Hey Hey! Is Harry's taboo for you!

Seeing Cultural Differences
Cognitive science views culture as the combined mental maps (or schemas) built up through people's shared lives. Under this view cross-cultural interactions are a kind of collaborative, mutual learning experience. Each experience involves a learning or exchanging of ideas and maybe even social norms for both parties but it isn't a direct transfer. They are filtered by personal experiences, assumptions, taboos and world-views.

So how do you handle cultural differences that arise?

Hey Hey! We have a problem!
One example of this came up recently when Harry Connick Jnr was judging a Red Faces competition on a special comeback episode of "Hey Hey It's Saturday!" that involved a group of gentlemen (of Indian descent) with black make-up on their faces doing a terrible impersonation of the Jackson Five.

Bloggers, journalists and talk-back hosts have gone to town with their own versions of what happened, and whether it is defined as racist or not (both in Australia and the USA). You can read a few here, and the comments on this post give an idea of the American response.

One of the cultural learning mechanisms is the taboo. A topic that should be avoided if possible, or in the least approached with great sensitivity. Cultural groups not only develop different taboos (to cope with different shared traumas of their past), but they transfer these taboos in different ways.

Many Australians don't understand either the depth of racism against African-Americans in the USA, nor how recently it was still considered normal. You get a sense of of it in the movie "Remember the Titans", but a good percentage of people Down Under think racism died out soon after the American Civil War. To cope with this, several extremely strong taboos have emerged including the use of the "N" word and the practice of "Black-faced" entertainers.

The comment on this blog by toujoursdan who has lived in both New Zealand and the USA captures my thoughts nicely.

The Curse of Knowledge
The "curse of knowledge" is a concept from Chip Heaths book Made to Stick which basically states that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. This makes us bad communicators because we can't imagine others not knowing what we know either.

On "Hey Hey!" Harry took strong offense at such a taboo being played out and apparently enjoyed by the audience. Some accused him of being too politically correct, however from his culture, this was a truly offensive act and his response was proportionate and in fact I think he conducted himself with a level of dignity considering how he must have been feeling.

The "Jackson Jive" and also the shows producers had failed to take into account Harry's cultural background by allowing the act to go ahead. The Doctors, who tried to apologise afterward once they realised the offence, seem to have been unaware of their act being part of such a strong taboo.

On the other hand, Harry (and many of the US-based bloggers) seem also to have succumbed to the curse of knowledge.
  1. They seem to consider that since it is such a powerful taboo for them then everyone in the world would know about it, and
  2. They seem unaware of other cultures methods of transferring taboos.
The concept of the "Red Faces" segment is not a talent show (as this post suggests) but an invitation to do live skits that are socially embarrassing - thus the name. The results are often amusing to Australians not because of the content, but because they are things that aren't normally done in public. In this way, the skits actually act as a subtle social mechanism for discouraging these sorts of behaviour in normal life.

Many Australians commenting on talk-back radio today about the subject suffered the same problem, saying (from their point of view) it was inoffensive and that Harry should "lighten up" or be less politically correct.

Respect is the Key
Cultural misunderstandings like this happen all the time. The term Culture Clash is frequently used, especially in the business world where negotiations can break down over what seem to be small differences in opinion to one of the parties.

The key is Respect. Starting with an understanding that other people have different taboos and world-views helps us not be so shocked by their comments or behaviour and allows us time to find understanding and hopefully communicate our discomfort without damaging the relationship. Cultures should be seen as different, not better or one more right than another, just different.

Some say that respect must be earned. Here I tend to disagree. Trust is earned, but respect is something we bring to the table ourselves regardless of the other party. Our ability to constrain our offence and keep the lines of communication open will determine how well we interact with those of different cultural backgrounds, be it another country, a different company or the sports club down the road. Remember, the handling of the offence is a learning experience for those involved and handled well it can challenge false taboos or increase the awareness of useful ones.

All good and well. As for Daryl trying to handle such a difficult situation live in front of millions of viewers while keeping things light and funny, I take my hat off to him. I hope you do half as well next time your business negotiations run into foul weather.

Post a Comment


Unknown said…

This is a fantastic post -- very insightful and measured, probably the best analysis I've seen of the whole HH incident.

-- Stephen Bounds.
Luke said…
Very insightful and well thought out post. Thanks Stuart!
kdelarue said…
Stuart -

Thanks for this - you have stated many of the things that have gone through my head about this (from a number of different points of view).

I do feel that people in the USA need to be aware that we *don't* have a history of slavery of African people in our country, thus we don't have the same sensitivity to this specific issue. (As you quoted, the "curse of knowledge".) It could be said that our historic slavery was of disadvantaged English and Irish by the English crown.

We do however have our own issues to deal with in how the majority in this country relate to indigenous Australians.

I dare say that it never occurred to the participants in Red Faces that they were doing a "black face" act - they only thought as far as delivering a parody of the Jackson Five. There is a potential issue here of the taboos involved in people of any ethnic group portraying characters of *any* other ethnic group. Does this taboo mean that Sir John Gielgud should never have played Othello?

In sober hindsight, the team at Hey Hey should perhaps have recognised that this act was not only being viewed by an audience of millions in Australia, but globally (they knew this from the previous week). They also know that Facebook and Twitter had brought awareness of the show to the world. Knowing this, they should have considered the USA audience and their taboos.

It is not easy when talking to a global audience to take into account all the culture involved, but the tools we are now using to communicate are making this an increasing priority - if we want to communicate effectively.

- Keith
Tania Soler said…
Thanks for giving me context, clarity and meaning to an event in time that seemed confusing and challenged my own thoughts on the issue.

On the anniversary of Monty Python how much of what they did seemed funny at the time for me and potentially is quite taboo for others, now I see possible conflict.

What delay in progressing as a human race does such ongoing reflection create when the taboos and old ways keep getting celebrated. Hey Hey, Monty Python and even dare I say it war memorial marches keep us in past paradigms.

lets only look forward, live in the moment and learn from the past

Stuart French said…
Thanks for the feedback. I am constantly trying to find examples of where a cognitive view of culture can be used to clarify areas of conflict and guide action toward opportunity.

I have recently done training as President of an Inline Hockey club on discrimination, bullying and harassment. The message continually put forward is "It isn't about intention, it is about impact" and I agree with these sentiments. In some states in the USA, this is not the case and as a result victims are far less likely to stand up and declare their offence.

People often quote the above in times of cultural conflict and some of the anti-Hey Hey comments in the media have been variations on this, however idealistic laws usually include the concept of "reasonableness" which allow them to work in the real world. The law-makers understand that while ignorance of legal requirements in the area of harassment and discrimination is not a defence, the focus on the person being offended means there is a process of continual learning and adjustment required for full compliance and benefit to occur.

It is this process of learning that I was trying to focus on and we are all going through it, whether it be a legal discrimination issue, or a cultural one.

I remember being in the USA during the horrific 2003 Canberra Firestorms. As four lives were lost and 474 homes destroyed, the only mention in USA Today was of a threat to koalas. I was initially offended that the American press would care so little about such a threat to our nation's capital and it's human inhabitants, but after some thought I couldn't expect them to be aware of the fire, let alone the importance of it and it was wrong of me to hold an offence against them.

My post is not so much to comment on whether Hey Hey was right or wrong to allow a black-face skit, but more about the process of learning involved in cultural conflict that increases compassion for other's sensibilities and taboos. I hope this process has informed many Australians about black-face and how offensive most Americans find it, and it seems to me that this learning process (and the broader cultural advancement that derives from it) is often hindered if there is not a respect for how others see the world, and also how they might transfer these ideas to other.

I agree Keith that we have some way to go with the Aboriginal question in Australia. Following this train of thought, I would suggest that there should be more discussion, more acknowledgement of the facts around discrimination and more learning on both sides.

Taboos can be useful, however if the taboo is transferred without the reason for it, then when the context changes (like to another country or another generation in the same country) the taboo can not only lose it's effectiveness, but cause offence instead of understanding.

For this reason I applaud Harry Connick Jnr. He suppressed his disgust, discussed the details of the offence (back-stage) and then helped teach Australia about why it was so offensive. Bravo!!

Less taboos, more respect, patience and understanding. These are fairly common values. But cultures aren't a thing to manipulate. They aren't shared understandings that can be changed all at once. They are a conglomeration of all the individuals world views and the only way to see lasting cultural change is for each individual to commit to learning from every transgression, whether they are the aggressor (Jackson Jive), the by-stander (Harry, Daryl and the viewers) or the victim (African Americans).
PeterC said…
Interesting that there has been little comment re the difference between this "reunion" performance and the original performance - one face has changed to white ... now what "taboo" does that fit?