NEAL CONAN, host:
Yesterday's incident in Baghdad reminds us that in some Arab cultures, striking someone with the sole of a shoe is a very ripe insult. The Iraqi journalist who flung his cordovans at President Bush also-called him a dog - not in a nice way. In other places, the insult might have included crude references to a mother or a sister, a body part, sexual position - well, you got the point. And not just shoes and names, various positions of hands and fingers carry messages, too. Winston Churchill's famous V-for-victory gesture is still recognized in England, but backwards it can get you in trouble there, as can a thumbs-up in Brazil. And there's the good old American single-finger salute. So, what role do insults play in your family, in your culture. And let us remind you this is a family show. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can join the very civil conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Human behavior columnist Shankar Vedantam wrote about the results - insults, rather, for the Washington Post and he joins us on the phone. Nice to have you with us again on Talk of the Nation.
Mr. SHANKAR VEDANTAM (Columnist, Washington Post): Thanks so much for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And decode the message in those shoes yesterday. The bottom of your shoe carries a great significance in Arab culture.
Mr. VEDANTAM: It certainly does. And I think this is true of insults in general, which is that they say a great deal about the culture of the person who's throwing the insult. So, in different places, insults carry different meanings because insults are based on one's culture and different cultures value and decry different things. And so in some cultures, insults tied to diseases carry far more stigma than an insult about body parts. In other places, insults about shoes and feet, you know, are the most potent insults of all.
CONAN: And, obviously, we remember those pictures when Saddam Hussein fell - the statues being pulled down and people beating them with their shoes - and I guess the person who caused all that to happen, President Bush, got the same treatment yesterday.
Mr. VEDANTAM: That's right. I mean, at one level, you know, if you're a podiatrist, you would find all of this very surprising because you would think that shoes and feet are wonderful things and you would hardly think they're the subject of insult. But in many Arab cultures, and in certainly many cultures around the world, shoes are held in low regard and feet are held in low regard. And in general, the value of the body, I guess, plummets the lower down you go and so, if the head is at the top of the totem pole, the feet are quite literally at the bottom.
CONAN: And you mentioned there's other things - that in some cultures, it's references to disease. And according to the research you cited in your piece, that tends to be in places like, for example, Northern Europe.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, it's - I think it differs country by country. The research that I think you're referring to was conducted by a psychologist in The Netherlands, who had a group of young men from Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. He posed a scenario to them. He said, what if somebody rudely knocked you off your feet and he turns toward you and sees that he's knocked you off your feet but he gives no sign that he's sorry and you really furious at the guy. What would you say to the man? And he essentially asked 192 young men from Spain, Germany and Netherlands to respond to that kind of situation.
And obviously the vast majority of them came up with fairly unprintable things that they would say in a situation like that. But what the psychologist was trying to find was whether there were patterns to the insults and he found that there actually were patterns to the insults, that in different countries different things matter, that among the Dutch, accusing someone of being infected with a disease was sort of the most potent thing. In other places, it was - it had to do with body parts and in other cases it had to do with other things. So, different countries tend to draw on different motifs in their insults, which is, of course, very interesting.
CONAN: That is interesting. Obviously, the message is very much the same, whether expressed with a middle finger or, you know, a ripe expression.
Mr. VEDANTAM: That's right.
CONAN: Nevertheless, the means of conveying that message varies from culture to culture.
Mr. VEDANTAM: That's right. So, the Spaniards apparently, you know, cared a great deal about animals and references to animals and family members and the Germans prefer to cite body parts and bodily functions in their insults. And so, it really tells us a great deal about what in different cultures pay attention to and what they value and what they do not value. And so, there's actually quite a robust stream of academic research into what insults can tell us about culture and how they provide us a really interesting window into how different cultures think.
CONAN: The interesting research, as well, into what I guess we would now call "trash-talking," how American males use insults in the athletic context.
Mr. VEDANTAM: That's right. And so, the two interesting things that you just - in response to what you just said, Neal - the first is that, you know, insults really - you know, the whole world of insults I think depends on the world of men. It's tied up with notions of masculinity. It's not that women don't insult one another, but if you took men out of the equation, you would have, you know, a world with far fewer insults being traded. And there's fairly good research that suggests that the more macho a place is, the more macho a country is, the more likely it is to trade in insults of all kinds. And sports present a particularly good place to sort of study this, as you just point out, which is that it's not only used to decry your opponents but insults are often used among your own team. I mean, you sort of insult your fellow team members and your friends and your neighbors and it's done in sort of a good-natured, humorous kind of fashion. And it's a way that men sometimes bond with one another, by figuring our whether they can insult one another and get away with it.
CONAN: Hmm. We're talking with Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post about insults. A couple of them were hurled at President Bush yesterday in Baghdad. He ducked them both. If you'd like to get in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's get Callie(ph) on the line. Callie calling us from Bellaire in Michigan.
CALLIE (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Callie. Go ahead, please.
CALLIE: Well, actually mine is about an insult that I gave unknowingly and - my boyfriend is English and the first time we went out and we went on a date and everything was going really great and I was leaving and I kind of gave him the peace sign. You know, see you later. And gave him, you know, the pointer finger and the middle finger in a peace. And he - I was just saying goodbye and he got this look of absolute hurt on his face and said, you know, in the cute little English way, you know, that's not necessary, I think that's really cruel and left. And you know, I went and talked to him about it later and we had this great this great conversation about, basically, what had become lost in translation, that, you know, where he's from it meant basically, you know…
CONAN: Yeah. We'll just leave it at that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: But nevertheless - did you give him the peace sign - the V sign - with the palm out or...
CALLIE: No with a - yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, the other way.
CALLIE: The other way. The very - the not OK Way in England.
CONAN: The not OK Way in England. And yeah, it's just interesting, Shankar Vedantam, a subtle change like that can mean everything.
Mr. VEDANTAM: It can. Neal, this is going to be a most interesting conversation because half the things people are not going to be able to say on the air here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VEDANTAM: But I think you're absolutely right. And what's striking is that most people, when they, when they trade in insults, they don't quite recognize that the rest of the world doesn't see insults the way that they do. In other words, we all believe that our insults, the insults that we're familiar with, are universal. But it turns out that, of course, they're not and anyone who's traveled abroad or encountered a situation that - such as the one that Callie just mentioned, finds out very quickly that the whole world has completely different languages when it comes to insults.
CONAN: Callie, we're glad you got that straight. So, you can fly to London any time now and be safe.
KELLY: All right, thank you very much.
CONAN: So, long. Appreciate that. Let's see, we go to Iman(ph). Iman's with us from San Antonio.
IMAN (Caller): Yes, hi. I'm just tired of hearing how throwing shoes at people is an insult in the Arab world or Arab culture. I mean, is it acceptable in American culture? Unfortunately, I'm not online now so I can't tell you exactly where I saw this, but I did see that in '05 an American protester threw his shoe at Richard Perle in protest of the Iraq war.
CONAN: It may - I'm not denying that it happened, Iman, but it's not common and it doesn't carry special meaning. It's - it could've been thrown - throwing a yoyo, doesn't mean anything different than that.
IMAN: Well, no...
CONAN: The throwing something is an insult but not necessarily a shoe.
IMAN: Well, I mean, it's - he threw a shoe at him in protest. It doesn't, you know, he didn't throw a flower at him. Obviously, to that American protester it had that meaning as well.
CONAN: No, I honestly...
IMAN: I think throwing shoes...
CONAN: I honestly think - well, Shankar Vedantam, does - it would be a first for me if shoes had special significance in American culture. I've never seen that.
Mr. VEDANTAM: Well, I think, obviously we live in a world where culture are increasingly interconnected and so, I mean, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if, you know, the idea that using a shoe or throwing a shoe at someone is - you know, might eventually one day become, you know, seen as an insult. But I think it's really fair to say that the shoe carries an entirely different meaning in many parts of the world and certainly doesn't carry the same meaning in the United States. I think when - for the Secret Service agents guarding President Bush, when someone throws a shoe at him, the first thing they are thinking about is assault. They're not thinking about insult.
CONAN: Yeah, felonious assault maybe, but not necessarily an insult.
Mr. VEDANTUM: Right, exactly. And so, you know - but whereas as in the rest of the world - I mean, the journalist didn't throw his pen at President Bush. It could have been a more effective, you know, projectile but it certainly wouldn't have carried the same meaning as an insult.
CONAN: Iman, thank...
IMAN: May I ask something?
CONAN: Yes, go ahead.
IMAN: Can I? Yeah.
CONAN: Go ahead.
IMAN: Well, I mean, I was just wondering, not that I would throw a shoe at you, Neal, I really like you. But if I did, how would you take it? Wouldn't you take it as an insult?
CONAN: It wouldn't be - well, I would take it as that you didn't like me, but - yes. But the shoe has no special meaning for me other than, you know, it's - I don't think it has the same meaning as it does in Arab culture. So, anyway, thanks very much…
IMAN: Thank you.
CONAN: …and please, you know - anyway, I'll duck.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Allen(ph), Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Bush almost got a shoe but he ducked. Bill Gates didn't duck and got a pie in the face. Please discuss food as an insult. And boy, I guess, Shankar Vedantam, that goes back to at least Vaudeville silent movies - pie in the face.
Mr. VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think that's right. I hadn't really quite thought of that. But it's true. I'm not sure how much the pie is seen as an insult, though, as much as it's seen as this really, you know, effective way to make someone, you know - just sort of humiliate them on the stage in sort of - really in, you know, in a very messy kind of fashion. I'm not sure if necessarily people look down on the pie in the way that, you know, some cultures would look down on the shoe. So, I think it's more of an effective, you know, means of assault in some ways in the United States than a means of insult. But I could be wrong on that.
CONAN: It's to make you look silly, right? Expressing silliness rather than rage perhaps.
Mr. VEDANTAM: Right, exactly. That's the sense that I have. I mean, I've seen various people sort of having pies thrown at them and, you know, we have, you know, at the end of successful, you know, football matches coaches have, you know, a whole, you know, bucket of Gatorade spilled on them but it's not really an insult, right?
CONAN: No, no, no. That's supposed to be an expression - the victory sign. Anyway.
Mr. VEDANTAM: Yeah, exactly. So, I don't think every sort of thing that's thrown at someone else can necessarily be an insult. And that's what makes it so interesting, because it's the symbolic content of what's done that actually carries the entire message. It's not the thing itself but what it means that carries the message.
CONAN: We're talking with Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post about insults around the world. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Dennis(ph), Dennis with us from Bend, Oregon.
DENNIS (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
DENNIS: Oh, I was listening on the conveying of messages and one of the understandings that I have on the way Americans use the use of the middle finger - it came back from when, I believe it was English and France were in the war and the longbow came into play. And actually, when the longbowmen were captured what they were doing was chopping off the middle finger, having that middle finger being used for pulling of the longbow. So, what it became was a - almost a message of insult but also to say, look, I've still got my middle finger.
CONAN: I'd actually heard that about the two fingers that the British use in that expression and it indeed goes back to the battles of Croises and Agincourt.
DENNIS: Yeah, it was quite awhile. So, I just wanted to throw that in as a side anecdote.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Dennis.
DENNIS: Thank you very much. Bye.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go now to Scott(ph). Scott in San Francisco.
SCOTT (Caller): Hi. Yes?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
SCOTT: Yes. I - with two comments. One, on that woman about the shoes - I think some women in this country would be pretty excited if you were throwing shoes to them, not so much at them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, Manolos maybe. Yeah.
SCOTT: Their love of the shoe. But when I was in Nepal, I was trekking and I found myself in this small village and was allowed into a certain temple that you have to be of a certain caste to be allowed into the temple. And one of the gentlemen outside didn't believe I was worthy and he was winking at me and I winked back like - you know, in America that's not a big deal but apparently that's quite a curse in the Nepalese culture, which I found out later. So, I was being cursed for not being in an appropriate caste area.
CONAN: I see. So, this was - and not something you actually, you know, got. You didn't understand it.
SCOTT: No. Not at all. You know, I could tell he was a little upset but you know, winking at somebody doesn't seem to hold as much weight in this country, unless you like someone. So, I thought it was interesting to see something so different in another culture.
SCOTT: To get used in (unintelligible).
CONAN: Well, we'll remember that, Scott, when we're going into temples in Nepal.
SCOTT: Yes. All right. Take care.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
SCOTT: Have a good day. Love your show.
CONAN: Thank you. The interesting part about these different kinds of gestures around the world - they all evolved separately, Shankar Vedantam. They have come up in this specific cultural context where, you know, if you're a stranger, well, that's impossible to understand, too.
Mr. VEDANTAM: That's right. And I think that's the - you've actually hit on something very interesting because in the couple of examples we've just had - you know, when you go to another culture and someone insults you, you have to actually have the insult explained to you. You don't quite know exactly what's happened. You don't realize that you've actually been insulted because you don't understand the cultural context.
What's common to, you know, the insult across the board is the idea of reputation. So, the reason insults carry weight is that they're basically a way to demean or reduce somebody else's reputation. And so, one of the insights that follows from this is that cultures where reputation matters a lot more are going to be cultures where the insult matters a lot more. And this is what we researchers have found - that in places that are especially tightly knit and traditional, where people's, you know, their wellbeing matters a great deal in terms of how they're seen, it terms of their social relationships, insults carry a lot more weight. And so, experiments have found that people in American South, for example, respond far more strongly to insults and in much more pained ways than people in the North, where if you insult someone, they're much more likely to say, well, who cares and go on with their day.
CONAN: Let's talk with Doug(ph), Doug with us from Milwaukee.
DOUG (Caller): Yeah, hi there. How you guys doing?
CONAN: All right.
DOUG: I had the opportunity to spend some time with some Australians recently, with working out - I traveled out west for a little while. And they had this theory that they called "taking the piss out of you" where, if you'd be down for a little while, you'd be down in a bad mood, they'd try and bring you right up and kind of cheer you up in a very friendly way. And an outsider quickly became friends with them. But any time you started getting a little ego, maybe a little above everyone else, they'd cut you right back down and bring you back to their level. So, just kind of an interesting way from the other side of the world brought here and relating cultures in between. And it's kind of a fun theory that I thought kind of related to what you guys were talking about before, at least between males and yeah…
CONAN: Yeah. All right, Doug. Thanks very much for the call.
DOUG: Yeah, thank you.
CONAN: We'll understand that next time we go Down Under. And Shankar Vedantum, thank you for your time today.
Mr. VEDANTAM: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Shankar Vedantam, a reporter and columnist with the Washington Post with us by phone. You can find a complete roundup of easily misunderstood gestures from around the world on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Tomorrow, Carrie Fisher, the actor and author, joins us to talk about her memoir "Wishful Drinking." Be sure to join us for that. Yeah, we don't have Princess Leia on the show very often. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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