Social issues

49 – Cultural differences

Some observations from a visit to the USA. Interesting differences in crowd behaviour and patriotism.

International travel really helps highlight some of the things we take for granted, including the ways that people behave. Here are a couple of observations from my visit to the USA this week.

I attended a conference on salinity in Riverside California. There were a lot of Australians there (around 10% of the delegates), and on April 25, we held an “Australian night”. There was free beer, wine and Australian food provided by sponsors for people at the conference. Several of us were lined up to give very brief talks about salinity in Australia through the evening. However, it quickly became apparent that these talks would be very difficult, because our assumptions about norms of behaviour were wrong.

In Australia, once someone started to address a crowd in a context like that, people would pretty much stop and listen, especially if they belonged to a host organisation that was providing a free feed. Not absolutely everybody, of course, but in general it would be reasonably quiet while speakers had the microphone. Not in the US apparently. Only about a quarter of the crowd made any attempt to listen, and the rest pretty much carried on yacking and laughing at full volume. The formal speakers were pretty well inaudible. The Australians in the crowd became quite agitated about it, and felt a lot of sympathy for the people trying to speak. Some were saying things like, “This is really rude”, but the Americans seemed oblivious. It wasn’t that the talks were too long or boring. They were just a few minutes and not at all technical, but the noise never let up.

The former Premier of South Australia, John Olsen, was our MC for the night. He reassured us that it was nothing to worry about — that it was completely normal — that it didn’t mean there was anything wrong. He said that he had introduced talks by many high profile Australians in the US, including movie stars who are household names, and the only time he had seen the audience listen silently was for Rupert Murdoch. Americans respect power, apparently.

Despite our discomfort, our guests at the event did seem to have a great time. They kept telling us what a great time they had had and how much they appreciated it over the remaining two days of the conference.

The second observation wasn’t surprising to me, but sill notable. John Olsen said a few words about ANZAAC day. He explained the significance of the day, and played some footage of Australian soldiers on beaches and in trenches during World War 1. For this, thankfully, the audience was quieter. Then John said that Australia had stood behind the US in every conflict since 1900. This was calculated to push the buttons of the mainly US crowd, and it didn’t half work! They cheered and clapped wildly, and many of those who weren’t already standing stood up.

I can’t speak for every Australian there, but some of us were troubled by this, to say the least. It seems so clear that there is little to cheer about, and much to be sad or even ashamed about, in what has gone on with Iraq (and for that matter in Vietnam before that). The American reaction was just too gung ho. Too mindlessly patriotic. Too oblivious to the incredible damage and suffering they (and we!) have inflicted on innocent people. John Olsen’s comments were calculated to please, but it didn’t feel at all right to make them when such a large proportion of the Australian population has opposed the invasion and Australia’s involvement in it from the start.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia