Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bush's touching cultural faux pas

As an American teenager living in Germany for the first time back in the 1980s, one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with was the fact that Germans don't touch each other very much. Oh, sure, you touched your boyfriend or girlfriend, but mostly when you were alone. And apart from the handshakes that happened whenever you greeted an acquaintance, there was essentially no casual touch--no hello or goodbye hugs, no giving someone a cuff or a gentle poke in the arm to make a point, no laying a reassuring hand on the shoulder of an emotionally distraught friend. Among the worst faux pas I made as a fifteen-year-old exchange student was reaching out to touch the necklace of one of my teachers and telling her that I liked it. Touching a teacher--someone with stature--was one of the worst things I could have possibly done.

At first all this felt cold and distant, and I resented it. But eventually I had to realize that this was no fairer on my part than the Germans' charges of Americans' "superficiality" that resulted from similar kinds of misunderstandings. It was a different culture, and they simply had different ways of expressing universal human emotions. This is the sort of lesson any American in Germany has to learn: any business executive, any diplomat, and certainly any politician. Unfortunately, it seems to be a lesson President Bush has utterly failed to wrap his mind around, given the fact that he felt perfectly justified in coming up behind Chancellor Merkel and giving her a little massage during the G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

Taylor Marsh refers to the incident as "groping," and Germany's infamous Bild-Zeitung certainly did try to make it sound titillating. Given the Germans' tendency to reserve casual touch for intimates and the sub-tabloid's tendency to sensationalize, this is perhaps unsurprising. The headline reads "Bush: Love Attack on Merkel!" and the text of the article translates as follows:

This political love is proverbially gripping! The U.S. president George W. Bush at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. From behind he creeps impishly toward Chancellor Angela Merkel and surprises her with a quickie massage. You can see how the chancellor reacted to Bush's "love attack" here: Chancellor Angela Merkel was talking to Italy's prime minister Romano Prodi when George W. Bush came into the hall ... Merkel was having a conversation with her neighbour, without realizing the Bush was coming at her from behind ... suddenly the U.S. president laid both hands on Merkel's shoulders ... began his Texan one-second-massage ... the appalled chancellor winces and jerks her hands up, not knowing who grabbed her from behind ... and after the joke, President Bush heads for his conference table with an innocent air. Merkel sees the surprising love attack with a sense of humour, and smiles.
That's the Bild-Zeitung, though, and an editorial called "Alone among men" that appeared in the Berlin-area regional newspaper Märkische Allgemeine came much closer to nailing what really happened:
Although it was her first appearance there and although she was the only woman in the mega-macho-club of the G8, Merkel didn't let on at all that Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and the other alpha males might have even tried to take away what was rightfully hers. Only George W. Bush didn't quite get it. While his fellow leaders were sitting at the table at the opening meeting, he came and caressed Angie's shoulders. She reacted as if it had been a natural disaster.

Nothing like that would ever have happened to Vladimir Putin. As long as you don't approach him with questions of democracy and criticism of his neoimperialistic ambitions, he abides by a strict sense of etiquette.
Far from showing his great "love" for the chancellor, what this event really illustrates is Bush's appalling insensitivity to the fact that not everybody else's culture is just like his own. In Germany, this will be perceived not as a joke, but as a man showing a woman her place. Don't look so shocked, Mr. President--there are actually places in the world where you don't get to massage the shoulders of a woman (and a fellow world leader) whom you barely know. After six long years of hobnobbing with the international elite, I'd think you might have figured that out.

(Hat tip to Majikthise.)

Update 21 July: The Berlin-based daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel now has a column on the incident, as well as on the reaction back on Bush's side of the Atlantic:
It took a few days for the first shock to recede, for the Internet to finally fulfill its function as a trading post for pictures and to present Bush's assault in endless variety. "Bush gropes Merkel" is the catchphrase, though it's important to pronounce it the American way: "Mörkel." But was it a form of momentary sexual harrassment? Or was the President just behaving like a typical Texan uncle at a family barbecue?
Update 27 July: Willkommen, Spiegel-Leser. Eigentlich hätte ich gedacht, der Inhalt meines Beitrags wäre schon klar, aber offensichtlich zählt man automatisch zu denen, die das als sexuelle Belästigung aufgefasst haben, wenn man auf der anderen Seite des grossen Teichs steht! Als Erklärung dann also: glaube ich, Merkel hat Buschs "Blitz-Massage" als sexuelle Belästigung gesehen? Nee. Glaube ich, Merkel hat das als (wahrscheinlich unbeabsichtigtes) Zeichen davon gesehen, dass Bush sie als ein etwas minderwertiges Mitglied der G8 sieht? Das schon. Damit stehe ich eher an der Seite der Märkischen Allgemeine als an der Seite der amerikanischen Blogger (oder--um Gottes Willen--an der Seite der Bild-Zeitung, die das ganze offensichtlich ein wenig "versexen" wollte).

Aber noch wichtiger: ich sehe Bushs grossen Fehler hier nicht als den Fehler eines Frauenfeindes, sondern als den Fehler einer falsch behandelten Kulturkollision. Nach langer Auslandsaufenthalt kenne ich die deutsche Kultur sehr gut, aber ich kenne auch die texanische, und es ist schon wahr, dass jemand in Bushs Alter sich dort viel eher solche beiläufigen Berührungen erlaubt als in Deutschland. Peinlich ist es, dass der Mann, der vor seiner Präsidentschaft kaum im Ausland gewesen war und erst recht keine Fremdsprachen beherrscht, auch so unbeholfen mit den Sitten und Gebräuchen anderer Länder umgeht. Und das zu sagen war Sinn und Zweck dieses Beitrags.


Greg said...

That was really interesting. Thanks for that IP.

resigned idealist said...

I'm not from Germany and I don't see it as a joke either. Bush may have passed it off as a joke, but you will NEVER see Bush doing the same to Blair - who's supposed to be his buddy.

This was Bush saying to the other leaders, see what I dare to do and you all don't dare to.

Anonymous said...

Very good summary.

Just a tiny nitpick. :)
Being a German I´d say that today it´s a bit more relaxed. I see "casual touches" between close friends everyday. Even in public.
Likewise boyfriend-girlfriends are a lot more "affectionate" in public today.:)

But nobody would dream of acting that way during official events. Just isn´t done. Even her husband wouldn´t have touched her that way. It would show total disrespect for her official role and her job as chancellor. Her being "someone with stature". :)

I don´t think Merkel will say anything about it but she won´t forget it either.

alberich said...

Actually I've noticed something very interesting dealing with Germans in my own corner of the scientific field -- they are very non-touchy folk but on the other hand seem to have less of a concept of personal space than your typical American, who is not used to having someone stand so close to him without touching.

But is there a difference between the different regions of Germany? My experience is mainly with Germans from the southern parts of the country ... not Northeasterners like Merkel.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, I've lived in several parts of Germany (mostly in the north and east), and traveled extensively throughout the rest, and I'd say there's absolutely a regional difference.

watertiger said...

The same can be said for Bush's complete lack of cultural sensitivity when the Chinese delegation came to D.C. a couple of weeks ago. Bush practically mauled the President, who looked utterly appalled at the touching and yanking.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is a worse faux pas in Germany, but wouldn't it be a faux pas in North America too? I wouldn't dream of touching someone *that* way, unless we were very close, and in an official setting I would never act that way.

StealthBadger said...

Rawr! Verra nice!

Nancy said...

It's a way of putting women in their place in the USA too. It's not a 'German thing'.
Would any one dare 'massage' a female executive during a business meeting? They'd be liable for a lawsuit. It's too bad Merkel can't sue Bush.

I did not think that it was possible to detest this appalling man MORE than I do now. I don't have words to describe my utter disgust with his total unfitness to be a 'world leader'.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Would Bush have done this to Blair? No. Putin? No. Any other male leader anybody can think of? No. It's a way of saying, hey, I've got power and you've gotta deal with it, haha. Whatsa matta? Can't take a joke? Sheesh. Women. Always wanting their personal space to be, like, respected and stuff.

JG said...

This is appalling. Has Bush lost his mind? Did he ever have one? Sigh... just two more years... just two more years...

Anonymous said...

"The same can be said for Bush's complete lack of cultural sensitivity when the Chinese delegation came to D.C. a couple of weeks ago."

The Chinese have a very different standard for personal space and touching than westerners. They have no problem with touching people, bumping into them, getting right into their space, at least relative to other cultures.

This may differ in official meetings, but on a day to day basis, it's very much the case.

If anything, Bush is being aware of Chinese culture by touching and getting close.

I tend to think you're reading something into the situation that wasn't there.

Anonymous said...

IMHO Mr. Bush has bumbled his way thur his presidency and being labled as a groper is a new but unsurprising low even for him.

To the rest of the world Bush has given America a black eye that will take years for us to recover from. His "manhandling" of the German leader was downright moronic. How thick headed is this man? It's obivious and very sad that Bush is in desperate need of a caretaker.

Anonymous said...

"Bush may have passed it off as a joke, but you will NEVER see Bush doing the same to Blair - who's supposed to be his buddy." --

What kind of a guy would give another one a massage?

Mysticusque said...

OK, well I have worked in some offices where people who felt safe with each other might give each other a shoulder massage, but not in the middle of a high-level meeting.

And at an event like this, with the Chancellor of Germany, whew... I mean, for instance, I have no problem with the nudism the Austrians like to practice in the park on Saturdays, but if the Austrian Chancellor stripped everything off at a high-level meeting like this, I would wonder if he had lost his mind. Same with the casual massaging of a fellow world leader, between the leaders of two of the world's most powerful countries. OK in some contexts, not in another. Bad idea for a photo-op.

Anonymous said...

What makes this an absolute pisser (bracketing off for the moment the very weird assertion-of-power-over-women aspect) is that Bush doesn't behave as if anything important or momentous or in any way worthwhile could happen at these meetings. He's a class clown, and government functions are "class" -- something to be gotten out of the way, at best a way to fill time until the next party, parties being the really important things.[1]

The consolation that "serious students," or those students who if not serious are at least seriously interested in thinking about first derivatives or electron shells or *cough* the Great Gatsby, the consolation that they generally take is that, despite how the class clowns might be popular or cool or whatever now, they won't be later -- that the "real world" is serious business, and that the people who take things seriously will be on top once everyone's out in it. That's really not the case, though. Half the time the class clowns will have rich parents from whom they'll inherit their family business -- a car lot, a factory, a political machine -- and the people who are actually interested in reality, things aside from getting smashed and smashing things, are embarrassed to find themselves subordinate to them.

If one is born into power, one finds that the world never really becomes "serious" and so concomitantly they themselves never have to take anything seriously. I'm honestly not sure if the world leaders who've had Bush's presence inflicted upon them view his behavior as dangerous and stupid, or just embarrassing. I'm not sure if they don't think that the world is theirs to smash (after all, smashing things without consequence is fun). Bush behaves as if the powerful of the world are members of a chummy little club, that they fundamentally "get along" and that affairs of state are at core simply tedious window-dressing. Is Blair, for example, ashamed that he's forced to deal with this child-man who views the world as a toy, or is he simply embarrassed that Bush is acting like this in public?

[1]: "I thought you were gonna ask me about the pig."

Anonymous said...

What is the big deal about that?
All you people judging his actions have no right to judge his moral or actions.
Bush is much more responsible that many previus us presidents and bitching European politicians that has let the situation come to this point. History will prove that he is doing the right thing.
Europe is an old BITCH.

Anonymous said...

American culture isn't that touchy-feely. I'm an American girl and it creeps the hell out of me whenever unfamiliar boys try to do that to me. Bush's nationality or his ignorance of other cultures does not excuse him for this incident at all. Even by American standards, that was blatant sexual harrassment. He is a lying mass murderer, and he brings shame on our country.

Anonymous said...

First -- I wanted to say that I just 'discovered this site and that I was glad to find the comments of all here regarding the "Bush/Touching" matter to be very thoughtful -- Something I am have found is not always the case else where here on line. Thank you for a very good discussion.
Now to added my "two cents" I believe that Bush's actions here -- only goes to prove a greater (and sadder) over riding thing -- He (and for the most part -- his people) do not understand -- nor have any desire to -- the cultural, social or mind-set of any other peoples (this is true both around the world and within the USA). Bush just does not "get it". GW was born and raised in a "bubble" and has no idea of real life or how his actions effect others. The thing is he might have actually thought he was being " a nice guy" when he touched this woman -- but that only goes to prove my point-- mores the pity. Afterall -- being "enlightened" is a bad thing for people like him.

Anonymous said...

the man is disgusting... what do you expect from somebody who'd never been outside of Texas...
The groping is a way to humiliate and put somebody else on the defensive by not respecting their boundaries. It shows Bush's low self-esteem as he's always trying to bring people down to his level, in his gutter... he's been doing this since the beginning of his presidency... another way he does this, is by giving people derogatory nick-names... Bush is the perfect example of the Peter principle...

Mysticusque said...

He's a class clown, and government functions are "class" -- something to be gotten out of the way, at best a way to fill time until the next party, parties being the really important things.

I buy this. Acts like this from W are, above all, a way of shrugging off the discipline and strict rules that serious functions dictate. A little informality is good, and even American, but if he's so antsy over having to behave with dignity in a public setting that he needs to act out, one wonders how much he's actually focusing on the important questions they're there to discuss! ???

Anonymous said...

Living in Germany as an American expat, I regularly get to "witness" via the media the bull that Angela Merkel has to put up with from her male political "colleagues". I may not agree with her political views, but I have to admire the levelheadedness with which she usually deals with this kind of disrespectfulness. I guess her rising through the ranks as a chemical and physical scientist as well as a politician has given her enough experience (read "thick skin") in dealing with men who can't cope with a woman being in an equal or superior position. The peeved expression after Bush's childish "attack" is certainly one that Germans have seen quite often ... As for this specific "Bushwhack" - too stupid for words, but not surprising, although I'm sure he wouldn't have tried it on "one of the guys". And that brings me to my fantasy: Imagine the next president of France, ex-football star Zinedine Zidane, on a state visit and ol' George just not being able to resist rubbing that pate - Et voila! Giorgio Busherazzi laid out on the White House Lawn!!!!! Vive Zizou!

Anonymous said...

Yes, that "groper" Bush is a real cad. If only he had exposed his erection to her, as Bill Clinton did to Paula Jones, or if he had raped Juanita Broaddrick, as Clinton did, or put her hand on his erection, as Clinton did Kathleen Willey, or gotten oral sex from her, as Clinton did from an intern barely older than his own daughter, then Bush would have been classified as an "Alpha Male" as Leftists so hypocritically called Clinton but not Clarence Thomas...

Anonymous said...

Being from Germany, I can't see what the Fuss is all about.

Yes, it was unsuitable, but I don't agree the reception in Germany is worse than it is in the US, as Germany has a different, more pragmatical understanding of political correctness.

Trying to pass that little thing as sexual harassment would get you a mild chuckle from most Germans, because quite frankly, it isn't.

Saskboy said...

I would share my photoshop of the event, but blogger doesn't let images be posted in comments, so here's the link instead:

Anonymous said...

In response to a number of posts ...


you might be from Germany, but obviously you are one of those males (not only to be found in Germany) who just doesn't see "what the fuzz is all about" when a woman's rights are infringed upon. Probably any person's other than straight males. Get some clues. If you know where to find them.


you had me nearly bend over laughing at that imagine. I hopeit happens, and if it does, I'll make sure the video / DVD of it goes into time capsels coverning thenext ten millenia. :P

To the person who posted the uninformed comment that it is okay to touch Chinese people "because they bump into each other" all the time anyway:

What you are missing - or deliberately ignoring, in an attempt to defend the clueless lifeform currently occuping theWHite House - is the difference between Public Space and Private Space in social settings.

In China, as well as any number of other Asian countries - including Japan,where I reside - the sheer number of people crammed into relatively small spaces, including street crossings, subway and other trains, any place where you haveto line up, makesit virtually impossible NOT to touch anyone else by accident.

However, even in circumstances like that, there is a difference between an unavoidable casual touch and a targeted one.

Even more so, possibly BECAUSE of theunavoidable intrusion into private space in public places, there are extremely strong restrictions in place in regards to casual touching in private places, which includes meetings, conferences and such. Actually, excempting subway stations, anything roofed. Try to touch a person not related to you in any such setting, regardless whether male or female, same or opposite gender, and you'll meet utter disapproval.

Just for clarification, since sadly, the current White House occupant doesn'tcare one way or other anyway.

Anonymous said...

First off, applause for your answer about the East Asian definition of private space, someone really needed to say that. ^.^
If Bush had that common sense to differentiate between proper behaviour shown to strangers, friends and to people on official functions, he wouldn't be in trouble now, regardless of what he knows of other cultures.
That said, I still think the debate in America is overblown. I mean, his behaviour only shows that Bush is an idiot with no manners - that shouldn't surprise anyone who hasn't spent the last 6 years under a rock.
I also think the whole feminist/sexual harrassment discussion is beside the point: it's true, Bush wouldn't have done this to a man - because that is not a gesture common between men, friends or not. It doesn't necessarily have to mean he was 'showing her her place'. More likely it was a clumsy attempt to chum up to her (not that a shoulder massage can't be used to degrade or to sexually harrass a woman, of course).
But it’s sad that the Americans, after all the horrible things Bush has done, are more concerned with having a heated discussion about whether or not a brief shoulder massage is sexual harrassment. Shows how desperate his opponents must be if that’s their new anti-Bush campaign.
Lara Hallmann

Anonymous said...

America, you voted him! Suck it up. Enjoy the shame. Funny, some people still do not get it! It is not dignified for a head of state to do this same with his own wife in public or within sight of a camera. This is true anywhere in the world. Persons of stature do not do PDA except in very formulaic ways.

Unionsbuerger said...

Mrs Merkel loves America so much, that she is dividing Europe on the question of Agression of Israel against Lebanon.