Tag Archives: Culture

Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

img_1511

That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

do-not-walk

We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

img_1555

Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂

DSCN3756.jpg

Inside a high-end grocery store.

Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

The Quantified Self-Worth

30 Apr
rush

Via YPulse

According to marketing agency YPulse, 50% of 18-33 year-olds say that getting a “like” on Facebook gives them a rush. This number goes down for younger audiences- but YPulse suspects it’s actually because “likes” are second-nature for them. They’ve grown up in a world of likes and retweets, so it’s possible that social media “affirmation” registers as a given. If you’re a teenager, you may not know life without social media. But for the rest of us, let’s think back to the days before we posted our lives and thoughts online. In a given day, we may have gotten compliments on our outfits, caught up with friends, or gotten into debates on heavy topics. But we didn’t have such a centralized, public platform to tell people about our lives. And so we didn’t have such instant access to affirmation – or lack thereof.

I believe that social media is net positive. On a given day, I may chat with a friend in France, pick up recipes from a friend in Los Angeles, learn about Chinese culture from a friend in Shanghai. I get to see baby pictures from friends who live far away, learn about events to attend, feel a sense of community with others living in San Francisco. Sometimes I worry I spend too much time online, sometimes I wonder about posting our lives as content – but overall, I think social media adds good to my world.

narcisissm

Facebook briefly tested a tool that summed up likes for you. I joked about it- but also kind of liked it…

 

And if YPulse had surveyed me, I too would have answered “yes” to the question about getting a rush from likes. I love getting likes on social media and on my blogs. I like getting compliments in real life too. Who doesn’t? It feels good. When I post things on social media and nobody interacts with them, I definitely wonder why. It doesn’t impact my self-perception in any way, but I do catch myself analyzing what drove the lack of interaction. Was it simply that Facebook’s algorithm didn’t show my post to enough people? Was it the topic I wrote about? Was it the time of day when I posted?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the quantified self: using technology to record data about how we live, in the hopes of self-improvement. You can track every step you take, every minute of sleep. I understand how this can help us improve. But I hope we don’t also enter a phase of quantified self-worth. I hope that, despite the rush we get from people affirming us online, we remember that our value doesn’t depend on likes or retweets or shares. I hope we can reap the benefits of social media, without letting the potential downsides soak in. I hope we can continue to separate social media content from real life. I hope that in a time of “influencer strategy,” we remember that we’re more than our likes.

I’ll still get a rush if people like this post. And I’ll be excited if anyone chooses to message me about it, whether they agree or not. But I’m personally trying to see social media engagement as a potential conversation, and not a game or popularity contest. If nobody likes this blog post- so be it. There’s always next time.

 

Food Is Not Content (and neither is your life)

13 Mar
milkshake-600x450

From People.com

Remember those crazy complicated, towering milkshakes that made the Internet rounds earlier this year? Available in flavors like Cotton Candy, they included so many add-ins and add-ons that they literally rose above their glasses, in a seeming feat of structural engineering. They blew up on sites like Buzzfeed and were shared all over social media as people ogled the wonder that is a super tall, super crazy milkshake. Lines formed outside their source, NYC’s Black Tap, as people clamored for their chance to try one of these milkshakes themselves.

And, of course, to get a picture doing so.

This same story has played out dozens of times. Whether it’s croissant/muffin hybrids dubbed “cruffins” or croissant/donut hybrids dubbed “cronuts”- we keep seeing food-focused media frenzies. The word gets out, lines form, people get their hands on the treasured treat- and then the onslaught of social media posts begins.

city bakery

An example of a time I chased down a certain bakery and it lived up to the hype. And yes, this picture got lots of likes. (City Bakery, NYC)

Of course, my post title isn’t entirely true. Food CAN be content. I personally have a baking blog, so clearly I think food is worthy of clicks and discussion. And I am totally one to chase the latest food trends, even if it means going out of my way to find a renowned bakery or restaurant. But, when foods become trendy, you tend to see photos glorifying the creations for their structure, their combination of flavors, their sheer creativity. You don’t see many posts talking about the food itself, though. That isn’t super hard for me to believe: I’ve been to the home of the aforementioned Cruffin and seen people spend more time photographing their food than eating it. But after the milkshake frenzy, I got curious what people had to say about the milkshakes themselves. So I Yelped the restaurant. Some rave reviews, but many posters conceded that the milkshakes looked better than they tasted. Once you got past how cool it looked, you realized it was actually pretty hard to eat and perhaps too complicated to taste great. It was more about the “WOW” picture than the “WOW!” flavor. But while their Yelp reviews told the truth, I’d bet you their Facebook shots simply said the “WOW!” part without the fine print on taste.

Now, I’m not trying to diss Black Tap: I haven’t been and can’t speak for its shakes myself. I’m simply using this as an example of a broader trend: accepting an experience as valuable because of what it shows others, rather than what it gives YOU. I’m noticing a trend toward thinking of our lives as “content.” When you start doing things to get the perfect photo for Facebook, and not because you really want to- that starts to cross a murky line. When you get excited to try a food trend so you can show everyone you had it- even though the food tasted terrible- you start to put real life enjoyment behind social media envy. When you tell your kid to smile, even though they’re crying, so you can get the right shot for Facebook- what does that mean about us as humankind?

It’s one thing to capture great moments or great meals or great friends. All things I love to do. It’s another thing entirely to put how your life looks, above how it feels. To plan your moments or meals around what you want others to see. I think we’re still learning how these mindsets shift our behaviors, and I certainly haven’t figured it all out. Whether we seek the perfect beach shot or the perfect milkshake, it’s easy to get caught up thinking our lives are content. And the more we think about how our life looks to others, we’re probably forgetting how our lives feel to ourselves.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking “oh this would look great on Facebook.” And I take a step back, put my camera away, and refuse to let myself post it. Extreme? Maybe. But it’s effective to knock myself back into the moment, and into judging whether I’m actually enjoying the experience- or caught up wanting to show others how awesome it “looks.”

Talkin’ Bout My Generation

30 Jan

Every week I see a handful of articles offering up the newest “insight” on Millennials. “7 Tricks for Marketing to Millennials.” “How to Keep Millennial Employees Happy.” “What Millennials Care About for Food.”

I read most of the articles I see. Partly because I am a brand strategist, and need to know as much as I can about important targets my clients want to reach. Partly because I am inherently curious, and love pulling apart differences. And partly because I’m a Millennial myself – and, well, it’s entertaining to see generalizations about my generation.

The takeaways on Millennials can get rather contradictory. Trophy kids, or people out to change the world? Entitled, or empowered? Lazy, or let down by older Americans who created a troubling economy? Most sources seem to agree that we like stories in our marketing, experiences over objects, and seek fulfillment from every bit of our lives.

30ebe0c8d

A handy chart from The Atlantic (http://goo.gl/NU3Nmj)

I love picking apart data to understand the why and the how. When I read many of these articles, the insights feel off. I think some of these authors are so excited to share a click-worthy article, they forget to crouch their insights in context. Conclusions about generations are really best done longitudinally: showing shifts in behaviors and values over time, as different generations pass the same age mark. Otherwise, what you’re seeing is more of a snapshot about a particular generation at 1 point in time. That works just fine for most marketing purposes: e.g. knowing that Millennials would rather buy experiences is very helpful for a wedding registry company targeting Millennial couples. But when it comes to making conclusions about the generation as a whole, it’s misleading to do so within the context of a simple study that doesn’t control for life-stage, societal shift, etc. Many of the “trends” I read seem more about life-stage than generation. Others mark a general societal shift: people getting married later, easier access to international travel, etc.

There’s one other big difference with Millennials that really stands out to me. This is essentially the first generation that’s been subject to rapid-fire, widespread inspection by the Internet masses. Over the past several years we’ve seen a marked shift in the way “news” and “content” are produced and disseminated. We have more content than ever before- some of it amazing, some of it terrible. Everyday we see 10 more articles about Millennials… because we can. It’s possible there were just as many studies commissioned about Gen X or Boomers, but most people never saw them. A larger proportion of information gets spread around today. There’s a lower filter on what is published, there’s a lower bar for what counts as “news” and the need for content and clicks leads to hyperbolic headlines and a constant race to find something new.

We’re bombarded by news about Millennials in a way that’s evolving with our media landscape. But if you’re sick of hearing about Millennials, don’t worry – Gen Z is up next, and they’re already starting to steal headlines away from my sometimes loved, sometimes hated generation.

 

 

Digging In

30 May

Recently a Facebook friend posted a query to his virtual pals, asking if anyone knew why truck drivers leave their lights on when they’re parked at truck stops overnight. None of his friends knew the answer – but I couldn’t resist Googling it. I learned that sometimes it has to do with the engine, sometimes it has to do with safety, and sometimes it’s simply that the driver isn’t asleep at that particular moment (duh!). As I kept clicking, the minutes kept ticking. And soon, I’d spent a lot of time reading through various threads on a truck drivers’ forum- just because.

I get sucked into this sort of thing easily, probably more easily than most people. I just can’t resist trying to crack the answer. That insatiable curiosity explains how I’ve ended up in so many research-based positions over time, from my college days to my current job. I’m consistently fascinated by learning about new types of people. There’s just so much to know! Every subset of the human population has specific beliefs, behaviors and perceptions of reality. And it never gets old to learn about the intricacies.

I used to think about this a lot when I competed in baton twirling competitions. To the outsider’s perspective, baton twirling may seem like just another sport. But if you spend some time at a baton contest, you’ll notice all the rules, the expected behaviors, the cultural dynamics. It’s the same for any other subculture. Every subset of humans has its own cultural foundation.

Most people, though, never read through truck driver forums or visit baton contests just to try to understand. We travel to learn about other places and peoples, but we never can make it to everywhere. And even for someone like me, who spends a lot of time investigating particular subsets of the population, it’s pretty much impossible to learn about everyone, everywhere.

But shouldn’t we at least try? Maybe there’s some merit to spending a lot of time digging through “random” forums trying to understand another group of people. Maybe we should spend more time just Googling various types of people and seeing what we find. Maybe it’s worth our time to just type something into Google and click away for a couple of hours, trying to learn about the way another person constructs their world. We’ll still never be able to learn everything about every type of person – but we’ll build our own point of view, at least, by digging into someone else’s world.

Lost in Translation

15 Jan
This is posted at a cultural site in Nimes, France

This is posted at a cultural site in Nimes, France

At some point, you’ve probably laughed at the absurdity of a poorly translated message. Perhaps you were in another country and read a translation so wrong, it was ludicrous. I don’t support laughing at people who make mistakes while trying to use foreign language skills. But I can’t help but giggle myself when it’s clear the poor translation is the work of an text-based tool. Those 1:1 tools just can’t pinpoint nuance, and they often suggest literal translations that make little sense, or suggest the wrong sense altogether.

Translation has been in the news recently thanks to Google products that promise workable, real-time translation. Google’s Word Lens translates signs with an impressive text overlay, while its live-audio service allows you to have a real-time conversation with someone speaking a different language. Both tools are a big improvement over pure text-field translation, and I can think of many scenarios where they’d prove useful and meaningful. Still, a couple of friends and I had to wonder: will tools ever get the cultural side of translation right?

When you study a foreign language you soon realize that translation is an art, not a science. Translating word-for-word can be clumsy at best, and culturally insensitive at worst. Gaining fluency isn’t just about vocabulary: it’s about knowing the right way to say things, and when to say them. So as you learn a new language, you also learn a new way of expressing yourself. Proverbs and idioms add another layer of complexity, as they’re often very different across languages and cultures. Try to translate your own culture’s idioms directly into a foreign tongue and you’ll likely receive blank looks because the intended meaning just isn’t there.

Add in cultural concepts, and you’ll find it’s even harder to get your point across once you switch tongues. This past week, a Facebook friend posted an article about culture and translation that really resonated with me. The article talks about “cultural concepts we don’t have in the U.S.” Examples range from a Norwegian term that expresses the benefits of being outside, to a Danish term that signifies “a deep sense of cosy.” As demonstrated by the article, you can certainly translate these ideas into other languages and get to an understandable place. But the translated versions just don’t have the same imbued meaning when they’re used by someone with a different cultural context. Trying to learn these concepts, and what they imply in their native cultures, can give us new ways of looking at our world.

I’m hopeful that new translation tools will help us be even more connected with fellow humans all around the world. But I hope they doesn’t inspire people to get lazy about learning new languages, or lazy about immersing themselves in other cultures. There is so much more to understanding other people than just being able to carry on a functional, efficient conversation. We’d be silly indeed to let technology take the place of trying to understand for ourselves.

Just for fun, because they really are good for a laugh: here are some of my favorite mis-translations from travels. These are clear victims of unedited, web-based translations.

%d bloggers like this: