night-times, bars, and sexy movies, while coffee is the drink of busy weekday mornings, weekends with the paper, and businesspeople. Both are oriented toward adults, but coffee is in some ways more socially acceptable. Consider the difference between remarking that you just can’t get started in the morning without your coffee versus saying the same about your morning shot of whiskey. Similarly, asking someone out for a drink connotes much more serious intentions than asking someone for a coffee. And vendors are catching on: in Britain, many pubs are weathering the downturn in business caused by the recession and changing attitudes by tapping into the morning market of coffee drinkers.

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (courtesy of ChartsBin)

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (graphic courtesy of ChartsBin)

I wonder if the trend toward increased coffee consumption is in place of alcohol. I also wonder if it mirrors the general cultural shift toward an American orientation. The global dominance of Starbucks and other coffee shops seem to me to be supplanting the role of the local pub or licensed hang outs of the old world with a chirpy kind of Americanism and a whole new roster of bastardized European terms and ideas like “caramelo” and “frappuccino.” The New York Times backs up the idea of American dominance, noting that the U.S. makes up 25% of global coffee consumption and was a primary instigator of the takeover of coffee shop chains. Yet coffee is also extremely popular in Europe (especially in Scandinavia, as fans of Stieg Larsson would be unsurprised to discover) and even Japan.

Is this another case of American cultural colonialism, whereby traditions from Europe are adopted, commercialized, and re-sold to captive populations who want to tap into small piece of American corporate and social culture? Or is the global interest in coffee indifferent to American opinion?

Reading the tea leaves (coffee grinds?) to tell the future of consumption

Will coffee culture continue to increase in popularity, eventually supplanting the role of alcohol in social meetings? Two factors are worth considering here. The first is that while demand for alcoholic beverages in the developed world is shrinking, there is a growing interest in all kinds of alcohol (and especially wine) in emerging markets. Take, for instance, the rise of wine as a drink of choice and status symbol in China and Hong Kong as expendable incomes have grown. A similarly proportioned increase in coffee consumption there could be monumental – will it occur?

The second factor is the great cost of producing coffee. Putting aside the fact that most coffee is produced in comparatively poorer countries than those that refine, sell, and consume the finished product, the environmental cost is staggering. Waterfootprint asserts that for every 1 cup of coffee, 141 litres of water are required (mostly at the growing stage). Compare this figure with 75 litres for one similarly sized glass of beer and 120 litres for the average glass of wine and it would seem that a rise in coffee culture at the expense of alcohol could be disastrous for the environment.

Do the above statistics figure largely in the minds of those who drink any of the above beverages? Likely not. But all might – and likely will – in time affect production, and the economics of supply and demand will come into play, changing the equation once more and making it even harder to determine which is the better brew.


“My, Those Are Spiffy Sunglasses. Did You Fall Down A Mine?”

October 14, 2010

Hope, and capitalism, have won out in Chile.

For the past few days I, like the rest of the world, have been captivated by the ongoing saga in Chile as 33 miners were rescued from almost 700 metres below ground, all emerging with shouts, laughs, and plenty of thanks for God and the scientists who have spent the last two months trying to get them out. Frankly, it’s great to hear some good news from the world media, which recently have been depressing us endlessly with their tales of woe about the recession, the impending political reign of morons, and the demise of their own industry. The great mining rescue has also provided the best branding opportunity this year: Oakley sunglasses have suddenly become the eyewear of choice for the discerning miner.

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Jargon and Power: Why “Touching Base” Equals Linguistic Imperialism

April 26, 2010

I’ve always thought that jargon was just another way to measure inclusivity. Newcomers to the corporate scene are often barraged with inscrutable acronyms, and people who want to “touch base” and “connect” in order to decide on “actionable next steps.” Other favourites of mine are the ever-present “deck,” otherwise known as a PowerPoint presentation in which one expands five sentences into thirty slides with swirling slide transitions, and the “ask” [n.], which, from what I’ve been able to discern, is a way to cut down on the syllables required to say “request.” Efficiency indeed.

In academia, it’s even worse. It seems that no book or article can be taken seriously until the author has proven his or her credentials by name-checking every obscure phrase that has been written on a subject. This practice serves only to repeat ad nauseam the same tired debates over and over with little new beyond increasing specialization, which I’ve attacked at length before.

Considering how pernicious it is to the Plain Language Movement, however, there is shockingly little popular or academic treatment of the subject of jargon. Perhaps it is because, as New Left academic Peter Ives says in his fantastic 1997 article “In defense of jargon,” “jargon is only jargon for those who don’t use it.” Maybe we like to be inscrutable because it makes us feel more intelligent. Or maybe the world is changing so quickly these days, we need something familiar to hold onto, and clichéd language represents a security blanket of sorts.

The ways in which jargon has evolved seem to support this theory. In “‘As Per Your Request’: A History of Business Jargon,” Kitty Locker writes that jargon has eras, identifying the pre-1880s, 1880s-1950s, and post-1950s as distinct periods in business communication. (Given that the article appears in a relatively obscure academic journal and was published in 1987, it obviously doesn’t touch the Internet age, and so I imagine the author would have to add another for the post-1990s period for all of the tech speak we use now.) But if we think that the 1880s-1950s (when jargon use was at its peak, apparently) saw the rise of corporate America, and with that an emphasis on professionalism and specialization, we can see the early roots of corporate-style conformity. And today there is just as much human need for conformity, but more arenas from which to choose one’s allegiance: corporate, social, technological, generational, geographical, etc.

Locker argues that corporate jargon and ‘stock phrases’ came about primarily because new employees tended to copy old correspondence, either in style or in actual phraseology. Often letters doubled as legal documents, and so the terminology had to be fairly set. Then, from the 1920s onward, American firms were interested in improving business communication, with big companies often having a person or department who monitored it and tried to get everyone to use the same words and phrases. (O, that I could have the job of whipping corporate employees’ communications into shape! Alas, cost cutting.)

Today, I suspect jargon use comes less from official processes than by the subtle attempts to reinforce unofficial corporate/academic norms and hierarchies with new employees. Using jargon – in the form of acronyms, company-specific words, or highly technical language – creates a sense of inclusivity among workers, which is exactly why, if senior executives/group leaders ever thought about it, they would have a vested interest in keeping it around.  It is a badge of honour even today for new recruits to master the new group’s/company’s lingo.

Interestingly, Locker points out that companies have had little success in eliminating jargon even when they have tried. A bank in the 1960s tried to freshen up its letters by taking out the standard greetings and salutations, and received numerous complaints from customers who were having trouble recognizing the letters for what they were. As she amusingly quotes, “the value the reader places on the distinctiveness of a business letter can easily be overestimated.” (Indeed.) And it is a daring academic who braves the censure of his or her peers by not mentioning what Foucault thought about the issue, or how “post-x” something is. (One might wonder if s/he even had an advanced degree.) It seems that there is comfort in the conventionality of jargon for both user and receiver.

I wonder if this emphasis on conventionality spreads beyond the walls of corporations and academia. Familiarity and belonging are powerful emotions, after all, and it takes a lot more effort to be fresh and original than to retreat into the comfort of clichéd words and phrases. It is often easier to be anonymous than to be articulate.

Jargon may also have more sinister undertones. Peter Ives argues that most of the jargon we use today (he was writing in 1997) originated in the right-wing military/political/business elite. It seems that we are endorsing a pro-capitalist, individualist language, because the section of society that uses such words also happens to have the means to diffuse their particular linguistic preferences more broadly.

By this logic, even our exhortations to “speak plainly” in language that is “accessible” can be read as elitist, because, as Ives asks, who gets to determine what “accessible” is? Democracy? If so, Chinese would be most accessible. Instead, we assume that “plain English” wins out, and enforce that presumption upon everyone else. Such is the stuff of linguistic imperialism.

It seems language is inextricably tied to power structures, existing hierarchies, and even imperialism. So next time someone asks you to “touch base” later, consider that by deciding just to “talk” instead, you’re standing up for the little guy.


What’s Your National Brand?

March 6, 2010

Countries attempt to brand elements of their history, geography, and produce in order to “sell” them to tourists and buyers – think champagne, parmesan cheese, and America’s National Parks, to give just a few examples. It is advertising on a large scale, and the different brands combine to form a larger idea of what each country represents. But how do countries communicate their existential selves in short, catchy words and logos – brands – when people hold conflicting ideas about what they really are at the core?

Branding is, in essence, an attempt to distil very complex ideas and feelings into a simplified name or image. It is powerful when it succeeds because humans need heuristics, that is, ways to make optimal decisions easily based on mental shortcuts and approximations, and successful brands are among the most reliable heuristics. This is why advertisers don’t sell products or services but feelings: early Listerine ads promoted fitting in by not succumbing to the horrors of halitosis; Absolut Vodka ads (by virtue of their relatively early association with the gay community) signified open-mindedness, style, class, and wealth; the ubiquitous Coca-Cola Christmas ads signify all the joy and anticipation and childish delight of the holidays in a neat, 30-second spot (I dare you to watch the linked ad and not feel gleeful). Brands are so simple and powerful that even three-year-olds can identify their favourites and what they represent.

In the history of producers and consumers, branding is a remarkably modern concept, dating back to the late nineteenth century. In the days before urbanization and the growth of communities, supply chains were no longer than neighbour-to-neighbour. Consumers knew the producers and could make their own decisions about what to purchase. As soon as more steps were introduced into the supply chain, consumers lacked this direct knowledge of the products and had to rely on the expertise of those selling the products – the retailers. Before brands, small-time retailers were immensely powerful, and not always objective, but consumers had to trust them. With brands, manufacturers sought to shift the balance of power by reaching the consumers directly, through advertising and the promise of consistency in the product. Consumers could bypass the retailers, and even influence their businesses, by demanding specific products from specific producers.

Major world events are rare and powerful opportunities for countries to bypass international “retailers” (travel agents, government investment boards, mainstream media) and reach potential consumers directly. In particular, sporting events, with their viewership in the billions, represent a major branding opportunity for a whole nation. I’m going to stay within the Commonwealth and talk about two upcoming (and one recently passed) major sporting events that exemplify this idea: the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. What are the national branding strategies associated with these events and what do they signify?

Making a profit and developing the local infrastructure is always the ostensible rationale behind hosting major events such as these. Getting tourists and investors to notice a nation is (hopefully) a great recipe for future profit. And obviously, being sporting events, a large part of the brand idea is centred around the sporting prowess of the host. Much has been made of Canada’s desire to Own the Podium, and how success in sport will spell an enduring run of national pride. First among the UK’s 2012 Olympic “Legacy Promises” is to “make the UK a world-leading sporting nation.” And South Africa is no doubt hoping for a miraculous home win in the vein of their 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph (I’ve thought for months now that Invictus is just a very expensive morale booster and marketing campaign for the South African football team). But the really interesting part of the brand images is everything else these nations are attempting to associate with their brand at perhaps the world’s most visible advertising campaign. And because brands must be simple ideas that represent more complex ones, the focus really narrows to what the host nations consider to be most important to their international reputations at this moment. What do organizers want people to think when they see a maple leaf, or a Union Jack, or funky African font? Their brand images are revealing.

Modern Canada, to those not living here, is all about beer, hockey, and politeness. Historically, it is about Pierre Trudeau and lumberjacks. (This cartoon sums up the stereotypes quite amusingly.) Surely, as the Economist suggests, Canada would use the event to attempt to re-brand itself as a “modern, youthful sporting power.” Perhaps that is so – though I believe Canada has always been seen as fairly modern and youthful internationally, so this is no great stretch. Yet the extra-sport, extra-developmental goals of Vancouver 2010 were all about uniting Canada as a nation – of many languages, regions, ethnic groups, and historical conflicts, one. They were to be Canada’s Games. This is a surprisingly insular goal, considering only those fairly well acquainted with our history and politics would consider Canada a truly fractured nation. Perhaps Canada’s diversity (and consequently potentially confusing contradictions) meant organizers had to subsume the whole nation – in all its natural beauty and dynamism and multiethnic glory – into one idea. On that score, I think they succeeded, as we do seem to be more unified (at least for the moment). And if tourists and investors believe that all of Canada (and not just British Columbia) is “super, natural”, I’m sure nobody will complain.

It may be harder for Britain, given that so many have already formed an idea of the country from its long historical and cultural global dominance. Yet the stated goals for London 2012, apart from the obvious sporting- and infrastructure-related ones, are surprisingly modest. They mainly involve inspiring young people to “take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity,” and showing that Britain is a “creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business.” Terrible grammar aside, these aims seem to have a theme of regeneration, which reflects the general undercurrent in the media that Britain is on the decline. Inspire the youth of today? Check. Attract new, wealthy residents and investors? Check. Attempt to stem the floodgates of brainpower and cultural capital that burst when we lost the Empire? Check. Unlike Canada’s stated goals – to show people what we are – Britain’s goals are to show people what they could be again someday. (No wonder their coverage of Canada’s Olympics was so bitterly critical.) And judging from the logo, the future of Britain is bright…pink.

South Africa is facing an even tougher challenge, as it prepares to host this year’s FIFA World Cup (currently 95 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 3 seconds away, not that I’m counting). It is the first on African soil, and South Africa is aiming to re-brand not only itself, but the whole continent of Africa as modern, safe, and open for business. The main media page for the event contains an article on safety preparations. This would have been unheard of for Germany 2006. The fact that the World Cup organizers had to confirm that it would proceed despite the fatal attacks on several members of Togo’s soccer team over one thousand miles away in Angola signifies that South Africa is representing the whole of Africa, and that the pressure is on. The main branding idea seems to be “surprise,” as in “the whole world will be surprised by what we have to offer.” Again, a chance for re-invention. My personal hope is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by England surviving past the quarterfinals for a change.

The Vancouver Olympics were a great success, not only for our athletes, but for our image. I’m excited to see how the World Cup and London 2012 Olympics brands evolve while the world’s eyes are watching.

What do you think? Do these national brands sum up Canada, Britain or South Africa to you? What would you add or change about them? And do you think England has any chance of making the finals?

Further Reading:


Paris: The City of Light, Love, and Atrocious Service

February 18, 2010

In the BBC yesterday, columnist Emma Jane Kirby described the customer service experience in Paris – cab drivers refusing to take her (on crutches for breaking a leg skiing) because she was a “cripple,” vendors refusing to assist customers by selecting their produce, and restaurant waiters refusing to answer to anything other than “Monsieur.” It is a sorry picture indeed. “The customer is not always right,” she writes – as though this is acceptable behaviour among those seeking to earn money in a sinking economy.

What is the reason for this particularly French brand of incivility? Apparently, it dates back to the French Revolution. “The revolution of 1789,” Ms. Kirby writes, “Has burned the notion of equality deep into the French psyche and a proud Parisian finds it abhorrently degrading to act subserviently.” Americans in the service industry, on the other hand, use their first names and seek to “give us ‘good folks [i.e., patrons] a great time.’” Friendliness? Promptness? An enjoyable customer experience? Heaven forbid!

I wonder that the author of this article points to the French Revolution as the origin of French servers desiring equal status to their patrons, and yet contrasts their service with that in America. Didn’t the United States have a similar revolution, with similar aims and results? Indeed, I doubt that many countries exist with the idea of equality so firmly engrained in their culture as the United States, nor that of a strong work ethic. I have already posted about the fact that Americans work longer hours, are more productive, and make more money than Europeans. Granted, there are numerous problems that have resulted from the shift from an old, European artisan kind of work (like the article’s French grocer who carefully selects the right avocado for when the customer will use it, perhaps?) to the modern, Fordist division of labour in the American corporation. However, in the area of customer service, the Anglo-Saxon idea of the customer calling the shots clearly wins the day – in theory and in profits.

I suspect that the two countries have diverged in this way for very different reasons. In fact, I think the lingering resentment displayed by the French servers described in this article is more a holdover from the ancien régime than something created by its overthrow in 1789. It is a modern parallel to the old, chafing class consciousness, and reflects the old divisions of education, upbringing, and geography. French peasants – both urban and rural – were overtaxed and undervalued for most of French history. They felt as though they were ignored and treated as though their opinions meant nothing, particularly in Paris, where most of upper classes lived. This was the whole cause of the French Revolution. America, in contrast, began (ostensibly) as a society of equals, in which farmers and the urban working class had as much right to participate politically as the intellectual and social elites. There were – absolutely – de facto class divisions, but in a nation of immigrants, everybody had to start from close to nothing. In comparison to the old European system of birth determining all, the American system was, from the start, a meritocracy in which hard work was prized above all. 

And it’s no coincidence that the eminent management thinker, Peter Drucker (himself an immigrant to the US) was famous for arguing for both good, old-fashioned hard work and putting the customer first. They are closely related. I object to the idea of “Joe,” the American server in the article, who (the implication is) simpers his way obsequiously through the course of meal with no genuine pride in his work, solely seeking a fat tip. In North America, great customer service is a source of pride in itself. It is also a growing trend for companies to (re)focus on the customer. In the January-February 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin describes this trend as a new, customer-focused stage of modern capitalism. Are the French so out of sync with modern management theory as to willingly slight their customers?

Quite frankly, I find the idea of French customers being mere “irritants” appalling. Does the service ethic not apply to everyone? Should Nicolas Sarkozy refuse to serve his country if we do not refer to him as “Monsieur”? Is he inferior because he ‘serves’ his voters? Is Thierry Henry inferior to his audience/ticket holders because he ‘serves’ them by bringing in goals (and controversial World Cup qualifying berths)? No. These are their jobs. Few can afford to serve none.

On a personal note, I have always found customer service in the United States to be exceptional, in every regard.  It’s a large contributor to the overall pleasant feeling I have when I’m there – and for tourists, that feeling is invaluable. Perhaps the Parisians have something to learn from the American tourists they dislike so much.


In Honour of the Winter Olympics, A Special Post on Canadian Nationalism

February 15, 2010

I get very excited when the topics I write major papers on appear in glorious technicolour on TV commercials. (Shockingly, this doesn’t happen all that often.) So I can’t help but write about the new Hudson’s Bay Company advertisement that is currently airing to foster a sense of national pride and sell $10 red mittens.

(You can also watch the video here, if you haven’t already seen it 800 times between biathlon and speed skating heats.)

The commercial is, in essence, a glossily-packaged 60-second breakdown of the major historical arguments for a Canadian national identity, as separate from an imperial one as a colony of the British Empire. Canadian nationalism always was very different from that in other parts of the Empire. In the “ruled” colonies (India, the rest of Africa, etc.), nationalism was often a much stronger and easily identifiable sentiment because the definition of nationalism usually presumes underlying ethnographic, linguistic, or racial difference as the basis for internal unity and distinction from empire. Easily identified differences like these make the articulation of a national idea anti-imperial and pro-national, two separate ideas that work very well together.

In the settlement colonies (Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc.), however, imperialism was usually a more subtle and nuanced affair because it wasn’t anti-imperial. In fact, Canadian nationalism is an unstable category of analysis, because many Canadians were in fact highly supportive of British imperialism. Exploiting foreign countries for resources? Check. Advancing a pure British race in new lands? Check. Hyper-masculine militarism? But of course – isn’t this the whole idea of the Olympics in the first place? Because long before the idea of cooperation between nations, sport was all about training for war, and proving that your soldiers were younger, stronger, and fitter than the next country’s. (Especially Germany. Everyone was always on the look-out for Germany. And with good reason – when East and West Germany’s totals are added in, they’ve won more medals in the Winter Olympics than any other country – by far.)

Therefore, since Canadians were, by and large, so supportive of imperial ideals, they needed to find some area of divergence from Britain. They found it in the land. It was the cold, harsh, bracing land that allowed Britannia’s children in Canada to take imperialism and advance it further than could ever happen in Britain alone. Canada’s nationalist argument was thus never anti-imperial; it was superimperial. The basis for differentiation was spatial.

I could write about this *at length* (in fact, I already have), but I will restrain myself and instead point out the supporting evidence that can so amusingly be found in the video linked to above.

“We arrived 340 years ago, to a land of rock, ice, and snow…”

I love the rugged, masculine “colonial” types that emerge from this boat (did they row from Britain? Across the Atlantic?) and immediately start running off to colonize people and, presumably, claim the land for themselves. Emigration was always promoted as a way to tame the wilderness and regain one’s sense of masculinity that had been lost in rainy, effeminate Britain. See how successful we were? Now we snowboard!

Note also, at the 0:14 second mark, the reinforcement of gender roles with the women doing laundry. How proper!

“…We didn’t just survive the elements. Together, we thrived in them.”

I love this too. See how we’ve tamed Mother Nature with our hyper-masculinism! See how we’ve bonded together, as a nation, to thrive in those elements! See what moral clarity and racial purity we have! (Note the vast quantities of snow, of course. And Caucasian people everywhere. It’s all very white.)

“We were made for this.”

Made for pioneering and exploring and skiing and running and rowing from Britain, of course. Against all of this, these Olympic Games are nothing! Hear our nifty fiddle music! See our toned bodies and hip clothing! (bonus points to HBC for so seamlessly blending their corporate history with Canadian national history. That may just be worthy of a whole separate post sometime.)

Hey, it worked. Canada is an independent nation, and we’ve also won almost six times as many Winter Olympics Medals as Britain. Go figure. Must be the red mittens. Now, if only we could figure out how to get those Olympic cauldron torches to work…

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