The language of pregnancy seems pregnant with meaning. Is it?

Pregnant clockwise in Chinese, Georgian, Portuguese, Thai, Afrikaans,  Albanian, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian. (Credit: Fran Dias)

Pregnant clockwise in Chinese, Georgian, Portuguese, Thai, Afrikaans, Albanian, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian. (Credit: Fran Dias)

When a woman in Russia is carrying a child in her womb, several words could be used to describe her condition.

The most common is beremenaya (Беременная). Figuratively, it means pregnant. But the literal meaning is quite different.

“It has this kind of almost quasi-religious meaning of burden, or punishment,” says Svetlana Boym, professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard.

“You are carrying your burden.”

In other Slavic languages, some words for pregnant have the same root meaning of burden. Makes you wonder — how exactly do people in the Slavic world view pregnancy?

Different Meanings in Different Languages

And what are we to make of the words that describe pregnancy in the African nation of Malawi? Malawian journalist Yvonnie Sundu lists three words for pregnant in the Chichewa language — and all of them mean ill. There’s matenda, wodwala and, most dramatically, pakati, which means “between life and death.”

Linguistically, pregnancy seems to be seen in a more positive light in China. Among the many words in Chinese for pregnant is youxi (有喜), which Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li says is made up of two common characters. You (有)means “to have” and xi (喜) means “happy” or “happiness.” Put them together and they mean pregnant.

Russian, Chichewa and Chinese aren’t outliers. Translate pregnant into many other languages and you’ll get words that break down into all kinds of meanings.

The Spanish word for pregnant — embarazada — is often confused with the English word embarrassed. They may have different meanings today, but these two words come from the same root.

The word for pregnant in the Amazonian tribal language of Pirahã is koohiaaga, which means “stomach.” That may sound like a vague term for pregnant, but when the Pirahã say, “her stomach is big,” it means only one thing.

All these words and all these meanings seem rich with cultural information. When you think about it, it makes sense that the Chinese, with their Confucian values, would view pregnancy as a happy circumstance. Likewise, it’s not surprising that Russians, with all the suffering in their society, would view pregnancy as a burden. And in a poor country like Malawi, where women may not get adequate prenatal care, you can see how pregnancy might be viewed as sickness.

Cultural Attitudes

It stands to reason that we should mine these words for clues about the behavior and views of the people who use them. Right?

Wrong, says Columbia University linguist John McWhorter.

“It’s really tempting to think that the different words that we often use have something to do with the culture that a language corresponds to,” says McWhorter. “But, actually, there’s a lot less to ideas like that than we’d like to think.”

Why? Consider again the word in question: pregnant.

Look up pregnant in an English dictionary and you’ll see that it comes from a Latin word that means something like “before birth.”

Over time, the word has picked up other meanings. It can refer, for example, to something that’s filled with significance or emotion — for instance, a pregnant pause.

It’s not clear where these other meanings came from. One theory is that a French word that sounded a bit like pregnant became confused with the English word, and so, over time, pregnant expanded its meaning. It’s a pretty common way for a word to evolve — not in a planned fashion, just randomly.

When we say pregnant, or any other word, says McWhorter, we can’t possibly think of all of its nuances, let alone its original root meaning.

“To speak is to use words and expressions in idiomatic ways that float away from their literal meanings,” he says. “Reading meaning into the words and expressions that we mouth is often a very dangerous proposition.”

It’s dangerous, he says, because we might draw completely false conclusions about a group of people. Are the Chinese, for example, really happier about pregnancy than others? Not in recent decades; China’s one-child policy must have resulted in millions of unhappy pregnancies.

How Language Relates to Thought

So, what is the connection between how you speak and how you think?

“Language and thought don’t correspond the way we might think they do when we look at it laid out all neatly on the page,” says McWhorter.

Over the years, linguists have gone back and forth on how much the language you speak affects how you think. Today, most linguists don’t believe that language affects thought all that much. But recently, a few studies on how we perceive the likes of cardinal directions and color have concluded that speech does sometimes shape thought.

McWhorter, though, is skeptical — so skeptical that he’s written a book called “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.”

So what, if anything, runs through the minds of Chinese, Chichewa and Russian speakers when they use their words for pregnant?

Wenjing Li — again referring to the two Chinese characters, you meaning have and xi meaning happiness — says, “When we say youxi together, we always think … pregnant. We don’t think about what you means and what xi means separately.”

A Glimpse of History

So does that mean that we should always ignore the root or literal meanings of words? Words had to evolve out of some sort of meaning.

What about those Chichewa words for pregnant, all meaning sick? Chichewa speaker Yvonne Sundu guesses that the word pakati, meaning, literally, “between life and death,” once made a lot of sense.

“Most of the women who were pregnant ended up perhaps dying,” says Sundu. “So that’s the reason why our forefathers coined this word, pakati.”

Of course, given the random way that words often evolve, they’re not exactly the most reliable pieces of historical evidence. But, sometimes, they may offer a clue about cultural attitudes in the past.

Harvard’s Svetlana Boym thinks so. There’s the Russian word for pregnancy, beremenaya, with its literal meaning of “burden.”

She says that Russians, until quite recently, did think of pregnancy as a burden.

“Women in old Soviet times were not given painkillers,” says Boym. “There was an idea that you were supposed to suffer your burden as a woman, which I think is quite a horrifying idea.”

But medical practices evolve. So do cultural attitudes. In Russia today, the government is upgrading maternity hospitals and paying couples a cash bonus if they have more than one child. So, is pregnancy still a “burden?”

The word and its root meaning appear to be growing ever farther apart.


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How to amass a collection of world leaders’ autographs, from Mandela to Castro

Some of the top names from the autograph collection of Randy Kaplan. He launched his collection in 1996, with the autograph of Bill Clinton, and has gathered 130 autographed baseballs to date.  (Photo: Alina Simone)

Some of the top names from the autograph collection of Randy Kaplan. He launched his collection in 1996, with the autograph of Bill Clinton, and has gathered 130 autographed baseballs to date. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Here’s a guest post from writer Alina Simone.

I’m always on the look out for attention-grabbing stats, so when I heard the most valuable autograph of a living person in the world belonged to Fidel Castro, I thought — there’s a cool business story.

But as soon as I started talking to this elite group of collectors — the autograph hunters who vie for the attention of the world’s most famous, elusive and often, notorious leaders — I realized this piece wasn’t going to be about numbers: it was about people. In the words of autograph hunter Randy Kaplan, “You have to be cut from a special mold to be a collector that’s successful in getting in-person autographs like this.”

Kaplan has been collecting the signatures of world leaders on baseballs since 1996. He was the one who introduced me to the idea of autographing-as-blood-sport.

Kaplan schmoozed Hamid Karzai’s security detail for his autograph and smooth-talked his way into then-president of Nigeria General Olusegun Obasanjo’s hotel room. He even mastered phonetic Russian well enough to convince Gorbachev’s bodyguards the baseball in his hand wasn’t a bomb.

A few of Randy Kaplan's signed baseballs and photos (Photo: Alina Simone)

A few of Randy Kaplan’s signed baseballs and photos (Photo: Alina Simone)

“You either have it, or you don’t,” Kaplan told me. “You have to plan everything three steps ahead. You have to do all your research. You have find out who their defense secretary is, anyone who’s going to be with them. Most importantly, as a collector, you have to be prepared for the unprepared; I never go anywhere without at least a dozen baseballs on me, at all times. “

By now I’m feeling like autograph hunting requires as much specialized gear as regular hunting, like a 12 pocket flak-jacket to hold the baseballs. But according to Kaplan, your memory has to be even stronger than your back.

Randy Kaplan with his collection of autographed baseballs“My son and I were in the city during UN week, and I noticed some state department cars outside of a Turkish restaurant on 2nd Avenue on the Upper East Side,” he recalls. “So naturally we went over there together, and sure enough, who’s walking out but the president of Kosovo — could not believe it! — Atifete Jahjaga.”

I can understand walking into a falafel joint and spotting Obama, or even Russian President Vladimir Putin — but the president of Kosovo?

Not every president walking out of a Turkish restaurant gives Kaplan his autograph, though. That rejection, he admitted in an email, can trigger a mini-depression. But as much as he wants to get those autographs, he’s not indiscriminate about whose autograph he seeks.

“There are people I would not want to have as a part of my collection,” Kaplan says. “Anybody who’s a mass-murderer, somebody who’s indicted on crimes-against-humanity — I try to avoid those people. The lust is still there to try and get them, but there’s also a barrier up saying ‘No, I don’t want them in my collection.’ I want it to be people that I’m proud of.”

Fidel Castro’s signature would make Kaplan proud, he says. Getting El Comandante’s autograph on a ball is a kind of holy grail for Kaplan. He’s been trying to get it for years, without success.

If only Kaplan had grown up in a Communist country, he’d have a lot more luck. Hungarian collector Zoltan Marian had a foreign ministry official get a signed photograph from Castro back in 1972, when Castro visited Budapest for the first and only time.

With the help of foreign ministry officials, Zoltan Marian managed to get a signed photo of Fidel Castro during the Cuban leader’s only visit to Hungary, in 1972. Castro is the world’s most sought-after autograph, among living people, with each copy valued at approximately $5,800 by Paul Fraser Collectibles. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)

With the help of foreign ministry officials, Zoltan Marian managed to get a signed photo of Fidel Castro during the Cuban leader’s only visit to Hungary, in 1972. Castro is the world’s most sought-after autograph, among living people, with each copy valued at approximately $5,800 by Paul Fraser Collectibles. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)

“Yes, I am proud of Fidel Castro because I know he is very, very difficult,” Marian says. “Since 1972, I tried to write him once again, but I only received a copy of a fax.”

Because Zoltan is agnostic when it comes to a leader’s politics, his collection of more than 1300 signed photos includes some truly chilling names: Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Saddam Hussein. But the standouts are autographs so rare dealers have trouble even putting a price on them: the dynastic leaders of North Korea.

With help from his own Communist government, Zoltan managed to get Kim Il Sung’s signed photo. But for years he had no such luck with Kim’s son. Finally Zoltan sent Kim Jong Il a copy of the very same photo Kim the elder had signed years before, hoping that might convince him to send Zoltan his autograph. Instead two guys from the North Korean embassy showed up at his door. Somehow, over the course of a very tense tea, Zoltan managed to win them over.

“I had to wait for a long time,” Zoltan says. “About for a year or more, but finally I received a signed photo of the Dear Leader.”

Zoltan’s collection includes autographs of many such Cold War all-stars — signatures that Western collectors have a lot of trouble getting (unless they buy them on eBay).

But autograph hunting from a Communist Country wasn’t always easier. “Sometimes I was invited to the police station and they told me: Do not write those letters to these, these and that person,” Zoltan explains.

Back in the ’70s, the Hungarian police even warned Zoltan to stop writing to Alexander Dubček, the former Communist leader of neighboring Czechoslovakia. Dubček was responsible for the Prague Spring, but was under house arrest.

Zoltan kept writing anyway. He didn’t care. What he did was address his letter to Dubček’s wife, under her maiden name. Eventually, he got his man.

Former Czech leader Alexander Dubček was under house arrest when Zoltan started seeking his autograph in the early 1970s.  The Kremlin blamed Dubček for instigating the Prague Spring. All letters addressed to him went to a Czechoslovak Police official, who told the Hungarian police about Zoltan. Zoltan was warned to “stop writing those letters to Dubček,” but he remained undeterred. A Hungarian TV reporter advised him to address the envelope not to Dubček, but rather to his wife, Anna, under her maiden name. Dubček signed two photos for Zoltan, using his wife’s maiden name as the sender. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)

Former Czech leader Alexander Dubček was under house arrest when Zoltan started seeking his autograph in the early 1970s. The Kremlin blamed Dubček for instigating the Prague Spring. All letters addressed to him went to a Czechoslovak Police official, who told the Hungarian police about Zoltan. Zoltan was warned to “stop writing those letters to Dubček,” but he remained undeterred. A Hungarian TV reporter advised him to address the envelope not to Dubček, but rather to his wife, Anna, under her maiden name. Dubček signed two photos for Zoltan, using his wife’s maiden name as the sender. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)


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How to apologize for the Cultural Revolution without blaming the Communist Party

It’s been 25 years since Chinese forces opened fire on students encamped in Tiananmen Square. But that’s recent history.

Too recent for anyone to start apologizing for their conduct. Not so the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution is far enough in the past (1966-76) for people to now start taking blame for some of its bloodiest moments. Of course, many of them are reaching the end of their lives, and may feel the need to atone for their actions.

Former Red Guard leader, Chen Xiaolu returned to his old school in Beijing last year to apologize for his actions in back in 1966. ( Photo provided by Chen Xiaolu)

Former Red Guard leader, Chen Xiaolu returned to his old school in Beijing last year to apologize for his actions in back in 1966. ( Photo provided by Chen Xiaolu)


Former Red Guard leader, Chen Xiaolu returned to his old school in Beijing last year to apologize for his actions in back in 1966.The words of these confessors are carefully, sometimes artfully chosen. With few exceptions, they go out of their way not to blame the Communist officials for inciting them — though government rhetoric at the time set peasants against landowners, the uneducated against intellectuals.

In the podcast, I ask The World’s Matthew Bell about this. He recently reported two stories out of China, also included in the podcast, which deals with different aspects of how the Cultural Revolution is remembered.

In one, Matthew visits a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant, and speaks with a well-connected business executive the who has publicly apogized for his role in beatings of staff at a middle school.

It was a significant apology: Chen had been a local leader of the Red Guards, the stormtroopers of the Cultural Revolution, and he is the son of a Chinese army general who was close to Mao Zedong.

Bian Zhongyun's children mourn the death of their mother, as seen in the documentary "Though I am Gone." Bian was a school principal who beaten to death 1968 by a crowd.

Bian Zhongyun’s children mourn the death of their mother, as seen in the documentary “Though I am Gone.” Bian was a school principal who beaten to death 1968 by a crowd.

In Matthew’s other story, a Chinese filmmaker tells the story of a Beijing high school principal killed by mob of schoolgirls armed with homemade spiked clubs. The schoolgirls had been radicalized by Red Guards.


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In search of the perfect email sign-off

Here’s a guest post from New York-based and friend of the Big Show, Alina Simone.

Remember being a sad weirdo in high school and feeling so insecure, you just kind of cop other people’s style and hope no one will notice?

Sculpting your hair into a black Aquanet spire to fit in with the Goths? Shredding the skin off your knees doing an Olly to impress the skaters?

Okay that’s just me. But I thought I’d at least kissed that grim, grasping feeling goodbye.

Actually, it confronts me every day, almost every hour, in the form of the email sign-off. Am I the only one? The only one who feels like nothing fits?

That all those “Warmlys” and “Regards” and “All bests” are the worst?

And all those international options — “Ciao” and “Suerte” and “Bises” and, God forbid, “Tatty bye”? — don’t help. They hurt. A lot.

There are days I would willingly shave off my eyebrows just to be excused from ever thinking about email sign-offs again. Mostly I just wait for that merciful plateau to arrive in an e-relationship, when you can finally drop the sign-off.

Until then, here is the détente that I’ve reached: “Poka poka,” for my Russian friends. (It means “Bye-bye” and feels okay.)

“Warmly,” with people I don’t know. (Meh.) “Hugs” for everyone at The World. (No one’s complained.) And for my family: nothing. Because it’s they’re stuck with me — even if I start using “Tatty bye.”

Then I decided to rally: to embark on a Goldilocks-type quest for the ideal sign-off, one unique to me. Just like the Colonial War re-enactor I recently interviewed who signs off, “Yours in Liberty.” Perfect, right?

So I took to Facebook, where some truly horrifying options instantly emerged. Like “Toodles.” And “Ta for now.” Then came the inscrutable hipster acronyms that make old people sad. TTYL? GG? Sorry, no.

My favorite of the bunch was “Stay classy.” But I feared “Stay classy” was like some gold lame dress I’d buy on impulse only to have my friends look at it and go, “Um, how about you stay classy?”

I invite my friend Stephen over to be my sign-off spirit guide. His sign-offs are the best. Again, they probably wouldn’t work for me, but suit him to a tee. Like the Spanglish, “Hasta then” (so much better than “Later”). Or the casually guillotined, “As evs.”

According to Stephen, the ideal sign-off requires both humor and speed. Keep it light and don’t overthink it. But even Stephen makes mistakes.

“Well I don’t sign off, ‘All best’ anymore,” Stephen confessed. “I once sent one that I thought said ‘All best’ to somebody at Ralph Lauren, and my finger moved and I wrote, ‘Ass best,’ and they blocked my emails.”

My Facebook friends also shared mortifying sign-offs they’d received from non-English speakers, like “Thanks Sir Mister!” and the sinister-sounding “I look forward to your cooperation.”

Even if it’s the safest option, though, Stephen still won’t be switching to “sincerely” anytime soon. Unless he secretly hates you.

“When you think about it, sincerely is the nicest because you’re telling someone you’re sincere,” Stephen told me. “You’re giving them all of your true feeling. But it sounds cold.”

This whole time, I’m nodding along, smiling, but when he digs into “Cheers,” my heart takes a plunge.

“I don’t like ‘Cheers,’ if it’s coming from an American. I think it has no place here. What are we going to do, say ‘lorry’ next? ‘Lift’? You know, really!”

Guilty, guilty, guilty. Not only do I long to say lorry and lift, but I yearn to use gobsmacked and knackered and especially cheers, which sounds so sophisticated when my British editor at The World, Patrick Cox, tosses it off, but apparently makes me sound like… a tosser.

This may sound like a tangent, but a while back I fell in love with the Danish TV series, “Borgen.” ‘Borgen’ makes me want to move to an ill-lit apartment in Copenhagen and spend my days mooning around cafés with brooding young men.

In Danish, ‘Borgen’ means castle but serves as a nickname for the parliament. To me, it felt like a sign-off. So I started using it with my “Borgen”-watching friends and then they started using it too.

True, people who don’t watch “Borgen” won’t get it, but do they even matter? When nothing makes sense, why not embrace the nonsensical?

What’s the most memorable email sign-off you’ve encountered? Let us know in the comments.


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English rules in America, except in a few French pockets of Maine

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)


Here’s a guest post from reporter Annie Murphy who divides her time between Peru and Maine.

On a Thursday afternoon at the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine, a few hundred people fill an old church converted into a concert hall.

Musicians play guitar and accordion, and sing French-Canadian songs, while the crowd watches. It’s the last part of a monthly meetup – known as Le Rencontre – where locals gather together, and speak in French.

Most of the crowd grew up in Lewiston, or neighboring Auburn. They have French-speaking families, many of whom migrated from Quebec, and other parts of Canada. And even though, until a few decades ago, French speakers faced a lot of discrimination – including being punished in school for speaking French – the language has managed to hang on.

Louise Bolduc is a regular. She’s sixty-six, with long gray-blond hair, and a spotless white baseball hat that says C’est bon. I ask her if she speaks French a lot.

“Oui, c’est ma première langue,” she says. “That means it’s my first language. When I started school, I didn’t know any English.

The director of the center, Louis Morin, is standing beside her. His parents migrated from Canada shortly before he was born. He and Bolduc continue talking, in French.

“It was the same thing for me,” he says to her. “I didn’t start speaking English until I was six years old. Before, I spoke only French at home.”

Louise Bolduc adds that for her, it’s easy to keep up the language, because her family still speaks it. They’re actually waiting nearby, and she runs off to join her sister and cousins.

Today, Franco-Americans make up 20% of the population in Maine. In Lewiston-Auburn, some officials say it’s closer to 70%. And a lot of them still speak French, as Bowdoin College Professor Chris Potholm found when he was doing a study.

“28% of Franco Americans are fluent in French. Now, when you think about that, that wouldn’t be surprising if you were interviewing recent immigrants. But if you think of the Franco-Americans as being here for 250 years, that’s an astonishingly high number.”

But many Franco-Americans worry that that number is only going to decrease. And some are skeptical about kids picking up French once their families have stopped speaking it at home.

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, MaineAcross the river, in the city of Auburn, one after-school program is trying revive local French. In a space at Sherwood Heights Elementary School, over a dozen students repeat the class rules, in French. One of the teachers behind the program, Doris Bonneau, translates for me.

“Raise your hand to speak, to move from your space. Follow directions. Be polite. The golden rule, is do your best. And the last one was: pay attention!”

Bonneau – who seems both patient and enthusiastic, especially when it comes to French – says that program is part of an effort to bring the language to younger generations. And rather than focusing on so-called “classic” French from France, kids are exposed to all sorts of dialects, particularly local ones that make up the French specific to Maine.

One of Bonneau’s students is 10-year-old Lucas Pushard. He says his grandmother speaks French, and that now, he can actually talk to her a little bit. He also mentions picking up on more French being spoken around town.

“It’s kind of like a secret language,” he says. “You can finally find out what people are saying, you’re finally in on it. It’s kind of cool.”

Another teacher in the program, Jacynthe Jacques, came here from Quebec. She was surprised to meet so many local French speakers. And she also noticed that words and accents from different parts of Canada come together in Maine. For example, she says, some locals have an accent from a smaller region within Quebec, called La Beauce.

“A bench in French is a banc, and a bath is a bain. But if you’re from La BeauceFrench, you can sit on a banc and it’s almost the same pronunciation as a “bath,” says Jacques. “Little things like that.”

What’s also surprised Jacques since moving to Maine is the presence of French speakers from different parts of Africa, specifically in Lewiston-Auburn. She thinks that maybe with the new wave of immigration, French will be able to hang on here.

“I’ve noticed that, through this program, and other venues, there’s a lot of getting together between the French speaking communities in this area. And I think that’s great, because we meet in the language,” she says.

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of MaineBack in Lewiston, French speakers from places like Ivory Coast, Chad, and Togo have attended the monthly Le Rencontre meetup. At the one I go to, I talk to 21-year-old Pierrette Rukundo moved from Rwanda about a year ago, with her three brothers and her parents. Rukundo says she’s excited to find this community of French speakers, and that she plans on bringing her parents next time.

“They’ll be so excited. My mom will not stop talking,” says Rukundo. “I think she’ll be talking the whole time, because she’ll be with people speaking in French.”

Recent immigrants, like the Rukundo family, bring even more dialects into the mix of Maine French. They’re also likely to be key to the language staying alive.


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Do you answer ‘How are you?’ the American or the Russian way?

Alina Simone's Russian grandmother. When congratulated on becoming 90, she declared that she was disappointed that she was still alive.  (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Alina Simone’s Russian grandmother. When congratulated on becoming 90, she declared that she was disappointed that she was still alive. (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Here’s a guest post from New York-based writer and Big Show contributor Alina Simone.

My Russian grandmother had a stock response to “How are you?” “Terrible.” And if you didn’t like it, the same applied to you.

Last month, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the difference between how Americans and Russians respond to the question, “How are you?” (The answer can almost be summarized: Fine/Not fine.)

Alina Simone and her American husband Josh Knobe (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Alina Simone and her American husband Josh Knobe (Courtesy Alina Simone)

My inbox exploded. People from all over the world wrote to tell me how they were. I learned that Russians are not the only ones who take “How are you?” literally. The same holds true for Chinese, Israelis, and very grumpy Americans — or Americans simply unable to gloss over the truth, even for the sake of a benign social ritual. One American with Stage 4 breast cancer wrote to tell me that she had given up on “fine” and now just told people the honest truth: “I couldn’t be worse.” Alternatively, a man named Tom put forth the theory that saying “fine” was a telltale sign of emotional repression — or worse. “Fine actually stands for Feelings I’m Not Expressing,” Tom wrote. “Or, (Unprintable Word), Insecure, Neurotic, and Empty.”

I found it interesting that while the Americans I spoke to didn’t much care whether Russians responded to “How are you?” with some news about their psoriasis, Russians really agonized over these interactions with Americans. My Russian father went so far as to discover fresh source of “How Are You?” humiliation: the tendency Americans had of not sticking around long enough to hear the answer.

“The shortest answer I can think of to the question ‘How are you?’ is, ‘Good,’” my father said. “But I still have not figured out what to do when someone blurts ‘Hi! How Are You!’ and runs by. Should I run after him and say ‘Good?’”

America: a nation of people shouting “Good!” at one another’s disappearing backs. For some reason, I kind of like that.


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If you’re a political candidate in Colombia, forget about using your name

Santiago Ramírez at the Real Sound Studio in Bogota, where they compose jingles for political candidates. He says they once had a conservative client, a Colombian Mitt Romney-type, who asked for a raunchy reggaeton tune so he could connect with young vote (Real Sound/Flickr)

Santiago Ramírez at the Real Sound Studio in Bogota, where they compose jingles for political candidates.(Real Sound/Flickr)


Here’s a post from Bogota-based John Otis.

What do you do when you’re one among thousands of candidates on the ballot? In Colombia, you hire a jingle writer.

At a sound studio in Bogota, Juan Fonseca is composing a 15-second radio spot for a Colombian congressional candidate.

Radio reaches more people in Colombia than newspapers or TV, which is why a well-crafted jingle, played over and over on the radio, can help a campaign take off. But composing these ditties is a strange and tricky art form.

Santiago Ramirez of Bogota’s Real Sound studio recalls a button-down conservative — a sort-of Colombian Mitt Romney — who thought he could connect to younger voters by setting his jingle to raunchy, sexually explicit reggaeton.

“We were like ‘What? Do you really want a reggaeton?” Ramirez says.

Ramirez did ultimately produce the jingle, and the candidate lost.

Another challenge for jingle composers is politicians who have strange names that are hard to rhyme.

“We’re working with a guy whose name is very weird. It’s ‘Telesforo.’ It’s very similar to phone, you know, telefono,” he says.

When I ask him who names their kid Telesforo, he laughs and says, “I don’t know, man. A very crazy guy.”

Still, Ramirez says numbers are even more important than names. He plays me a song where there’s no name. The spot simply urges people to vote for candidate No.101. There’s a good reason for that.

Unlike US legislative races, which are mostly one-on-one contests, Colombia’s are a free-for-all. A whopping 2,300 candidates are running for 285 seats in the Colombian House and Senate.

As a result, the ballot for the March 9th election is the size of a newspaper. But it still isn’t big enough to hold so many names. Instead, each candidate is assigned a number and that’s what appears on the ballot.

“In Colombia when you go to vote, you have to mark with an “X” the number of the candidate. That’s super important,” says Miguel de Narvaez, who runs a recording studio called Sonido Comericial.

Narvaez says a good melody or chorus can implant the candidate’s number in the voter’s brain. Jingle writers prefer small numbers because they’re easier to rhyme.

So what about big numbers like 172?

“No! 172? That would make it very difficult,” Narvaez says. “Probably what we would do here would be to split the number.” He starts singing, “1-7-2” instead of “one-hundred-and-seventy-two.”

When we meet up again, Juan Fonseca, the piano man, has finished the jingle for his client, a congressional candidate named Monica Giraldo. Rather than reggaeton, Giraldo requested a more innocent sound, so Fonseca brought in a teenager to sing the vocal tracks.

Giraldo, of the Conservative Party, is listed as C-102 on the ballot, but Fonseca resists playing the numbers game. In the end politics is all about people, so Fonseca tried to make an emotional connection with voters by focusing on Giraldo’s human qualities.

“She is a person with leadership skills, who puts her heart into her work,” he says. “All of these attributes make her much more than just candidate number C-102.”


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