Cross cultural non-communication

‘We will always choose perfection over politeness.’ That, a German friend explained, is why a stranger sitting at the next table outside on a glorious spring afternoon got up, came over to me, took my cutlery and started to demonstrate how to deal with a Weißwurst. The skin must not be eaten. It must be surgically removed. The man assumed I spoke no German, though I was asking him, in German, why I could not eat the skin. He did not answer. His first incision was ragged; the skin did not peel away. The second was more successful. Satisfied, he had conveyed the lesson, he returned my knife and fork and resumed his seat.

Not knowing that I should only order these white minced pork and veal sausages, with sweet mustard and a pretzel before midday, I had done so at two in the afternoon: a light meal to keep me going after the long flight from Australia. I had started cutting the first of my sausages into pieces, offering a morsel to my companion to taste. Neither of us suffered from this first mouthful of white sausage eaten after midday with the skin on. Modern sanitation practices should have rendered the rule that no Weißwust hear the noon chime of the church bells obsolete. But traditions remain strong in Germany: there is a right and wrong way to do many things.

While the big guy from Bavaria – when he went to the bathroom his wife, in trademark German socks and sandals, sort of apologised for her husband’s intrusion and told me they came from Bavaria – felt no compunction instructing me in the art of sausage eating, it’s more usual for Germans to keep their distance. That we soon discovered when we, two Antipodeans, joined eleven domestic tourists in Leipzig. We were to be together for three days, discovering the city of Wagner’s youth in the day and attending his Ring Cycle in the evening.

Standing outside the designated building for our first encounter, I blundered in. A roly-poly, happy man from Frankfurt approached us, thinking we may be part of the Ring group. Yes, I said, proffered our names and asked for his. Roland was the only person to tell us his name. We spent the rest of the trip on no-name terms with our fellow Wagner fans. An architect from Berlin with a shiny bald pate and hip round-rimmed glasses – he had at least two pairs, one with bold red frames, the other tortoiseshell – exchanged a few jokes with us and showed us dozens of pictures of his house. His wife sported very shiny Egyptian-blue hair, short at the back with shaved zig-zags patterns. She wore only black and white clothes, usually with something polka-dotted. Avant-garde in appearance perhaps but both were as German as they come. When our guide — he didn’t introduce himself either – arrived, the first think Mr Goggles did was point out to the guide that his shoelace was undone. Perfection not politeness.

Six degrees of separation: where the files can take you

Rose Holley Special Collections Curator watches as Francesca Beddie opens the new Special Collections Repository

There’s a great sense of satisfaction when you come across the needle you have been looking for in a haystack of files. For me, the greater thrill is the unexpected gem that leads down new tracks and expands the horizons of the picture you are trying to put together.

More often than not, those leads prove the rule of six degrees of separation. The track that brought me to have the honour to cut the ribbon at the opening of a new repository the University of NSW Canberra.

In 1970, my father, Brian Beddie, left the ANU to take up the Foundation Chair in Government at the University of New South Wales at Duntroon. He retired in 1984 just before the new campus was opened. He used to quip that he’d spent his whole life in huts, first at Childers Street at the ANU and here in a row of green sheds on the ridge.

Last year I received an email from Paul Dalgleish Special Collections Archivist at the Australian Defence Force Academy Library about a set of papers the library had found – documents my father had amassed for various writing projects and lectures. Would I release these to the archive? I didn’t need even to see them to say yes but I did come to Canberra, where I met a tremendous team. We talked for much longer than either side had anticipated. Rose Holley, Special Collections Curator at the library, enthused about her plans for a new archival space.

Rarely does one hear these days of an expansion in library storage. Indeed, when my father died in 1994, we couldn’t find a library in Australia willing to take all the books he had collected on Max Weber. We mentioned this to Hans Brunn, who had been a young scholar Brian became friendly with at the Max Planck Institute in Munich in 1968. Hans was by 1994 a senior Danish diplomat –  his and my paths had crossed again during the heady days of Baltic independence in the early 1990s. He found a solution. The books became part of the shipment of belongings of someone returning to Denmark from the Danish embassy in Canberra. From Copenhagen the books were sent to Riga, where the university was hungry for tomes to supplement its Marxist-Leninist collections.

Paul’s partner is Russian — another connection, made stronger by the fact that a few years after my father’s death I found myself here on this campus doing a research master’s on the missing bourgeoisie of early 20th century Russia. This came about thanks to an introduction by a school friend to an academic working here at the time. Her topic was, remarkably, late Russian imperial taxation systems. Who would have thought such paths would cross at a defence academy in Canberra!

Back to that first meeting with Rose, Paul, Annette McGuiness (UNSW Canberra Librarian) and Peter Stanley (research professor in history at Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society). As we spoke about the plans for the archive, I grabbed my chance to tell them about the boxes my partner, Peter Rodgers, and I had stored for over a decade. These were the papers of Peter Hastings, one of the most prominent journalists of his era, my father’s closest friend and Peter’s mentor at the Sydney Morning Herald. Peter had taken the files after Hastings’ death — he had a great book proposal to honour Hastings and his connections with PNG and Indonesia but could not find a publisher. So the boxes stayed untouched and unsorted.

I thought if my father’s set of papers qualified for the collection, so would Hastings’. But Rose made it clear I would first have to demonstrate that the papers were interesting enough and in an acceptable condition to be handed over. The archive was a mess but I found enough to prove their significance. Paul has found more gold for the researchers who will soon have access the documents now in miraculous order.

As well as material relevant to Australia’s security, the UNSW Canberra Special Collections include many literary files. Last week Nicole Moore (Associate Dean for Special Collections at UNSW Canberra)  reminded me that the discipline of English has a long history here. In 1918, Leslie Allen became Professor of English at the Royal Military College at Duntroon. For those of you who know the ANU, Allen is one half, so to speak, of the Haydon/Allen building. Perhaps not surprisingly given the size of Canberra in the middle of last century, the connectivity continues. This track leads to the south coast of NSW. When my mother came to Canberra with Brian in the 1950s, she fell in love with the bush and the coast. She wanted a beach house and started combing the area around Batemans Bay. I gather my father was less enthralled but when he heard that Professor Haydon’s house at Broulee was for sale he mentioned it to her. She bought it and gave us and many others a wonderful haven. Professor Allen also holidayed at the coast, at Mossy Point across the bay from the headland where the Haydon house stood. The story goes that the two professors would sometimes finish their game of chess from their respective houses, signalling their moves using Morse code! Nicole has more to add to the seaside story: she can tell you about the logistics of getting books to Mossy Point for Allen to review when he was on the Literature Censorship Board.

Speaking of logistics, Rose told me she has become more knowledgeable than she ever expected to be about road and sea freight during this project, which has demanded precision measurements to ensure the compactuses and even their handles comply with the OH&S rules. She has suggested innovations to the company making the system – like the retractable handles — that will now be made available to other buyers.

ADFA and UNSW Canberra have come a long way from those green huts to having a state-of-the-art repository. What hasn’t changed is the spirit of inquiry that makes all those files so enticing. We are certainly very lucky that they are in such good hands.

[This is the speech Francesca Beddie made at the opening of the repository on 2 May 2018.]

A plea for a gutted-free New Year

GuttedWith 2016 soon upon us I challenge all sportsmen, sportswomen and especially sportswriters to promise that they won’t use the term ‘gutted’ for a whole year.

Australian families have enough stress to deal with already; the threat of terrorism and falling behind in the mortgage and having to use public transport all their life. They’re stuck with that. Why inflict the linguistic and anatomical laziness of gutted upon them?

The way we’re headed, four-year-olds will soon be arriving home from pre-school to announce they came second in the colouring in competition and ‘feel gutted’. If only they could just use a word like devastated, downcast, done-in, perhaps even defeated? But even at that tender age they’ve heard far too much sports commentary and their parents, also victims, don’t know better. Otherwise they’d reach for the castor oil.

And pity the medical profession. When Wallabies star David Pocock was injured in 2013 a breathless Canberra Times reported: ‘A gutted Pocock ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament … and needs a knee reconstruction.’ The surgeon wouldn’t know where to start.

Or take the case of English cricketer, Joe Root. He hurt his hand, couldn’t play in an international Twenty-20 competition and declared that he too was gutted. He was lucky he wasn’t taken to hospital for a finger stall and end up with a new liver. Come to think of it, though, that might have encouraged him to choose his words more carefully.

 

Evidence versus emotion

Aristotle_Altemps_DetailAristotle identified three elements in the art of rhetoric: ethos (authority or evidence); pathos (the emotional hook, one might say); and logos (a logical argument). His point was that to win over an audience required more than the facts. How these are marshalled and how they resonate matters, as Nobel Laureate, Peter Doherty, explains in his latest book The Knowledge Wars, which I reviewed in The Weekend Australian. The art is to make sure that pathos (and, in this day and age, the pithy media statement or resort to celebrity rather than expertise) does not undermine the ethos and the logos.

‘i’ before ‘e’…

i before eEnglish spelling is hard. The language has over 1,100 different ways to spell its 44 separate sounds, with many having no relationship to pronunciation. You can blame history for this mess. English has always adopted words from other languages* — Norse, German, Latin, French to name few — but without  standard protocols on how to spell them.  There are some rules like ‘i before e except after c’ and plenty of exceptions to those rules.

In German, it’s easy: if you pronounce the combination of letters ‘e’, you spell it ‘ie’. If it sounds like ‘i’, it’s ‘ei’. So the European veal dish, named after the Austrian capital Vienna, is Wiener Schnitzel. Except in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald crossword, which I just couldn’t solve because Wiener had become Weiner, meaning the solution to the clue ‘shrivelled’ was ’emaciated’ but only if you spelled Wiener wrong.

Perhaps the lesson here is for crossword compilers to avoid foreign words though that’s hard when it comes to English. Instead, what about we all learn  another language so we can better appreciate the intricacies of  human communication…and exercise our brains without having to do the crossword.

*If you are interested, there’s a Ted-Ed talk on the Origins of English.

Editing necessities

editing‘A good editor won’t introduce errors’, declares an American editor selling her wares. It’s a good benchmark and one you’d expect an international journal to adhere to. So imagine my shock when the proofs of an article I wrote (eons ago … academic publishing works at a languorous pace) arrived with the following:

The citation for ‘Pyne (2014)’ has been changed to ‘Pyne and Hon (2014)’ to match the entry in the references list:  Pyne, C., & Hon, M. P. (2014). Embracing the new freedom: Classical values and new frontiers for Australia’s universities. Address to the Universities Australia conference, Canberra, 26 February. Retrieved October 23, 2014, from http://ministers.education.gov.au/pyne/embracingnew-freedom-classical-values-and-new-frontiers-australias-universities.

The publishing house is located in the United Kingdom, home to our Westminster system. Their editors should be familiar with the honorifics we give our parliamentarians, in this case the Hon. Christopher Pyne, MP. But no, instead his ghost writer emerged as MP Hon.  If my editor were based in Australia, they could have referred to the Style Manual (6th edition, 2002) to find out about the use of ‘The Honourable’.

Mention of the Style Manual leads me to add my voice to those of other editors calling on the government to fund a seventh edition of the Style Manual. The current manual is a wonderful resource, produced by a group of professional editors, but is becoming outdated. According to the Institute of Professional Editors, the Department of Finance has yet to convince the government to provide funding for the new edition. Another reason for the delay is that having considered engaging an external team, the department ‘rejected this because the government would lose control over the content’.

This does not bode well for a manual that could promote plain English and consistent style across government agencies, and in turn save the public service much time and money.

 

 

Your AAAAA needs you now!

MYP_AAAAA-imageI’m the proud owner of a T-shirt with large white letters – AAAAA – emblazoned on a black background: Australian Association Against Acronym Abuse.

The T-shirt raises eyebrows and gets a few laughs. But it conveys a terrible truth. Acronym abuse is the scourge of modern communication. Not as dangerous or insidious perhaps as other forms of misbehaviour. But acronyms in the wrong hands eat away at all that makes us civilised. Take SOCRATES, a word that once conjured up images of Greek philosophers earnestly debating the meaning of life. It’s now been drafted by the US military to denote Special Operations Command Research, Analysis and Threat Evaluation System!

Even those conscious of the dangers of ‘acronymitis’ make excuses. A 2011 report on Australia’s aid to Indonesia noted:

‘Every attempt has been made to reduce the use of acronyms in this report. Unfortunately the development industry suffers from a surfeit of acronyms, mostly unnecessary. The author apologises for any gratuitous acronym usage that has unwittingly crept into the report.’

Sorry. If ‘every attempt’ had in fact been made there’d be no ‘gratuitous acronym usage’.

But it’s not all about despair and excuses. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra now runs an annual Acronym Free Day during which staff try to go for 24 hours without uttering a single acronym. Those who are caught out (probably most staff) pay a small fine to charity.

It’s a good start but much more can be done. Government departments are the refuge of chronic acronyms abusers. Why not make acronym reduction an element in the performance targets for all agencies? Bonuses should be based not only on making Australia and the world a better place but on acronym reduction. Annual Reports should list those acronyms which have been decommissioned.

It’s a mammoth task. It will need commitment and resources. Perhaps also a new government hotline to comfort those suffering acronym withdrawal syndrome, and to distribute free T-shirts.

 

 

 

Tony and Kevin Lie Together

tony and kevin‘The people of Australia elected me as Prime Minister’ Tony Abbott declared as the knives were sharpened after the LNP disaster in Queensland. Sorry Tony, the people didn’t. It’s the very same falsehood Kevin Rudd used. Like him, you’ll go on repeating it. But a lie repeated is just that.

Given the inability of our recent prime ministers to perform even simple mathematical tasks it’s no wonder the economy has problems.

In the 2013 general election 14,988,486 Australians voted. Tony Abbott received 54,388 of those votes. That’s a mere 0.36 per cent. How that can translate into some sort of national personal mandate beggars belief.

Abbott leads the party that won office, nothing more. That party can change leader as it wishes without damage to the nation or to the Australian Constitution. The latter, incidentally, makes no mention of the office of Prime Minister. No assassination would be involved, just as it wasn’t in the Rudd/Gillard era. The parroting of that deceit is a travesty.

Now gone from politics, Rudd fared even worse than Abbott in his ‘national’ appeal. In 2013 he received 34,878 first preference votes. So only 0.23 per cent of the much vaunted ‘Australian people’ actually chose him.

The next time Tony Abbott refers to his mystical bond with the people drop him a line. Clearly he needs reminding he’s nothing more than Mr 0.36 per cent.

Image: Kevin Rudd n Tony Abbott by scorpy-roy