My IATEFL Glasgow Diary Part 2

Monday, the 19th March 2012, Glasgow Conference Centre.

The IATEFL BESIG PCE

This was apparently the first year that saw all the different SIGs each having their own PCE, thus accounting for the very long queue seen at the registration desk on Monday morning. The conference organizing committee members were operating super efficiently though, and managed to move the masses relatively quickly.

The theme of the BESIG PCE this year was ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) and I was the first speaker up. After giving an overview of what ELF was from the point of view of my personal journey, I spoke about my conversion into ELF and how my exploration into the factors that affect the perceptions created by NNSs on fellow NNSs. See my IATEFL Online interview here for a summary of my talk. Also see these blogposts by Phil Wade and Eduardo Santos regarding the interview I gave.

Photo by Mike Hogan

Below are some tweets that were shooting around while I was speaking.

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan asks audience: “Is ELF Globish?” hm…. Audience doesn’t seem to think so.

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan has a great ear for accents.

‪@IHLondon:    We’re so proud of Chia! RT @bethcagnol: @chiasuan is such a lovely speaker! 🙂 Lots of presence and poise.

‪@kit2kat:    Great hearing @chiasuan talk at last SO energetic and engaging about #ELF 🙂

@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan says perhaps we should shift our teaching to helping our sts communication with other non-native speakers.

‪@bethcagnol:     @chiasuan says it’s about the impressions you are creating of yourself.

‪@cleve360:    @chiasuan discussing politeness as “mutual maintenance of face” in context of ELF.

‪@kit2kat:    Politeness – a mutual maintaining of face 🙂 @chiasuan

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan suggests exploring levels of directness.

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan conducted an insane amount of ELF research.

‪@jenverschoor:    Attending the BESIG PCE. Listening to @chiasuan talking about “The Research Design”

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan compared the perceptions NS have towards NNS. And NNS perceptions of NNS.

@brad5patterson:    Go chia!!!! ENJOY Jen RT @jenverschoor: Attending the BESIG PCE. Listening to @chiasuan talking about “The Research Design”

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan “principle of charity” — the understanding, compassion, for a NNS’s simplified English usage.

‪@phil3wade:    @bethcagnol @chiasuan I wish I got that when I speak French!!

‪@kit2kat:    Is politeness set in stone or dependent on the dynamism of a fluid interaction? @chiasuan

‪@bethcagnol:    @phil3wade @chiasuan Well…that’s debatable. The French correct foreigners because the French think they are helping them.

‪@bethcagnol:    @phil3wade @chiasuan The French don’t know that it’s impolite in dozens of nationalities to correct foreigners.

‪@phil3wade:    @bethcagnol @chiasuan Nobody ever corrects me.The foreigner teachers used to even criticise the local’s speech.1 said ‘truc’,scarred 4 life!

‪@cleve360:    Extraordinarily useful session on ELF by @chiasuan, great mix of theory and practice, audio examples. Audience is enthralled

‪@kit2kat:    Requests – as always ‘context’ overrides linguistics! @chiasuan

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan “Help students know that there are different strategies of politeness”.

‪@NatalieGorohova:    @chiasuan “Native speakers may not have the skills that the non-native speakers need”

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan ELF and Intercultural Communication go together!

‪@kit2kat:    😀 @chiasuan just used a triangle – @Lydbury will be pleased!!! 😀

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan says we should encourage discussions in the classroom about the levels of politeness.

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan cites Theater of the Oppressed.

‪@bethcagnol:    @chiasuan suggests filming conversation bits and playing them for sts to discuss appropriateness, politeness, etc.

‪@phil3wade:    @bethcagnol @chiasuan My wife tried being polite.Someone called her ‘luv’ so she went round saying it to everyone.

‪@andivwhite:    Live interview scheduled with @chiasuan at 12:15. She’s amazing. Check it out: http://bit.ly/yfJ3t2

‪@phil3wade:     @andivwhite @chiasuan She’s the DA. Watch out!

Photo by Mike Hogan

Following my talk on the pragmatics of ELF politeness and a lovely coffee break, Evan Frendo followed with a talk on the miscommunications in ELF scenarios, and Almut Koester on metaphors in ELF. I must apologise for not being there for these two talks as I had to run off for the IATEFL Online interview. But you can read about their talks using the #besig #iatefl hashtags on Twitter, or join BESIG as a member for access to videos of all the PCE talks.

Evan Frendo - Photo by Mike Hogan

Vicki Hollett, the organizer of the BESIG PCE came on next, and started talking about developing competence in ELF scenarios. Quoting Alessia Cogo’s definition of accommodation strategies, Vicki states that accommodation is about the adjustments you make to your speech according to the context and who you are talking to. Showing how Alan Firth’s ‘Let it Pass’ principle might work in an example about ‘cheese blowing’, Vicki then goes on to say that when the information is crucial, it is found that interlocutors do not simply let it pass. Instead, they go to great lengths to clarify.

Vicki Hollett on ELF

Accommodation is not simply letting it pass, it includes turn-taking and calibrating for competence in a way that we English teachers already naturally do in our daily interactions with our students. In a very clear example of the different turn-taking, meaning negotiation and discourse strategies, Vicki shows the audience videos of two groups of students doing the same task. The group consisting of Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese and Swiss participants took some time at the beginning to decide who was to begin speaking, and displayed features such as the use of long silences and pauses, and allowing one person to hold the floor without interruptions. The other group consisting of Venezuelans, Brazilians and Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used more interruptions, cooperative overlapping and fewer pauses when discussing. The former, named ‘Bowling’ had a Highly Considerate Conversational Style, while the later, named ‘Rugby’ had a Highly Engaging Conversational Style. Those with mixed conversational styles were named ‘Basketball’. Through this video, Vicki not only shows us the different discourse styles, but also the importance of raising our students’ awareness of such differences.

In the next part of her talk, Vicki goes on to talk about vague language versus direct language. Stating that although clarity is often of utmost importance in ELF communication, we must not neglect the relationship benefit in ambiguity and vague language. Words like ‘whatchamacallit’, ‘approximately’ and ‘kind of’ can maintain an informal atmosphere without being committed. The use of euphemisms like ‘wellness centre’ for ‘hospital’, ‘dental appliance’ for ‘false teeth’, ‘facilitation payments’ for ‘bribes’, all have their social purposes.

However, some utterances can hold different illocutionary forces for different people. The utterance ‘Are you suggesting that we should make our staff redundant?’ could come across aggressive and defiant and perhaps a precursor to a challenge, but could this only be a perception of the NSs? It is often found that in NNS speech, performative verbs such as ‘suggest’, ‘advise’, ‘promise’ etc are used not to create a highly marked sentence but simply to clarify the speech act.

In a key point that echoed my talk, Vicki emphasized the importance of not oversimplifying the issue by giving learners lists of stock phrases but instead allow for more discussion of the contexts in which they are used and how they are used. For example, simply telling students that in the UK culture, it is rude to disagree directly, and to make a disagreement more polite, students have to simply use formulae like ‘I’m afraid I don’t quite agree with you’ or ‘I agree with you up to a point but…’ Interlocutors who are slow to agree may often use tactics like claiming they partly agree and apologise, but this is not taking into account of other strategies like the asking challenging questions and hesitation, or of the fact that once the disagreement is clear, speakers are usually more forceful and disagree more openly.

Often, it is not the linguistic choice per se, but the context and the status of the interlocutors that differentiates, say, an order from a request. It is also perhaps a misnomer to say that we employ more distance and formality the more we are unfamiliar with a person. Using the ‘bulge’ in Nessa’s theory of speech behaviour and social distance to explain why we are sometimes more polite to acquaintances than to strangers, Vicki hammers home the point that the exploration of context is the way to go in the classroom. Publishers seem to want black and white answers, discrete item lexico-grammar tests seem to want right or wrong answers, but what we really need to be doing in class is to use texts to illustrate ambiguity and provoke discussions.

For more discussion, go here for my Devil’s Advocate (DA) interview with Vicki Hollett about the pedagogic implications of ELF.

ELF Panel Discussion with Chia Suan Chong, Evan Frendo, Vicki Hollett and Almut Koester - Photo by Mike Hogan

Right after a fascinating and invigorating panel discussion and a couple more interviews for the BESIG website (I can’t wait to see a video of the panel discussion on the BESIG website!), we attended the opening ceremony of IATEFL Glasgow, followed a session of drinks where we finally were able to network across the SIGs, catching up, meeting up and tweeting up with old friends, new friends and online friends.

IATEFL President Eric Baber at the Welcome Event - Photo by Mike Hogan

Those involved in the BESIG PCE were invited to an amazing curry dinner with the BESIG organizing committee, but some of us were still able to make it in time for the Karaoke night organized by Petra Pointer. As we danced the night away to the wonderful voices of our TEFL colleagues and met up with more members of the Twitteratti, we just knew that this year’s IATEFL was going to be one of the best yet…

To be continued…

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Cringing at Cheese this Christmas?

Christmas is naturally a mushy time…considering the fact that it combines all the ideals of love, giving, family reunions, and bonding.

Like weddings, it is one of those occasions where you really can’t stave off the sentimental moments. Or can we?

Some of us sneer at melancholic Christmas tunes, the twinkling fairy lights or the smell of the Christmas dinner cooking.

Some of us can’t express appreciation for the nostalgia and laughter shared over some mulled wine in front of an open fire.
And they are neither Ebenezer Scrooge nor in serious need of psychotherapy.

They just hate cheese.

Since when has cheese earned such a terrible reputation? We act as if being cheesy is the uncoolest thing to hit the human race since that shoulder-padded jacket we wore at secondary school thinking we were making the biggest fashion statement ever.

Is this our anti-thesis to NKOTB, Westlife, Rick Ashley, and the entire boy band fad of the 80s/90s?

Or a prolonged silent protest against the loving hippie attitudes of the 60s and 70s?

Or our reactions to the every big studio romance film starring Meg Ryan?

Or maybe it’s our acquired distaste for being bombarded by advertisements as our good ol’fashioned emotions are manipulated by marketing firms of mega-conglomerates?

Or is it really that child inside us all that feels a bit betrayed by the happy families portrayed in every cheesy song and film when we discover that real life just isn’t quite so?

Is it the build-up of frustration with having to cope with the family dramas that could only annoy and disturb as much as they do because they are built upon decades of history together?

Is it the frantic preparation followed by the disappointing unappreciation that scares us into realistic apprehension of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the significance of the occasion?

Could we let our guard down and demolish the fortress that protects our hearts this Christmas?

After all, it’s the season for forgiveness.

I’d say, why not let yourself go this holiday season?

Merry Christmas one and all, and I pray that the spirit of giving is with you.

What do you do at Christmas?

Christmas is a family occasion where we gather around Christmas trees after a Christmas dinner of roast turkey and stuffing to open up presents after listening to the Queen’s Speech.    True or False?

Christmas is a time spent with friends, partying and clubbing in silly party hats and wishing each other Merry Christmas at the stroke of midnight. True or False?

Even if certain cultures don’t celebrate Christmas in the same way, they must surely know about the family Christmas of the west, thanks to the omnipresent Hollywood films.                     True or False?

Perhaps it is much harder for Hollywood to influence our family routines and traditions, but its impact is often much more clearly seen in our perceptions of romance and how we conduct our social lives and relationships. In Japan and Korea, Christmas Eve shares more in common with the Valentine’s Day we celebrate in Europe, where couples meet for a romantic candlelight dinner over which they exchange presents and whispers of Merry Christmas.

So if Christmas is like Valentine’s Day, what then do Koreans and Japanese do on Valentine’s Day? Well, here’s where local interpretations of European festivals take a slightly interesting turn. Valentine’s Day in Korea and Japan is now set aside as a day when women buy men chocolates as a declaration of their feelings. While Japanese women of all ages buy beautifully packaged gourmet chocolates for their partners, it was the teenagers that gave Valentine’s Day its real significance.  As it is not common for women in Korea and Japan to make the first move in expressing their interest in the opposite sex, this special day meant that women could take control and let the men they fancy know about it. This saw tonnes of chocolates delivered in truckloads to male celebrities making the tabloid news every year.

In order to avoid the threat to face that men might face when confronted with chocolates from a woman he’s not quite interested in, the Japanese created White Day a month after Valentine’s Day (14th March) for men to reciprocate with white gifts such as white chocolates, marshmallows or cookies, and jewellery after having a month to think about the advances on Valentine’s Day. An absence of gifts from the men they have showered with chocolates on Valentine’s Day can be taken as a form of polite rejection. In Korea, the 14th April has been named Black Day – a day when those who did not receive any presents on Valentine’s Day or White Day get together to celebrate being single.

But I digress. Christmas in Japan and Korea may not be a bank holiday, but it certainly is a chance to celebrate, a chance for shops to get out their fairy lights and fight to attract customers with the best decorations. In Singapore, Orchard Road, the main shopping street, is decorated with the most lavish lights, and every shopping centre competes to win the title for the best decorated. Unlike many countries in Asia, Christmas day in Singapore is indeed a bank holiday, but it isn’t quite the family occasion it is in the United Kingdom. So friends get together and party the night away.

The Spanish, on the other hand, certainly know how to make a holiday last. Presents aren’t exchanged until the 5th and 6th of January, during the festival of the Three Kings, when floats grace the streets of villages and sweets are thrown into the crowds as they reenact the coming of the three kings.

How do you celebrate Christmas?

How do your students celebrate Christmas?

Who do they celebrate it with?
What traditions do they have? What typical foods do they eat?

If you teach a multilingual, multicultural class, this could be a great chance for a discussion and some lovely sharing to take place.

If you teach a monolingual class, how about a task? Have different groups of students conduct research online about the different Christmas traditions of different countries and report back in the form of a presentation.

And check out websites like www.santa.net for some inspiration.

So, what do you do at Christmas?

IATEFL BESIG Dubrovnik conference, 2011

Photos by Mike Hogan and Chia Suan Chong

The BESIG Annual conference this year was held in the Grand Palace Hotel of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and most of the delegates were staying at the very hotel that hosted the conference. On a practical level, this made it much more convenient for speakers who did not want to lug their laptops around all day, but an unexpected effect of this was an overall feeling of warmth and familiarity that bonded the members of BESIG.  IATEFL conferences have always been a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones, but the BESIG Dubrovnik conference went beyond that. BESIG Dubrovnik was about letting our hair down and relaxing while getting to know old friends better and feeling like a family – a family that shared the same goals and beliefs.

The Welcome

Despite the delayed and missed flights due to the unfortunate strike at Zagreb airport on the first day of the conference, most delegates made it in time to see the beautiful coast of Dubrovnik twinkling in the evening lights.  After a wonderful buffet dinner and some plum brandy amidst conversations with like-minded friends, we retired to our bedrooms, ready to wake up and see the Adriatic Sea in daylight.

The Plenary

Speaking of the importance of raising our clients’ awareness of the different cultures as they use English in this globalized world, Jeremy Comfort in his talk ‘What’s culture got to do with business. Supporting our learners in a complex world’ explains how to help learners develop mindfulness – an ability to step back and observe. He briefly addresses the more essentialist notions of national culture, e.g. Hofstede’s taxonomies, but goes beyond that by broadening the view of culture to encompass conflicts that are caused by different personality styles and different attitudes to time and directness in communication, and talks of the development of ‘push’ (presenting, telling) and ‘pull’ (eliciting, getting participation) skills as tools to avoid and/or getting around conflict. He wraps up the plenary by reminding BE trainers to focus on cultural issues that are of benefit to our clients’ businesses rather than those of interest to the trainers. There is no doubt that the key to understanding other cultures is curiosity and openness.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Talks

Vicky Hollett’s talk ‘Learning to Speak ‘merican’ was a brilliant lesson in the significance of pragmatics in our understanding of intercultural interactions. Challenging the traditional stereotypes that Americans do not share the British sense of humour, and that Americans are more direct than the ‘Brits’, Vicky cleverly uses many familiar and humorous examples to demonstrate how being indirect could make utterances less threatening and help avoid awkwardness, and this ironically allows British conversations to have much more cut and thrust since we can always use jokes to cover it up. While the Americans tend to try and maintain positive face (i.e. the need to be accepted and appreciated by others) and therefore pride inclusion even when telling jokes, the Brits are more concerned with maintaining negative face (i.e. by not intruding or get in people’s way because of their need to be free and not be burdened by others) and are happy to use the ambiguity of jokes at any time or circumstance to relieve uncomfortable moments or rescind our initial requests. Thus, what might seem sarcastic to American might simply be witty quips to the Brits.

This cross-cultural interaction theme was continued by several speakers, including my own talk about perceptions of politeness in cross-cultural NNS interactions, Richard Lewis’s ‘Cultural Factors in International Business’…

Photo by Mike Hogan

and Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland’s talk ‘Case Study – Why the Germans are arrogant and the Americans are not committed’. Sabrina highlighted the cultural effect on linguistic use and suggested that we could teach students to use certain formulaic language but cannot expect them to feel comfortable using them if it is not something done in their own culture. She goes on to use concrete examples in a comparative case study, e.g. the German use of ‘The problem with that idea is…’ to signal an interest to take the idea further through discussion, but could be mistaken by Americans to mean ‘I find this idea problematic and am not interested in it’.  In order to prevent misunderstandings caused by such cultural differences, Sabrina proposes the use of meta-language to describe communication intentions so as to enable clients to explicitly define and discuss each stage of their communications, and not leave it to cultural interpretation to inaccurately understand the pragmatic intentions of the speakers.

This ‘training’ and ‘coaching’ aspect of the Business English teacher’s portfolio continued to take centre stage throughout the conference, and it was perhaps most appropriate that we ended the conference with Barry Tomalin’s ‘Teaching Business Communication in the 3rd Space’ Barry describes the ‘3rd Space’ as ‘the new phenomenon in globalisation’ where ‘managers’ reporting lines are internationalized and they are reporting to managers in different countries who they never meet…’ In order to overcome problems of unfamiliarity, Barry suggests several useful mnemonics to help clients make their communication more effective. This included the importance of signposting, summarizing key points, concluding and inviting questions when structuring a presentation, and training clients to give F.A.C.E time when interacting, i.e. Focus, Acknowledge, Clarify, Empathise.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Publishers

Photo by Mike Hogan

Aside from the opulent amount of wine and plum brandy sponsored by the wonderful publishers (thank you, it was delicious!), it was wonderful to see the rich and innovative BE resources that were being presented at the conference and the exhibition area. Ian Badger’s ‘Listening’ (Collins ELT) must be one of my favourite as he makes use of authentic recordings from various real-life business interactions and offers not just listening practice, but thought-provoking, awareness-raising discussions through them. Co-writer for Grammar for Business (CUP) Rachel Clark continues to make her mark with her cleverly-written and –organised corpus-based grammar reference book, while Mike Hogan presents his new business series starting with Business English for beginners (Cornelsen Verlag). However, perhaps making the most waves is Paul Emmerson’s photocopiable resource book ‘Management Lessons’ which he has bravely published on his own through PaulEmmerson.com, making this the first BE book to ever be self-published. Judging from Paul’s previous successes with ‘Email English’ and ‘Business English Handbook’ (Macmillan), he wouldn’t have any trouble getting this one off the ground.

Photo by Mike Hogan
That's just me...

The Partying

Delicious seafood, colourful (but lethal) cocktails, and BE Trainers dancing to ‘Like a Prayer’ on what was an exclusively BESIG dance floor till the wee hours of Sunday morning. Need I say more?

The Goodbyes

For those heading home on the last day of the conference, there was a mere 3-4 hours of a quick city tour before making our way to Dubrovnik airport. For the lucky few who got to stay for an extra day, they were made luckier by a last-minute cancellation of what would have been a second strike at the airport. For those that were heading back to the UK, foggy weather meant that Dubrovnik airport saw a whole herd of more than 50 BE teachers hanging around nostalgically looking back at how wonderful BESIG 2011 had been…

See http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmikeh/sets/ for more BESIG Dubrovnik photos by Mike Hogan.

Weddings, Funerals, and Women’s Place

First of all, I must apologize for having been away for quite some time. There’s been my MA dissertation, planning for a wedding, and a sudden death in the family. Perhaps not the dissertation, but the latter two has made me ponder the position of the woman in today’s society.

Lakoff wrote in 1975, in her seminal book ‘Language and Women’s Place’, of society’s control and subordination of women through the language women were expected to use – language that was socialised into them from a young age. To put it crudely, it’s brainwashing at its most subtle and insidious form.

The identity and status of a woman was largely influenced by that of her family, and then that of her husband when she got married. She would be known to her neighbours and friends as ‘Mary, the one who’s married to David Green, the accountant’. At parties, women would almost inevitably be asked the question, ‘So, what does your husband do?’ What she did was often of no relevance since she would most probably be a housewife (or homemaker, but political correctness didn’t exist in those days…and hey, a rose by any other name?)

Before you think I am knocking the very noble job of a homemaker, let me just say that I have no issues with women who choose to stay home and look after their families. The issue I have is with the lack of recognition these women have. The role of ‘Homemaker’ or ‘Housewife’ is never considered a ‘proper job’, and therefore not one that identifies a person. Meeting ‘Mary the housewife’ isn’t enough in most people’s eyes to tell us about Mary or put Mary’s social status into a category – a favourite past-time of most of humankind. ‘Mary, wife of the doctor’, however, raises different expectations from ‘Mary, wife of the miner’.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since 1975. Lakoff, in her newest edition of the book, comments that although it was literally unheard of back in 1975 for anyone to ask a man the question, ‘So what does your wife do?’, this is taken for granted as normal today. Amongst many other factors, standards of living have risen, leading to more and more women maintaining a job and having a career, and in so doing, carving out an identity and a role for themselves in society.

In my day-to-day life, it’s almost easy to forget the sexism and discrimination that women have experienced through the ages because I work in a relatively liberal industry where my sex bears no relevance to the job that I do, or the perception of my ability to do the job. The laws of the country ensure that my biological makeup does not impact upon the opportunities I get in my teaching and training career. Outside the workplace, I have always chosen, albeit unconsciously, to socialise with women who took pride in being equal to men, and men who support that notion. Perhaps this is why I was filled with shock and horror when I realised the inequality and injustice that perpetrated every part of the rituals of weddings and funerals.

Like many girls, I used to dream of the fairy tale wedding, and in my notebook, I would write my name beside the surname of the boy I had a crush on dozens of times. It was romantic. It was cute. It was the brainwashing that society has served up in a pink icing-coated wedding cake.

The planning of my wedding has so far been a tremendously joyous affair and my fiance has been nothing but chilvarous and enthusiastic in jointly organising the event with me. However, having been researching it for the past few months, I’ve come face-to-face with the values and beliefs embedded in the ritual that haven’t quite seemed to have caught up with modern times.

Let’s start with the ‘giving away’ of the daughter to the new man who would reign over her. And the ‘honouring and obeying’ of the husband in the wedding vows (which most people have now taken out…thank God!)

Then there’s the stealing of the credit for organising the wedding. Most men (my fiance is an exception, a gorgeous exception) would not want to have anything to do with the organisation of the wedding, leaving it all to their wives-to-be. Yet, come the speeches, they are standing up there thanking everyone as if they had done it all, while their wives don’t even get a chance to get a word in edgeways. Instead, their fathers speak on their behalf. We get to hear amusing stories about the groom’s drunken escapades from the best man, but childhood stories about the bride from her father. Of course, a woman’s childhood lasts till she gets married, for she can never fully be an adult with her own identity until she weds, right?

But the thing that makes me most irate is the taking of one’s husband’s surname. I know that many women today choose to either keep their maiden name or to turn it into a double-barrel surname, combining it with their husbands. But most tend to continue with this tradition, oblivious to the origins or implications of this age-old custom. Many of us don’t even question the reason we do that, assuming it’s just what is done.

In actual fact, it isn’t what’s done in most countries outside the UK and America. Chinese and Singaporean wives might use their husband’s names in social occasions, but keep their maiden names for official and legal purposes. Korean women are not allowed to take on their husbands’ surnames. It’s just not a done thing. So how did we start thinking it is?

Although we know now that women no longer need to take on their husbands’ identities and status, that they can carve a name for themselves in the world, we still think it romantic to change our names after marriage. We would go through tedious and copius amounts of red tape, calling every institution to change our names. We would risk ex-work acquaitances and ex-business associates not being able to locate us through any directory. We would forgo the long lost friends that might now not be able to get in touch through Facebook because we no longer exist. We would wipe our ‘old single selves’ off the face of this planet. For we’ve been given away to another family. Our single selves are now a non-entity.

Some may wonder why I am making such a big deal out of this. After all, my husband-to-be is totally fine with me keeping my maiden name. So, no, this is not personal for me. This is simply a feeling of intense puzzlement at how rituals and customs have simply not caught up with the times. And how we let ourselves be so willingly brainwashed…perhaps by society, perhaps by traditions, and perhaps by the romantic dream factory of Hollywood.

Why is this such a big deal?

To quote John Proctor in the Crucible (Arthur Miller),

“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! …How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

11 things I learnt in London – a pseudo-ethnographic exploration of British vs Singaporean culture

How time has flown. As of the 5th July 2011, I’ve been living in London for 11 years. It was 11 years ago when I wrote a ridiculous feature called ‘a Singaporean Bimbo in London’ for a Singaporean newspaper and it still makes me giggle to remember the girl that I was. Looking back, there has been some valuable lessons in those 11 years, somewhere…and perhaps living here both as a participant and an observer could somewhat make me an ethnographer of London pop culture, albeit not a systematic or academic one. On that note, here are the top 11 things I’ve gathered from my past 11 years.

1. Personality

My assumption: Enthusiasm and confidence are clearly positive things.

My experience: I used to greet my fellow housemates with a loud and cheery ‘Good Morning!’ and one day, overheard a conversation between two of my housemates that went something like this, ‘What’s she on? Nobody can be that enthusiastic. I can’t trust her. It seems so insincere’.

Lesson learnt: Enthusiasm and overconfidence can be regarded with suspicion (especially coming from a woman)

2. Intonation

My assumption: Coming to a country that speaks the same language, I immediately assumed that what I said would be understood in the same way too. Now, if you are not familiar with the Singaporean accent, imagine putting the word stress on the last syllable of every word, and the last word of every sentence. Now imagine this situation.

My experience: I was living a houseshare and the bins regularly were filled up but not emptied. After taking out the bins for the 11th time, I politely asked a housemate, ‘Could you take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ I later heard rumours that I was very aggressive, and so I tried to change the way I said things, ‘I was wonderING if you could possiBLY take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ to no avail. To them, I was still aggressive.

Many years later, when shown Gumperz’s research that featured two different accents saying ‘That’s the wrong one. It’s the Wembley account,’ to a bank manager and how they were perceived differently, I suddenly realised that the unconscious placement of my sentence stress and intonation had created an impression I had no intention of making.

Lesson learnt: Accents may be part of your identity, but that identity could be misconstrued (so please don’t judge me for changing my accent…)

3. Forming new friendships                                                               

My assumption: The thought of moving overseas almost seems like an adventurous prospect. A chance to start over, to start afresh.

My experience: Most people I have met have close friends they have met at university or at school, and those seem to be the main friends that stay with you for life. Coming to a new environment in my mid-twenties only means that most people already have an established circle of friends, and this makes the task of making friends even more challenging.

Lesson learnt: By starting afresh, this includes the social circles that you’ve built. And if you don’t go to the pub, you might have problems making new friends.

4. Indirectness

My Assumption: People say that the Brits are very indirect and pride politeness.

My experience: I wrote long-winded work emails in the belief that I was being polite and indirect. When asking for time-off, I would write 3 paragraphs explaining why I needed it. When I received what I considered to be curt and abrupt replies, I spent nights worrying that I had offended them.

Lesson learnt: Generalisations can backfire. Context is everything. Regarding emails, it is totally acceptable to get to the point.

5. Perceptions of attractiveness 

My assumption: Being cute and silly is what you do when you flirt. Girliness=Sexiness. When showing affection, hit the member of the opposite sex playfully.

My experience: When I did the very same things that would have worked for me back in Singapore, the guy I was hitting (on) said, ‘What’s up with you? Grow up!’

Many years later, I had a heated discussion with a British friend about what she thought was the ‘infantilisation of women’ in Far Eastern cultures…strangely, we never saw it as infantilisation…just uh…cute?

Lesson learnt: What is considered attractive and flirty can be extremely different culture to culture.

6. Machismo

My assumption: Being romantic, liking romantic comedies and cheesy love songs are not gender-specific characteristics. (Some of my male Korean students will even attest to romantic comedies being their favourite genre of films)

My experience: Countless discussions with British and European men quickly brought light to the fact that it is just not cool for a man to like romantic films and cheesy love songs. This is further affirmed by the phrase ‘chick flicks’. But it is not just the British men who are wary of the Hollywood brand of romance. Several years ago, when I heard someone say, ‘Your eyes are like the stars in the sky’, I instantly responded with a cynical ‘Oh please…’, at which point I thought, ‘Oh my! I’m turning British!’

Lesson learnt: Cliched romantic notions could be considered not just very girly, but rather insincere.

7. The Media

My assumption: In Singapore, there is a relatively heavy-handed censorship of the media. The number of tabloid newspapers and reality TV shows far exceeds those in my country.

My experience: A student pointed out to me that she found it admirable that the mass media in Britain constantly chides celebrities for having cheated on their wives. When I probed further, she said that many women in her culture would not want to talk about their partner’s infidelity as they feel it might be a reflection of their unattractiveness. She added that if such news was in the papers in her country, the men would probably want to pat the celebrity on the back and celebrate his manhood. The open criticism of such behaviour in the media, whether it be on tabloids or the Jeremy Kyle Show leads to a public mentality that cheating is unacceptable, no representation of one’s manliness and definitely not the norm.

Lesson learnt: Tabloid media can serve to uphold certain values in society and reflect the beliefs and the values of a culture (and can be good ‘fry-your-brain’ entertainment too).

8. Studying

My assumption: When I was at school, the popular kids were always the ones who had the straight As, in addition to excelling in other extra curricular activities like the piano, dance, chess. The boys who studied hard were the ones other boys wanted to be, the ones that the girls were drawn to.

My experience: I was never really the hard worker or the star pupil back at school, but perhaps growing up and finding a passion for teaching and Applied Linguistics has propelled me to put quite a bit of effort into my teaching qualifications. But I soon realised that one’s grades or knowledge is not something one should publicise.

Lesson learnt: Studying and the procurement of knowledge is best done quietly (otherwise you’ll be known as a nerd)

9. Class

My assumption: Having money and being upper class are considered desirable qualities. Coming from a country that had moved from third world to first world in such a short period of time, a rat race had developed to push people to compete so as to learn more, produce more and achieve more. The fight for status and the 5 Cs (Cash, Car, Career, Condominium, Credit Card) was what elevated the country’s economic status.

My experience: The rich and upper class are sometimes treated with disdain. Many have a fierce pride in their regional accents. People protest against bankers’ wages. Of course, it is no secret that the TEFL world I work in is populated by liberals in pursuit of fairness, but I would like to think that it is a fair representation of the majority.

Lesson learnt: Being or sounding posh can be detrimental in the UK. Obviously, I frown upon any kind of discrimination, but the citizens of the UK can be proud to be striving towards the values of altruism and meritocracy.

10. Wit 

I could almost write a whole blogpost dedicated to this. But better yet, read pop anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English’ which dedicates a whole chapter to this topic, and a whole section to irony.

My Assumption: There are several things I had taken forgranted in this area. Among these are – humour is important but just one of many character traits that could be nice to have; Mr Bean was a good representation of British humour; winding someone up is usually done with malice. But the examination of different brands of humour deserves much more than just a few throw-away sentences that can hardly summarise the underlying features of what we intrinsically find funny.

Situation: Couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a Singaporean friend’s video on Facebook that was shot during a house party. A boy at the party teases a female friend as being very girly in front of the others, she throws her hands up, stomps her feet in a girly manner and screams, ‘Ai yoh! Don’t sabo (Singaporean English short for sabotage) me! You always like that one!’ (translation: Oh my! Don’t tease me! Why are you always like that?) and the rest of their friends laughs along at her display of ‘cuteness’.  Upon watching this video, I intrinsically found myself laughing adoringly, relating to the scenario. There was a part of myself that understood that brand of humour, despite knowing that there was a stark difference between that and British wit. At that moment, I realised that humour was something deeply entrenched in our upbringing.

Lesson learnt: In Britain, humour is everything. Irony permeates everyday life and best delivered with a dead-pan face. I love the wit of Mock the Week, the self-deprecation of Little Britain, but I probably will never really be able to ‘do it’ the British way. And that’s ok.

Most importantly,

11. Speaking the same language does not mean having the same culture.

The above might seem pretty obvious, but it was something I simply hadn’t considered when I started living here. Basic concepts which I took for granted as universal were clearly not. And these are concepts no book about culture could shed light on.

I’m glad these 11 years have taught me that.