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Image: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

By Katie Zakrzewski

In 2009, President Barack Obama paid a visit to Japanese Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. But what happened next was a topic of controversy for weeks- and even years- to come: many speculated that the President bowed too deeply. There was a variety of opinions on what had happened: the President bowed too low instead of standing tall as America’s figurehead, the President was simply being respectful of another country’s culture. A popular opinion seemed to converge somewhere in the middle: although the President tried to be respectful with a Japanese gesture, the added American gesture of a handshake bungled the entire greeting, making it look awkward and ill-prepared.

U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted by Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko upon arrival at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

Image: Reuters

Perhaps a lesson in anthropology could have made the greeting- and the people analyzing it- a bit more intune to culture norms. Anthropology is the study of humans, and consists of four subfields: physical anthropology (the evolution of people over time), archaeology (ancient findings, cities, and artifacts), linguistic anthropology (changes and uses of language over time), and cultural anthropology (changes and uses of peoples’ culture over time). Linguistic anthropology can consist of not just auditory, verbal, and written language, but also gestures, body language, the distance between speakers (called proxemics), facial expressions, and so on. A key idea in cultural anthropology is the realization that no one culture is better than another- no matter how proud you are of your country and its ideals. It’s alright to be patriotic, but its not alright to use your patriotism to demean others. Of course, this line between patriotism and ethnocentrism (the belief that your culture and way of doing things is best) is often blurred in the world of global politics. Being culturally and linguistically aware is the key to facilitating useful discussion in the realm of foreign policy. Needless to say, for foreign diplomats (and any informed, political citizen), linguistic and cultural anthropology can make the difference between well wishes, and precipitating war.

Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer illustrates in her book The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology a few of these instances of bungled communication. Take, for example, when President George H. W. Bush rode on a motorcade through Australia, flashing a “V for victory hand gesture.” Except in Australia, a “V for victory” is the equivalent of the middle finger. Perhaps President Bush showed a tad bit of cultural ethnocentrism when he later boasted that he already knew every hand gesture out there, and had yet to learn a new one. (The shoe that was later flung at George W. Bush in Iraq was also a particularly disrespectful gesture, especially in regards to Iraqi cultural terms.)

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Image: The Mirror

If these two cases haven’t been convincing enough, take one final example of the importance of cultural and linguistic awareness, and just how much the two go hand in hand. In 1960, when Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States for the first time, he shook his clasped hands above his head. For the Russians, this was a symbol of friendship. But for Americans, who had often seen the exact same move (that President Reagan is pictured with) used by victorious boxers, the gesture meant that Russia would fight us- and be victorious. Perhaps a bit more linguistic and cultural knowledge on the part of world leaders and diplomats- and those who brief and advise them- would prevent many awkward bungles throughout global politics.

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Image: White House Photographic Office

Certainly for foreign diplomats, foreign cultural policy is important to learn in order to know what to do, the “when,” and the “how.” But unfortunately, foreign cultural policy is a tad stiff in its delivery of crucial ideas. It attempts to outline and structure something as fluid as culture. Take, for example, some of the elements that Heinrich Reimann outlines as specific forms of cultural communication:

“The constituent elements are that a) it is related to transborder cultural communication; b) the propagators of this communication are states; c) the main actors are people who create or perform arts; and d) the audience of foreign cultural policy of states is only to a small extent governments, and to a much larger extent, the people.”

Allow me to reiterate that the ideology of cultural foreign policy is crucial- but its delivery is lacking. It offers the what and the how.

But linguistic and cultural anthropology offers the “why.” Cultural diplomacy is right in arguing that in today’s world more than ever we need to understand the vital role that culture and linguistics play in international affairs. But such an idea is empty if we don’t embrace the building blocks within that ideology- those building blocks are linguistic and cultural anthropology.

Katie Zakrzewski is double majoring in Criminal Justice and Anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is a self published author and socio-political commentator.

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