A Ukrainian reporter caused a scene in Moscow when, as one of a crowd, he asked Will Smith for a hug. WS obliged and gave him a “man hug” (patting him on the back). The reporter responded by trying to give him kisses on both cheeks, almost kissing him on the mouth. Will Smith reacted angrily, by pushing him away, saying “Come on, man, what the hell is your problem, buddy?” – with a backhand slap.
He was called “The great communicator”. At the time I wasn’t willing to listen to any of his speeches, because he was at the opposite end of the political spectrum, and I was out in the streets demonstrating against cruise missiles, Star Wars and all that. But I was just reading Vicki Hollett’s very interesting analysis of the current BP crisis yesterday and have been thinking about her idea that Americans are expected to demonstrate “seriosity“, a lack of which is seen as cynical and subversive. Vicki thinks that seriosity doesn’t play the same role in the UK. I don’t know much about the British take on this, but I do have insight into the American side, and I think the magical formula to demonstrating that you are 100% engaged and really care about an issue in the US must be seriosity plus humor. For me, Reagan telling Russian jokes in 1988, the year before the wall came down, epitomizes what Americans cherish in their public figures. Reagan’s timing was brilliant, he knew the exact moment and situation when humor would seal his commitment.
I woke up this morning thinking about the debate on this blog on Westerwelle. It seems to me that this is an interesting case of a person losing face in public because he is being forced to speak English. BTW, I think the discussion has showed that both sides lost face: Westerwelle was most obviously on the spot. But as in most issues of saving face, the person who puts the other one on the spot is also implicated in a communicative situation gone wrong.
Do any of you have stories or insights to share about the issue of a foreign speaker losing face in English, or because of English?