Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The importance of being a dork

I had coffee recently with Gavin McCormick, a bright young economist who worked with me at Geekcorps some years back. He took a position with a think tank out West and was telling me that, after leaving Boston, he was thinking about going back to Namibia for a vacation, where he’d spent a difficult year as a volunteer teacher.

“I thought you’d been miserable in Namibia?”

“Well, I had trouble connecting with some people there, but I don’t always connect with people in Boston either. And I miss getting to play with the kids.”

At some point during Gavin’s time in Namibia, we traded email, and I offered my blanket prescription for making friends in other countries: Your best chances to connect with people in other cultures are around eating, drinking, playing music, dancing, playing football (soccer) and having sex. My guess is that “play with kids” belongs on this list as well.

When you’re looking for common ground for connection with people in other cultures, it often makes sense to look for least common denominators. I don’t think it’s a surprise that most Global Voices gatherings end with multinational, multilingual pub crawls. Or that many cosmopolitans I know follow football so they have something to talk
about with cabbies in Bamako.

So why go back to Namibia, Gavin? “You know, when I dance in Namibia, people laugh – I’m a source of entertainment. The white guy who dances badly. When I dance badly in Boston, I’m just a dork.”


Dhani Jones isn’t a great dancer either, despite being a professional athelete. But he’s enthusiastic and doesn’t mind being laughed at, and that’s another critical ingredient for cultural bridging. And his new TV show, Dhani Tackles the Globe, may be the best example I’ve seen of a xenophile finding common ground around the world by sweating.

In his ordinary life, Jones is a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s a talented first-string player but not a superstar – he’s played for three NFL teams, but hasn’t been voted to the pro bowl. Off the field, he’s a larger than life personality, and a good sport, which leaves him well positioned for his new job – celebrity host for the Travel Channel. His show is based around a simple premise – he travels to a country, spends a week working out with a local sports team and uses that as his path towards understanding a country and a culture.

Only three shows have aired so far, but Travel Channel is sufficiently pleased that they’ve committed to a second season. Based on the two shows I’ve seen, that’s a good call. The sportsmen Jones hangs out with are amateurs, people who’ve got a day job and compete in sports like hurling for fun. It’s fascinating to watch an extremely gifted professional athlete get his ass kicked in unfamiliar sports… and sometimes familiar ones. Who can outrun an NFL linebacker? Well, if the race is 100 meters and on sand, turns out almost any Australian lifeguard can.

The Ireland show in particular was excellent – Jones spends a week training with a hurling team for ten days and ends up playing in (and losing) a match. Teams are deeply local – the players are cheered on by their fathers and grandfathers, who played on the same team years before. Jones is respectful of these traditions, training hard with his team, meeting their families for pub lunches and visiting with hurling greats as he attempts to learn a sport that apparently involves the tricky parts of baseball, field hockey and lacrosse. At the end of a week, it’s clear that he’s not a great player of the game, but that he’s won a great deal of respect from the guys he’s playing with.

I’m excited to see how Jones deals with higher cultural barriers – the season includes trips to Cambodia and Thailand, which probably require a bit more cultural bridging than hanging out with rugby players in England. But I’m impressed, not just with Jones’s obvious love for making friends around the world, but with Travel Channel’s apparent comprehension of cultural bridging.

One of the other shows on Travel Channel I watch religiously is Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, which uses food as a jumping off point for exploring countries from Iceland to Namibia. The show Bourdain and team put together in Ghana is good enough that I keep a copy on my laptop so I can show people some of the details of why the country is so special to me. (I had a dozen or so Ghanaian friends over for dinner a few weeks back, and they demanded to watch the show three times…)


If the obvious ingredients for cultural bridging are common ground (beer, football, dancing), and a sense of humor, there’s another key ingredient in these examples: airplane tickets. It makes sense that Dhani Jones would need to go to Ireland to learn about hurling, or that Gavin would need to fly to Windhoek to embarass himself in front of a bunch of Namibians. Other globalists have taken this idea to absurd ends, like Matt Harding, who’s wandered the globe, dancing badly.


Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Are plane tickets the first ingredient in these equations? Do they need to be?

I live just north of Pittsfield, MA, a city of fewer than 50,000 people. For years, the city has held an annual Ethnic Fair. Old timers tell me that this used to be an excuse for people to get shockingly drunk on a summer afternoon, lurching from the kegs at the Polish tent to the German tent to the Italian tent. It’s a very different scene these days. There’s beer, and the ethnic groups that dominated the city when it was a milltown are still here, serving sausages. But there’s a Brazilian booth as well. A Colombian, an Ecuadorian and an Indian booth as well. There’s klezmer on stage before the polka band.

My guess is that there’s an opportunity for me to learn something about Brazilian culture beyond enjoying the two Brazilian restaurants that have opened in town. I suspect it involves losing fifty pounds and playing soccer in a local league. Or putting on my best clubbing clothes and hanging out at Latin Night on Saturday at the Ecuadorian restaurant and dance club. I haven’t done either, and I find myself wondering if part of the equation is that I’m more comfortable looking like a dork in Dakar than in Pittsfield.


One of the reasons I stopped working on Geekcorps is that it became clear that using air plane tickets as a tool for cultural bridging is a prohibitively expensive strategy. It seems like the internet should make it easier for us to stumble into these intercultural encounters, or to engineer them.

There’s no doubt that there are internet “spaces” where people from different countries, with different beliefs and practices, find themselves interacting. These spaces generally form around common interests. That might mean Japanese and American kids getting together to talk about Asura Cryin’… or Arabs and Israelis arguing passionately in the comments thread of a Global Voices article about Palestine. Common interests aren’t always common ground.

And even common grounds can be contested spaces. I’ve been interested in online support groups for expectant mothers, because they tend to display an interesting form of arbitrary connection: the women in the forums have a single thing in commmon – the due date for their baby – and often have lots of cultural distance (location, religion, education level, occupation). I initially saw these spaces as an exciting model for mixing around an arbitrary connection… and it’s clear that lots of people end up making important and lasting connections through these groups. But it’s also clear that it’s possible to pick fights about aspects of pregnancy and childrearing that I, as a nonparent, was completely unaware of.

So here’s my pressing question: if the internet gives us new spaces in which to find common ground with very different people, what’s holding us back from becoming vastly more global and cosmopolitan than most of us are? Why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, do we seem to keep sorting ourselves into familiar groups?

I’m starting to think that there’s something very special about the willingness to look like a dork. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Matt Harding dances badly, but enthusiastically, and that this opens doors for him. Or that Dhani Jones finishes last in races, with a smile on his face. And I wonder whether we’d have more luck building bridges in online spaces if it were more socially acceptable to make fools of ourselves, laughing and being laughed at by our new peers.

12 Responses to “The importance of being a dork”

  1. jke says:

    Two totally unrelated questions first:
    a) why do you follow Sumo (instead of…uhm..soccer)?
    b) what happens to bacontarian.com in these difficult times of swineflu?

    “what’s holding us back from becoming vastly more global and cosmopolitan than most of us are?” – I don’t know if this is aimed at the US, but I’d say it’s also related to language barriers on both sides (as simple as it may sound). Ppl actually stop reading a newsletter if it doesn’t come in their own language. So to ask for any interest beyond that what’s offered locally (~ the Ethnic Fair) is like asking ppl to refer to GV instead of CNN & Co. In other words: running a “bridge blog” in Europe is equally difficult.

  2. Ethan says:

    Howdy, jke. I follow a lot of sports, but I write about sumo. As for why? As a 120kg dude, solidarity is part of it. I also think it’s an incredibly beautiful sport, and I enjoy thinking about it. As for your other question – I’m afraid bacontarian was ailing even before swine flu began dominating the news.

    You’re absolutely right about the role of language. I’m a big believer that we’re going to need to get much better at translation – automated, as well as distributed human translation – before bridging some of these gaps. But I’m also interested in how we get more people to pay attention to the GVs of the world, not just the CNNs, obviously… :-)

  3. Great post! I started to reply to your final “pressing question” here, but the comment grew into a blog post all of its own. Trackback seems unreliable, so here’s a manual trackback: http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/?p=600

  4. Brian says:

    I think the point about looking like a dork in Pittsfield is important. I live in DC which is very segregated. There is of course a large African American population, but also large populations or Ethiopian, Salvadoran, and Bolivarian, among others. It seems that the white, upwardly mobile class are quite happy to interact with various ethnic, racial, and economic class groups if they find themselves in any of the aforementioned countries, yet do not attempt to bridge these cultures in their own city. This is particularly disturbing given the importance of community to the functioning of a city, but especially so when demographic trends are taken into account. We are well on our way to being a minority majority nation. It seems we need to figure out how to bridge cultures close to home, as much as we need to bridge them in other countries.

  5. Your Ghanaian friends ring bells here… whenever we have a big Vietnamese get together in France, they all want to watch flickr slideshows of Saigon street food from. Bourdain’s recent Vietnam episode was equally well received.

  6. Jim Reische says:

    Great post. I’m glad to hear someone mention the dork factor. It’s a pretty common type of fear. The problem, as I see it, is that fear is an indeterminate thing: fear of looking like a dork in front of strangers tends to slide into a fear of those strangers themselves. I’ve seen a lot of people (including myself, at times) unwittingly go from “I’m afraid to go to place X because the people there might laugh at me” to I”‘m afraid to go to there because the people are somehow hostile to me” to “ah, it’s safer to just stay close to home and hang out with people like myself.”

    This kind of thing can become pretty paralyzing and isolating. It’s really good to see some new thinking about how we can get past these tendencies and create new opportunities for communication.

  7. Mendi says:

    If the internet gives us new spaces in which to find common ground with very different people, what’s holding us back from becoming vastly more global and cosmopolitan than most of us are?

    Could it also be because what makes the blog readable to “the locals” is also what makes it un-followable to the non-local? A blog about my home town will probably be laden with details on the minutiae of local politics, economics, scandal etc. – with commenters adding even more nuanced contradictory comments,or heaping even more detail to show why the poster is right. This tends to be a bit too esoteric for a reader who just might be hearing about it for the first time. And while humor and common interests tends to cut across cultural lines (e.g.a funny blog/ ICT blog about Utar Pradesh will make me want to add it to my RSS feed. However, once it veers towards say, the intricacies of local council politics, with commenters weighing in on the pros and cons, then it becomes less relevant to me especially if I don’t know local councilor Patel from Sharma).

    And seeing that we blog about stuff that matters to us, we end up getting readers who care, sometimes deeply, about the same stuff as well. Which is why even while reading GV, I tend to follow blogs that are closely aligned to what I was already interested in before, or funny blogs, or those that don’t require a lot of in-depth knowledge to follow (e.g. photo blogs).

  8. Your Pittsfield “ethnic fair” reminded me of the “Festival of Nations” that is held every August in Red Lodge MT (here is their website, but it is pretty under-developed: http://www.festivalofnations.us/). When I was growing up there the F of N was a week-long celebration of the various nationalities (or ethnic groups) that had settled in that remote mining town. Italian Night. Yugoslav Night (there’s a historical artefact–it sems to be called “Balkan Night” now). Scots Nights (or Scoth Night — can’t recallwhich now –but the difference is important). Norwegian Night. Finn Night. In the afternoons the local ladies served up “ethnic foods” to the throngs of tourists (Red Lodge is on one of the major routes into Yellowstone Park). “Ethnic displays” were set up in the local grade school – old-country family pieces, a fair number of which got pilfered from the badly under-supervised rooms. All impossibly dorky, in retrospect, and enormous fun for a little kid. This was the brainchild of the local librarian (and also my high school French teacher, whom I tortured, poor soul–never try to teach French to American adolescent males!), one of those kind of stranded intellectuals about whom Willa Cather wrote and who I doubt exist anymore. And yes, I am aware now, but was not then, that one of the nationalities NOT in evidence were the previous owners — the Crow Indians — who had only recently been displaced. One of the teams that our high school competed against in sports, however, was Lodge Grass, on the Crow reservation — a 3 or 4 hour bus ride away, where phenomenal athletes with names like Pretty on Top and White Man Runs Him routinely kicked our butts. Larry Colton has written a fantastic book about Lodge Grass and their girls’ basketball team, Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn.

    Sorry–I may have had a point here, but I lost it in reminiscing.

  9. Bev Clark says:

    Hey, if Gavin ends up going back to Namibia and he wants to come check out Zimbabwe, please get in touch and we’ll show him a good time which will include dancing and playing . . .

    Bev

  10. Sarah says:

    I think a fundamental point in the ‘dork abroad’ question is the power differential at play. Looking like a dork is only really possible for someone who comes from a powerful position (like an white person visiting almost any other country on earth). A dork is a dork by not living up to our expectations of how that person should act — ie as a powerful, important, white American male. But what about if our expectations of how that person should act are quite low? How are they exceeded? This might not be relevant for people from powerful countries, but what about, for example, how a new immigrant, or someone on a scholarship, from a poor country, might be accepted in the new, richer country which they have immigrated to/are studying in? So another question might be: how does someone coming from a ‘not powerful country’ to a ‘powerful country’ create connections? Does being a dork still work on these occasions?

  11. Ethan says:

    Sarah, I think those are really challenging questions – thanks for raising them. I think you’re right – the examples offered here are very much of more privleged people coming into less privleged settings and making contacts by looking for common ground… and being willing to look silly in the process. I think common ground is a constant – I guess the question is whether silly is the valid strategy when power dynamics are inverted. My guess is that there are a lot of post-colonial authors who’ve got smart things to say about about ways in which people in colonies have mastered cultures which were imposed on them.

    I’m remembering singing Handel’s Messiah in Accra in 1993 with a Ghanaian chorus. The tenor, who stood next to me, an elderly Ghanaian man, didn’t have – and didn’t need – a score. After rehearsal, I asked him how he’d come to know the score so well, and he explained that he’d sung it every year when he was a student at Oxford. Not a dorky moment on either side, but an interesting form of common ground in a culture we were both borrowing from.

    I obviously need to think through some of these questions more before I can write well about this. Thanks for bringing up a very challenging dimension of this idea.

  12. Sarah says:

    Thanks for your response, Ethan. I agree that the underlying point is the existence of common ground: children, music, food etc. That’s a lovely story about the Messiah in Accra — it illustrates your point perfectly. Common ground is not only an opportunity to break down barriers — its an opportunity to create new, shared, experiences from that common ground (eg by singing in a choir — new opportunities for interaction etc).
    Thanks,
    Sarah.

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  2. Shall We Dance? « iThinkEducation.net! - [...] The importance of being a dork (ethanzuckerman.com) [...]

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