National character

Shashi Tharoor has written a wry op ed piece for the New York Times on the World Cup and how Americans are oblivious to what is preoccupying a billion plus folks at the moment. It ends thus:

In any event, nothing about cricket seems suited to the American national character: its rich complexity, the infinite possibilities that could occur with each delivery of the ball, the dozen different ways of getting out, are all patterned for a society of endless forms and varieties, not of a homogenized McWorld. They are rather like Indian classical music, in which the basic laws are laid down but the performer then improvises gloriously, unshackled by anything so mundane as a written score.

Cricket is better suited to a country like India, where a majority of the population still consults astrologers and believes in the capricious influence of the planets — so they can well appreciate a sport in which, even more than in baseball, an ill-timed cloudburst, a badly prepared pitch, a lost toss of the coin at the start of a match or the sun in the eyes of a fielder can transform the outcome of a game. Even the possibility that five tense, hotly contested, occasionally meandering days of cricketing could still end in a draw seems derived from ancient Indian philosophy, which accepts profoundly that in life the journey is as important as the destination. Not exactly the American Dream.

Ha ha! That makes me giggle. Though to be honest I’m not convinced. Cricket’s popularity in India and elsewhere is an historical accident. If in the early days of cricket in America they’d had some home-grown cricketing heroes demolishing visiting English players and some ambitious entrepreneurs touring the game around the country and bringing in the dosh I reckon things woulda turned out differently.

Cricket’s also bloody popular back home. I’m pretty sure the majority of Australians don’t consult astrologers or believe in the capricious influence of planets (of pollies? yes, but planets? not so much). Or certainly we don’t do it any more than Americans do.

I’m always suspicious of sketches of “national character”. I’m not saying there aren’t difference between nations. I’m often amazed by the extraordinary confidence of the middle and upper classes in the US, especially the white folk. So many of them seem to have this sense of the inevitability of their own success (whether it’s happened yet or not). I’ve never met so many people who are just waiting for their first million, their first broadway show, big movie role, bestselling novel. No question in their mind that it will happen. Even if they’ve never acted or ever written anything longer than a limerick.

But I’ve also met enough Americans who are not like that, and Australians who are, to be wary of typing a whole people. People are complicated and large groups of them even more so and you can never discount regional and class and racial and gender differences.

I also wonder how much of that disturbing confidence is real and how much of it is people saying what they think they’re supposed to be saying.

Back home you’re emphatically not supposed to say stuff like that. If you do you’re a wanker who writes tickets on yourself. Being up yourself is one of the worst things anyone can say about you.

Here that attitude doesn’t seem nearly so wide spread. For instance American English has no home-grown synonyms (that I’ve heard) for “writing tickets” “being stuck up”, “getting above yourself”, “being up yourself”, or “being a wanker”. Mostly because they almost never accuse anyone of that kind of behaviour. Nor do they have the terms “tall poppies” or “cultural cringe”.

So while it might be true that on the whole Americans=confident and Australians=not confident. It could also be that we just know what we are and aren’t allowed to say out loud. If an Aussie says “I’m a genius!” odds are they’re being sarcastic. If a Usian says it not so much. But does the Aussie secretly think they are a genius while the Usian secretly fears they are not?

There are, of course, lots of exceptions to all of this. And things are changing in both countries. I even know Americans who adore cricket.

And, um, did I mention that I have a new book out, Magic’s Child? And, er, it’s not too foul. Really. Well, um, other people think it’s okay. Sorry. Don’t mind me. I’ll get out of your way now . . .


  1. Diana on #

    when i lived in australia, the main thing that struck me was that, aside from the language differences and a few local food specialties, thre *was* no culture shock. Here I was in another country, and it was so much like my own.

    And yes, we do have terms for what you are talking about. “Full of yourself.” “Big headed.” etc.

    The thing about America and sports, I think, is that rather than falling in love with the European exports like soccer and rugby and cricket, we invented our own. I don’t know what it says about our national character. Probably is related to the fact that we fought a war to rid ourselves of colonial shackles, and chose to celebrate it by making an active effort to change our language (spelling/accents) and make up new sports (baseball and football) to love rather than the colonial imports.

    Then again, we’ve been divided from the old country for much longer. Aussie rules football is pretty popular, yes?

  2. veejane on #

    So hey, I hear you have a book out…

    its rich complexity, the infinite possibilities that could occur with each delivery of the ball, the dozen different ways of getting out

    Written like somebody who has never sat through the agony of an 18-inning game in baseball playoffs.

    Not to attribute anything to the national character of anybody — though it’s got to be much easier to have a national character when you’re, say, 5 million people than when you’re 300 million, or a billion — but the difference between cricket and baseball seems primarily to be the difference between being eaten by fire-ants over the course of hours and being eaten by a lion in about a minute. Either way, you get chewed up one side and down the other.

  3. Veronica on #

    I always thought that “being stuck up” was at least as American as it was anything else–we definitely used it on the schoolbus when I was a kid. Also: “conceited,” “a snotto,” “snobby,” “self-aggrandizing jerk” (OK, that last one is the one I use most often) “nose in the air.”

  4. Justine on #

    Diana: Yeah, I hear Americans say that all the time, but when I came to the US of A I had nothing but culture shock over and over and over again.

    Veejane: Cricket really is more complex than baseball with more possible results and complications. I know you’ll find that hard to believe but tis true. Unlike Mr Tharoor, I just don’t happen to think that complexity is necessary to being an awesome sport. Basketball and cycling aren’t as complex as cricket either but I adore them.

  5. Justine on #

    Diana & Veronica: Yeah, yeah, but it’s not the same. It’s not a defining part of your country’s culture. Australians understand what I’m saying as do anyone who’s lived there for a year or more.

  6. John H on #

    Well, to echo Diana’s comment, we do use the phrase “being stuck up”, and while we may not use “wanker” to describe someone, we certainly have lots of terms that send the same message (“jackass”, “dickhead”, “asshole” – many more that aren’t so nice…)

    As for USian confidence, I think it may be more bravado than anything. But we also celebrate entrepreneurship probably more than any other country. There’s a reason they call it ‘The American Dream’…

  7. Sarah M on #

    homogenized mcworld. hmm. i’d have to say i disagree. having traveled (by bicycle, mind you) much of the north, south, east, and west of the usa,i’d say there are huge differences–and look at texas. they are just about their own country down there! sometimes the different dialects are almost different languages. so it might be more about tradition than a lack of ability to appreciate the journey or complexity. just my opinion though. i’m sure other usians have different opinions (some even like our president–imagine that!)

    congratulations on the book. i’ll be buying it for my libraries–of course.

  8. veejane on #

    Cricket really is more complex than baseball with more possible results and complications.

    Yes, but does it have fire ants? (Probably I should look into this cricket thing, because my favorite nerdy part of baseball is answering questions like, “What happens if the ball gets stuck in somebody’s trousers? Can you still run the bases?” Infinite minutiae are great fun.)

    What I think Justine is describing is the unconscious assumption of a myth so powerful it’s not often called into question any more: an awful lot of Americans really believe social class does not exist, and will say so, and will say they’re “middle class” even when they’re in the top 10% of income for the nation.

    If everybody is middle class, then people with absolute confidence that they will succeed are just “driven” or “serious” rather than “too big for his britches.”

    Of course, that varies within the country, by region and subculture. But anybody who watches television can tell you a hundred stories about upwardly-mobile people, while stories of the downwardly-mobile are relegated to public television and VH1 specials about coke-addled rock stars.

  9. Justine on #

    Veejane: Thank you! That’s exactly what I was talking about.

    You know, I think you’d really enjoy cricket.

  10. David Moles on #

    justine, nothing on the woolmer murder? I count on you to explicate these cricket-world things to me!

    as for social class in america, it’s all rutherford hayes’s fault.

  11. Justine on #

    The Woolmer murder is just so sad and horrible and the rumours around it so sickening that I really don’t want to go there, ya know? This is the happy blog. And this post is just about as contentious as I care to go.

  12. c on #

    justine, where do i even start? first of all, i think the main reason we don’t do cricket in the us is that we came up with a faster version early on that’s easier for everyone to play. you can call it a sign of the mcworld, or you can call it lowest common denom, or you can call it populism, or you can call it a sign of a country that’s aware of its diversity. whatever, none are entirely right or wrong.

    however, as someone above said, “stuck up” is VERY american. as are “snobbish”, “full of yourself”, “too big for your britches”, “big head”, and “uppity”.

    but you gotta keep in mind that the us is very very protestant in its ethic, and vanity is one of the deadly sins. so we feel perfectly comfortable using more formal language to express our disgust at someone’s vanity, since it’s culturally appropriate to accuse someone seriously of vanity.

    also: “If an Aussie says “I’m a genius!” odds are they’re being sarcastic. If a Usian says it not so much.” are you freakin’ kidding me? the only difference is that if an aussie makes a mistake they’ll say “i’m a genius” and if an american makes a mistake they’ll say “i’m an idiot.” if an an american does some small, silly thing right, they’ll say “i’m a genius.” that’s also about making fun of yourself, but in a slightly different way.

  13. Skott klebe on #

    Cricket really is more complex than baseball with more possible results and complications.

    In the eighties a pitcher got blown off the mound in the middle of his windup. Balk.

    A lot of eccentricities have gotten ironed out of baseball over the years. Baseball originally allowed running substitutions, until a player in the dugout yelled himself into the game in order to catch a pop fly. A player once stole second from first because his manager was ticked he’d stolen second without permission – now against the rules, as well as a bad idea. The infamous pine tar incident, in which the Yankees noticed that George Brett had pine tar too far up his bat, and waited to call the rule on him until it benefited them the most.

    A Red Sox minor leaguer once put himself on the disabled list by ironing a shirt while wearing it.

    Any plausibility to the notion of sports being associated with a national character should be rendered laughable by the fact that many Americans like all three of baseball, football, and basketball.

    I just saw some cricket for the first time on a business trip to London, and I had a question – are the bowlers really only throwing the ball at around 75 mph?


  14. scott w on #

    are the bowlers really only throwing the ball at around 75 mph?

    Spin blowers go even slower than that. Of course, their balls are also rotating at 400RPMs in multiple dimensions, so the speed is irrelevant.

    Fast bowlers (a separate species of bowler, not merely a descriptive term) get up to 100MPH (I think 160KPH is the record held by Brett Lee). And remember, they’re not allowed to bend their arms!* So that’s why they have to do a major run-up to get those speeds.

    *The rule is way more complicated than that, naturally.

  15. Cheryl on #

    Having spent a lot of time watching both baseball and cricket I think I can safely say that the rules of baseball are more complicated than those of cricket. Infield fly rule, anyone?

    But cricket has interesting tactical complexities. The fact that the ball generally bounces before reaching the batsman opens up a whole new world of possibilities, and the use of the entire park rather than just a diamond means that field placings are much more complicated than baseball.

  16. Justine on #

    Skott Klebe: Any plausibility to the notion of sports being associated with a national character should be rendered laughable by the fact that many Americans like all three of baseball, football, and basketball.

    Or the fact that there are plenty of Americans who hate all three. Just as there are Indians and Australians who hate cricket.

    Trying to define a national character is a mug’s game.

  17. John H on #

    Scott Klebe: I think you mean he stole first from second…

    Cheryl: Really, the infield fly rule is pretty simple. If the defense could get multiple outs by dropping the ball on an infield pop-fly, the batter is automatically out and the base runners are not forced to advance. This eliminates the issue where a runner could be doubled off for leaving before the ball is caught, or doubled off for not advancing if the ball is intentionally dropped.

  18. rebecca on #

    hmm. mcworld. i’m not sure how i feel about tharoor’s assessment. i watch tv hardly ever, so sports and me are pretty much alien species, unless it’s something seasonal (like the olympics. lovvvvve the olympics). when i played soccer, i remember being irritated that no one ever came to our games, but the basketball and volleyball teams always had crowds. soccer is still much better known in the u.s. when compared to cricket. but i’m not sure if it’s lack of interest so much as it is the whole popularity follow-the-crowd sort of thing. everyone and their mother around here watches football and basketball. in high school, vball and basketball were popular because they were the “cool” sports and the cool kids played them. and it could be said that that’s just high school, but i’m inclined to think it’s not. people do what’s popular without bothering to look at anything else. mindless herd mentality.

    however, being usian myself, i’d also like to point out that you’re absolutely right about generalizations. most of the people i hang out with on a regular basis are not the type who enjoy the mcworld.

  19. Cheryl on #

    John: nice job. I’ve found that many Americans don’t have a clue how that rule works. Also your explanation reads very much like one of those cricket jokes about people being in when they are out, and I think may have a few people scratching their heads. But the main point is that there is no circumstance* in cricket where the fielding side could gain an advantage by dropping a catch. In baseball there is, and there has to be a rule about it.

    *Well, no general circumstance. There might be specific circumstances to do with keeping an incompetent batsman at the wicket.

  20. scott w on #

    Cheryl: I think I can safely say that the rules of baseball are more complicated than those of cricket. . . But cricket has interesting tactical complexities . . . the use of the entire park rather than just a diamond means that field placings are much more complicated than baseball.

    I don’t know that the complexity of rules per se is the point. What Tharoor is talking about is complexity of tactics and outcomes. From a cricketing perspective, every baseball pitcher is a fast bowler, every delivery a full toss, every hit a straight drive, and every baseball field placing employs slight variations on the same nine positions, whereas Wikipedia lists about 60 positions for cricket. (This isn’t really the best way to describe the difference in fielding, but it gives some idea.)

    It’s like comparing chess to checkers. Interesting and unexpected situations can arise in checkers, but all the pieces are the same.

  21. Cheryl on #

    Scott: I think we are basically in agreement about the tactics. But one of the most common complaints leveled against cricket is that no one can understand the rules, and this is often given as a reason why Americans don’t like it. I think that the rules of baseball are actually more complicated than those of cricket, and any American who can master baseball (as opposed to just watch it) should have no trouble with cricket.

    Of course having said that I should also point out that baseball pitches have a great deal more variety than you suggest. Also in cricket it is only ever possible to get one batsman out at time, whereas in baseball you can (and do) get three outs in one play. That adds a considerable amount of tactical complexity.

  22. niki on #

    actually in cricket you can get two people out at once say a catch and a run out

  23. Diana on #

    I find that a person who assesses my country as a McWorld void of individual culture or the ability to appreciate “rick complexities” and “infinite possibilities” to be unutterably up himself.

    Additionally, I have seen PLENTY of big billboards advertising the cricket world cup (I don’t watch TV, so I haven’t seen it on TV), so I fail to see any of the points the guy is making.

  24. kate c on #

    i think there is a subtle difference, re the wanker/bighead thing, and i think it is cultural (gross generalisation alert). in australia, the wanker/getting above yourself/blowing your own trumpet thing bears no relationship to your actual ability — it’s purely about your attitude to yourself, and the real crime is taking yourself too seriously. self-deprecation is practically a national law. you can be an actual genius in aus and still be seen as a wanker if you don’t downplay it.

    whereas I get the impression for usians, the charge of bighead/snootiness/above yourself means that you act as if you’re better than you are, your ego outrates your abilities. (there’s also the whole snob thing which I suspect is an anti-british class hangover — anti anyone perceived as upper class, whereas in aus it’s more likely to be anti anyone who thinks they have power/authority — subtle difference)

    have i just tied myself in knots here??? i think the whole thing is fascinating.

  25. Cheryl on #

    Niki: sorry, you can’t. The ball becomes dead when a batsman is dismissed so no further play is possible. (Law 23.1)

  26. Veronica on #

    Hang on, Scott, did you just really compare baseball to checkers? ‘Cause I think I’m gonna have to haul out the snotto bat and wap you with it. Checkers is inarguably simpler than chess; it’s simpler than practically any game but tic-tac-toe. But of course you’re gonna miss the complexities of baseball if you use the guidelines of another game to try and assess it. I mean, I gotta say, I’ve been known to characterize basketball as “a bunch of pituitary cases galumphing down to one side of the court, throwing a ball through a net, and then galumphing over to the over side of the court, and throwing the ball through a different net,” but that’s probably because I use my baseball eyes to look at basketball. (Actually, I try not to look at basketball in any way whatsoever, but I guess that’s irrelevant.)

    But I think that part of the disjunction is between the mass-produced American culture that gets sold to/imposed on the rest of the world, and the actual cultures that play out in different parts of the US. Like, on the one hand, Muhammed Ali said “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true,” which seems to fit in with the idea of the US valorizing a kind of arrogance, but that kind of interpretation doesn’t take into account the place of trash-talking in specifically African-American culture, and how hated Ali was by much of white America for his mouthing off. Just an example that springs into my mind. And what about the difference between being a genuinely self-aggrandizing prick, and being good-natured showboater who’s more or less in on the joke?

    But all that is, as you say, Justine, why national character stuff is a mug’s game.

  27. Kevin Wignall on #

    Coming to this late because I’m the middle of writing…

    First, I think it’s worth remembering that the very American John Paul Getty came to love cricket and found great solace in it. I think it’s similar to baseball in that it has a mythic quality stretching beyond the game itself. But I do think it’s wrong to suggest that Australia likes cricket because it “lost its shackles” later than the US. The interesting thing about the cricketing world is that we all share certain things about the game but each country also brings a unique flavour to it.

    One other thing. It’s always said that Americans have no sense of irony, and yet here in the UK, Seinfeld was shown on a minority channel very late at night. That’s ironic.

    But some generalizations stick, and coming from the most self-deprecating nation on earth, I’d have to say that it’s actually born out of supreme confidence. That’s why the English (and Australians) are suspicious of people who keep telling you how good they are – our attitude is that if you were really that good you wouldn’t feel the need to keep telling everyone.

    Finally, electifying first round game between Aus and S Africa yesterday. Aus have got to be looking good. Meanwhile, England would have to shape up dramatically and stop Freddie falling off the pedalo again – and sadly, I’m not being self-depracating on this occasion.

  28. M on #

    What’s a pollie?

  29. Justine on #

    A “pollie” is Australian for “politician”.

    Kevin: It’s one-day cricket. Anything can happen. I still can’t believe that Pakistan and India didn’t make it past the first round . . .

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