Initiating Conversations with a Spoiled Identity: The dissonance of language use and race in Germany and Thailand

I taught Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity in Germany last month. One of the things that came up was how students are culturally and linguistically German (i.e. German is their first language) but racially “different” manage their identity as a non-white. In other words, they deal with the dissonance between a linguistic and cultural identity, in the context of racial beliefs about what it means to be German.  They do this in the many conversations initiated with strangers. In Goffman’s description, such a person who does not meet cultural expectations has a “spoiled” identity which is “discredited” because they cannot avoid presenting it. In this case, the expectation is that a German speaker has white skin—conditions my German students could not exercise in a Germany which has received waves of immigration since 1989..

As a management strategy, both students admitted to generally intiating conversations with a German accented “hallo” to signal that their preferred language is German. This signal helps push the dissonance away from fears of potential conversation partners that they will need to deal with a non-German speaker.

Now that I’m in Thailand, I find myself using the same trick—going up to a cashier, waiter, or other stranger who might be terrified because they think an embarrassing linguistic situation  (i.e. English) is approaching, To manage the situation, I assert a very confident “sawasdee krub” to signal that I speak Thai despite my discredited identity as a white, and that they do not need to speak English with me. In other words, I am also managing an identity that is “spoiled” relative to the vast majority of people who are Asian looking.  The identity I have with Thai strangers is assumed to be English speaking tourist. As with my students in Germany, this habit of initiating conversations is a sub-conscious pattern which I developed after 3-4 years in Thailand. But indeed, this is a way of stigma management when the dissonance of race and language preference do not match.

In contrast, when speaking German, I avoid initiating conversation, because there is a way to hide behind my race. As long as I keep quiet, and use signals in everyday transaction, I can get by quite well in a German environment, and never raise the anxiety levels of cashiers, wait staff, or others that I come in contact with. My stigma is only, in Goffman’s words, discreditable, not discredited, as it is for my students in Germany, and me in Thailand.


Goffman, Erving (1963/1986) Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. Touchstone Books.

Cooling Out the Adjunct Pool

Last week, I wrote about how “graduate students” are “cooled out” of PhD. programs in something of a pyramid scheme, i.e. how 60-70% of the students who are admitted eventually drop out of the program, while blaming their “failure” on themselves, and not the larger system.

August is the month in the United States where many adjunct faculty are being told “I’m sorry we don’t have any classes for you,” for reasons beyond the control of the Chair, Dean, or other administrator in charge of hiring. The system is blamed, not the the actual human beings who designed it.  But of course, these administrators encourage the rejected adjuncts to leave their applications in the pool for next semester so that, well, they will continue to be able to play adjuncts off against each other. They do this while hiding behind the anonymity of “confidentiality,” a process designed to protect the institution, as much as the privacy of the rejected applicants. Imagine how many lawsuits there would be if people could transparently compare their records to the people actually hired? There would be heat and fury, rather than “cooling out.”

What are some of the “cooling out” stories you’ve heard? What are some of the cooling out stories you have heard spun to rejected adjuncts? Here are a few that I’m aware of:

–It was an unusually competitive pool, even though you were great

–It is not my fault, the administrator higher than me just told me to cut the budget

And then the most common cooling out move which is to “ignore the applicant” and hope they will go away. This is probably the most common move—and it often works. If you just ignore them, they tend to assume that it was something inherent to their application—because after all, the system is infallible!

So have you ever been cooled out? Please tell your story below!

Why Do I speak German like a Hollander, and Thai so Clearly?

I have been in Thailand a week now, and have had plenty of chances to speak Thai, often because I have to explain about how my daughter broker her back last week. I speak Thai as a result of my Peace Corps and after experience in Thailand in 1980-1983, and some brush-up tutoring a couple of years ago. Anyway, I find that I speak Thai with a great deal of confidence after all these years—and why shouldn’t I? Almost every Thai I meet praises me for speaking such “clear” Thai. I’m not sure how clear my Thai really is, but it seems to work, and get this bit of praise for me, and implied contempt for all the other foreigner who try to speak Thai. This of course does wonders for my ego, and I float around town looking for chances to meet praise.

Up until last week though, I was in Germany. I married a German in 1987, and speak passable German. My comprehension of German and Thai is about the same—meaning I pretty much understand what is going on a round me in day-to-day conversations. But never ever have I been told I speak German clearly! Rather, as was kindly explained by my sister-in-law, I speak German not like a professor, but like someone who “works at McDonald’s,” meaning a Middle Eastern or Eastern European immigrant who struggles with German pronunciation, grammar, and sentence order, just like I do. On a good day, I am asked “Are you a Hollander” which is a step above McDonald’s but below the many regional dialects of Germany, including Bavarian. Specifically, I assign noun cases (masculine/feminine/neutuer/nominative/dative/accusative/genitive/plural/singular) in a fairly random fashion.

Broken Femurs and Cracked Backs: An Ethnography of Thai Motorcycle Safety


We arrived in Thailand last Thursday to visit our daughter Kirsten who teaches English in a Thai school. Within a half hour of arrival we were informed that she had just had an accident. She was driving her scooter near a Thai market in the small city of Phrae, when a “white car” backed out in front of her. She hit the brakes, skidded out, and fell into an on-coming truck whose wheels gave her back a big whack. At about the same time, the people picking us up at the airport sent her a text saying we had arrived successfully at an airport in the next province. She texted a “thumbs up” back to them from the back of the ambulance indicating that she was pleased we had arrived safely. She didn’t think that a brief text about a motorcycle accident was appropriate in such a circumstance—thus the thumbs up.

At this point she began her ethnographic participant investigation of the Thai insurance, medical, and legal system. More about the ethnography of this situation in a minute!

But first a word from our sponsor: Motorcycle Safety.

Motorcycle Safety I: Artificial Femurs in Tanzania

     Motorcycles are really dangerous. But they are also ubiquitous in the middle income countries like Thailand where people have enough money for a motorcycle, want to send their kids across to town for school, don’t like to walk, and car ownership is not affordable.

    Which brings up a trip to the operating theater I made last April when visiting Tanzania, a country poorer than Thailand, but which has also had a boom in motorcycle purchases as the economy has improved. The director of the Tanzanian hospital took us on a tour of the facility. It was a large facility in a rural area of Kilimanjaro Region on a dirt road. But they were able to do many things, including delivering lots of babies (we visited the new-born ward), treat topical diseases  and the other things a rural hospital on the sides of Mount Kilimanjaro needed to do.  They even had a college where nurses and medical aides are trained. At one point, our tour guide asked if we wanted to see the operating room. Sure why not? I’ve seen a couple of operating rooms before on t.v. and even occasionally in person—it is a table with lots of cool machines and lighting.

     So he took us to the operating room. But he didn’t take us in the actual room itself, because it was being used at the moment. So he invited us to have a look at the viewing window (this is a teaching hospital after all). And there we watched a surgeon operate on a broken leg. We could only see the leg—the rest of the patient, who was sedated with a spinal block, was covered All I could see was disembodied leg. But into this banged-up leg the doctor had inserted a manual “screwdriver” (actually a brace and bit), with which he was carefully screwing something into a bone via a hole in the leg. This wasn’t like the type of operation I’ve seen on t.v. where there are bright lights beeping machines, and fancy machines. Just a very focused surgeon with scalpels and screwdrivers. No whirring machines either. A bit more than what we had bargained for on our “tour!”

        Next stop was the storeroom, where we were shown the collection of metal femurs they kept there—i.e. a metal rod which includes a hip joint, and a  “For motorcycle accidents” it was explained. They had several sizes in the store, in anticipation of the motorcycle accidents that are increasing in number as the Tanzanian economy develops and people buy motorcycles. Indeed, in every Tanzanian town there is a new industry going back less than ten years—the motorcycle taxi service (buda buda in Swahili). Young men hiring out the back seat of their motorcycles to passengers. And such motorcycles were the raison d’être for the store of metal femurs kept there. The hospital was anticipating motorcycle accidents—and broken femurs.

Back to the Thai Hospital

Now back to Kirsten, who was hit by the truck here in Thailand. She had finished teaching her English evening class, and was riding to the market to meet her friend for dinner when the white car backed out of the parking place in front of her. She hit the brakes, and skidded out, tumbling into the on-coming traffic. The fall was not too bad as she was going slowly. But when she looked up, she saw a truck coming toward her head. As a reflex, she apparently went into a fetal position, so that the truck hit her on her back. Pow! Or ouch!  The next thing she knew she was thinking about whether her toes and fingers would still move.  Taking a gulp she wiggled them–the did!

The truck had Thai university students on the back who screamed. Other people started running toward the accident, and nervous laughter began—who would talk to the farang lying on the ground? Others took photos. Someone called the ambulance. Kirsten found an English-speaking Thai woman, and asked her to find her friend in the market a few hundred feet away. The Thai asked if she could borrow her motorcycle, and Kirsten, lying on the ground, told her it was ok The woman returned in a few minutes later with my daughter’s farang friend. An ambulance came too, and loaded my daughter onto the gurney. The friend was told to slowly and carefully follow the ambulance to the hospital. But of course the ambulance went quickly to the hospital, causing the friend to drive—quickly.

At the Emergency Room, Kirsten was x-rayed, and a quick diagnosis made that Kirsten was o.k.—she was sore from muscle bruises and cracks in in three lumbar vertebra (the pointy part of the vertebra, not the actual spinal column itself).  Fortunately there was not damage to the spinal column itself, which is why she could still wiggle her toes.. Because Kirsten has Thai accident insurance, she was quickly x-rayed and placed in a single room to spend the night—the hospital knew they were getting paid. The doctor finally arrived, and reported that the x-ray of the spine was normal, and that she could be discharged. Kirsten, explained though that she could not walk, much less climb the four floors to her apartment. Told this, the doctor changed his recommendation—she would need to spend the night in the hospital, and see the orthopedist.

The orthopedist came by the next day, and took another look at the x-rays. It seemed that that the truck tire had broken and/or cracked three of the spurs on Kirsten’s lumbar, which explained well why she was having so much pain while walking. However, no surgery would be necessary. New prescription? More pain meds, a week of taking it really slow, and a corset for a month. Oh, and she should have been wearing a motorcycle helmet, too.

Motorcycle Safety II: Motorcycle Culture in Phrae, Thailand

Up to 26,000 people are killed in road accidents every year in Thailand, which puts the country in the 6th spot in terms of road casualties. Of those killed, up to 70 or 80 per cent are motorcyclists or their passengers. Source

Kirsten is part of a large group of American and European young people teaching English in Thailand. Besides having a lot of motorcycles, Thailand also has a great thirst for English education, and is willing to hire twenty-something foreigners (farangs) like Kirsten to come teach in primary and secondary schools. Many of the people taking these jobs are thirsting for adventure. Adventures in Thailand naturally include motorcycles, which cost only about $40 per month to rent, and make mobility possibility possible, as they do for the streets full of Thai motorcyclists.. The rentals come with insurance for the bike to protect the owner, but not for the medical costs to protect the renter—accident insurance costs Kirsten another $30 per month, and covers medical expenses, and loss of income in the event of an accident. What they don’t come with is motorcycle training, experience driving on the left side of the road, or what appear to foreigners to be chaotic Thai driving culture. The result? Every one of Kirsten’s foreign English teacher-friends had fallen off their bikes, often during the first weeks on the road with a range of bruises and “road rash” the result.

     What is this Thai driving culture? Children start riding as passengers at birth, and start standing/sitting on them by age two. They begin driving motrocycles themselves as teenagers, and will drive their motorcycle to high school. Most college students have their own motorcycles, as do many high school students.  They usually drive on the left side of the road, but not always, especially if there is not a convenient place to turn right to a destination.

      Roads in northern Thailand are designed for an earlier age which involved foot traffic, slow ox-carts, cattle, water buffaloes, and elephants as recently as 30 year ago. Even city roads are often windy, narrow, and parking practices are irregular–line of sight is often block. Street vendors are an attraction of Thailand, but they also obstruct view since they are often literally in the street. Finally, there of course is a close relationship between drinking and accidents in Thailand, as elsewhere. Thailand has its own brands of whiskey and beer which are drunk in both moderation and excess. 

     Motorcycles helmets are required in Thailand at least since 1996, but the law is often ignored, despite police checkpoints. Kirsten has been stopped several times at the police checkpoints, and always had a helmet with her, though not necessarily on her head, so no ticket. But she always wears a helmet when going to her school as an example to her students, while complaining that to wear a helmet she has to take her hair down, which is hot in the tropical weather, so sometimes she carries it attached to the helmet carrier. Anyway she was not wearing her helmet at the time of her evening accident.

       Kirsten is not unusual in Thailand either,.  last year, just 43 per cent of motorcyclists and their passengers nationwide wore helmets, down from 46 per cent a year earlier. Source.  The informal rule in Phrae is that the helmets are worn during the day when the police are activity—and focused particularly on the time that the schools begin, and are dismissed. The motorcycle traffic of the high school students is heaviest at this time—and they do receive tickets if they do not have a helmet.

Conclusion: Kirsten’s Hospital Bills

So what has happened to Kirsten? She spent two nights in the hospital, and thankfully does not have to take advantage of the screwdrivers, nuts, bolts, artificial femurs, and so forth which I hope that the Phrae surgeons have to fix the many motorcycle accidents of Phrae. The corset holds in place the three lumbar vertabra that were cracked/damaged by the truck’s wheel against her back, and which makes walking painful. She does not require surgery—just a slow and awkward recovery period so that the bones can knit back together while being protected by the corset. Her biggest regret I think, is that she cannot get back to her first graders too soon, as they have the habit of affectionately jumping on her unexpectedly. She expects to return more quickly to her older students who do not do this.

For this she spent three nights in the hospital for which her insurance policy will pay compensation to her of about $30 per day. Because she was paying the accident insurance, her total out of pocket co-pays came to about $75. The biggest item was her corset, which was billed to her at $33. The bill I saw from the second hospital where she spent two knights, had visits from two doctors, an x-ray, and painkillers had a total bill of about $250, most of which was billed directly to the insurance company.

Kirsten was also interviewed by the police who had a finding of “no fault” for the three drivers involved in the accident, a conclusion that she has no quarrel with. As for the photos taken of her lying in the street, we have not seen them, and they have presumably been posted to Facebook, but  not by anybody who tagged her–so we have not seen them.

Overall Conclusion: The Value of Ethnography Itself?

So what is the overall conclusion of this blog? Well, motorcycles are dangerous! You should also come visit a place like Thailand, to visit, study, travel, or any other reason. The people do things differently than they do in Europe or North America, but there is also a richness and kindness evident in every day interactions.

But you probably already knew that motorcycles are dangerous, and Thailand is a great destination–so why read this far?  Of course motorcycles in Thailand are dangerous, but also necessary in every day life for the vast majority, including faring teachers, who cannot own cars. And if you are new to Thailand, remember you probably have not been standing on these beasts since you were two years old, driving since your were thirteen, nor have the experience of multiple accidents and fatalities among your friends and age mates. Which means, learn to ride motorcycles slowly, be aware of your environment, always wear a helmet, and always remember first Kirsten, and then surgeon with the screwdrivers I saw in Tanzania.

Not much of a conclusion, really, but does ethnography really have to always have conclusions? Or safety sermons? After all, ethnography is also about telling stories—which I think is the real point of this blog after all. Tell stories because they are interesting, engaging, and important. Or perhaps to just say “thank you” to a type of world which his different than your own.

Leaving Germany Again: Something about Bildung, Auschwitz, and Dresden

I’m leaving Germany after a two month long teaching gig at Leuphana University in Lueneburg, which is near Hamburg. Again I was impressed with the version of a university education that is being developed there—it values learning and investigation.

Here is a blog I wrote about German Bildung, the philosophy of education, two years ago:

As a going away blogs, I’m also leaving you with two of my favorite Germany blogs, both having to do with Germany during World War II. The first was written last month after I attended the war crimes trial of Oskar Gröning in June 2015. Gröning is the “The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.” He is on trial as an accessory to 300,000 people in Auschwitz in 1942-44 I the summer of 2015 in Lueneburg where I was teaching.

The other was written in 2007, after I met a man on a German train who told me his childhood memories of the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden.  He watched the same bombing that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “documented in Slaughterhouse 5.  .

“Cooling Out” the Victims of the Grad School Pyramid System

     Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers. Jeff Schmidt. Disciplined Minds (Kindle Locations 3045-3047).


One of the best parts of Jeff Schmidt’s analysis of graduate school he borrows from Erving Goffman who in 1951 published an article about con men, and how they get their mark to go away by blaming themselves. What happens is this. A con man gets a mark to make a “pretend” bet on a fixed card game. The mark agrees, only because it is “just for fun,” and puts down $60. A group watches. The mark of course loses the “pretend bet” at which point the con man says that he has now won the $60. Someone in the audience agrees that the con man has won fair and square. A heated argument ensues with the observers, and the con man finally agrees to return $20, which those in the crowd agree is fair. The mark walks away $40 poorer, and perhaps even feels a bit of triumph at getting $20 back. Most importantly he does not even consider going to the police, because he has been “cooled out” by the process of he con. The con man and his confederates from the crowd of course split the $40.

But Schmidt is not writing about card games, he is writing about graduate school in general, and the qualifying exam in particular. He is looking at PhD programs which graduate 30 or 40 students for every 100 students admitted to the program, and asking how it is that the system gets those 60 or 70 to leave quietly, blaming themselves for their own personal “failure.” “I was just not meant to be a sociologist or anthropologist they tell themselves, and their family.” But is it really a personal failure when a 60-7)5 failure rate is engineered into a system?

So what does “cooling out” have to do with PhD. programs? Schmidt says the qualifying exam system works the same way as the con game, and solves the problem of too many disgruntled “marks” walking away blaming the system. The grad school con game is conducted, Schmidt says, at the level of the qualifying exam, a year or two into most PhD programs. The exam is a torture administered across several days, in which you write, and write, and write what you think an anonymous committee of professors wants you to write. Notably, you don’t write what you want to write about your discipline, or propose new solutions to old problems. Rather you try to tell the committee what they want to hear; the implicit question is, is the candidate aligned with what has happened in the department/discipline before, and are they ready to support that status quo. The exam is then “graded,” which means you pass or you don’t, without any explanation—it is all secret. In other words the qualifying examination is the ultimate expression of power, where those who have the power judge you the graduate student without external accountability. It is strictly thumbs up or down. Schmidt actually was able to penetrate one of the committees “grading” the tests, and found out that there was indeed favoritism played in how the exams were scored—personal relationships mattered as what was written. To keep the recipients quiet, and the pyramid scheme going, PhD programs issue a “terminal Master’s degree” for your troubles, after having derailed the student from the golden track to a doctorate.

…the colleges have become one of the pyramidal system’s main tools for cooling out people’s “unrealistic” career ambitions. They do it on a massive scale, yet by necessity conceal the fact that that is what they are doing. (Kindle Location 3053)

In other words, it is the “cooling out” that the con men pulled on their mark. Schmidt argues that cooling out is a built in part of the broader education system. Indeed, Schmidt’s best example is not of grad school, but the community college system which peddles the false consciousness of a “transfer” plan to a four year BA degree, a transfer which only a very low percentage will actually ever make—most estimates are in the 10-15% range.

The process of cooling out students’ high educational and career expectations begins, of course, long before college. Grades from high school teachers and advice from counselors have an effect, but it is easy to base your hopes and plans on the thought that these people are underestimating you. Their reactions to you have always been very subjective, after all, and so perhaps their professional assessments, too, contain errors of judgment due to misimpressions, personality conflicts, personal prejudices and so on. But then comes the big aptitude test, and a few weeks later when you open the envelope and look at your scores you feel like you really are looking at a true picture of yourself. SAT and ACT scores have a powerful impact on the self-images of students, and those whose self-images are hit hard lower their expectations. They may not even apply to the colleges that they most want to attend.  Kindle Locations 3055-3060).


In other words, the system of education is a selection system that relies on “cooling out,” just like in the con game. It is hidden behind ideology, and an acquiescence by the powerless students. It patterns itself by class, race, gender, and other taken-for-granted assumptions about the excellence of the pre-existing system. Or, as Julie Withers told me, the metaphor I often heard growing up “the cream rises to the top,” is also about color—it’s indeed the white stuff that seemingly effortlessly and justly rises to the top! Funny how such ideologies do indeed work for getting the losers in the game to question themselves, rather than the overall fairness of the stratification system.

“Cooling out” after grad school, means that the system expects the victim to go quietly into the night, blaming themselves rather than a system designed to foil the expectations of the majority of the people it holds promises to. After all the qualifying exam, admissions process, etc., is “objective,” just like the SAT. The anonymous SAT does not reflect values of the test-makers, so why would the qualifying exams of grad school? Except of course this is not true. Tests inherently reflect the values of the status quo, and the need to reproduce the status quo which the existing system always wants to protect, especially against the potential usurpers making their way up through graduate school.

In other words, it is the same phenomenon used by the con man who cheated the mark out of $40. The system wears you down—you can take only so much insult, low grades, anonymous brick-brats, and criticism before admitting that maybe “they” are right. Maybe I am just not “up to snuff,” and the brown-nosers to your right and to your left are really just smarter than you.

Which brings me to what is Schmidt’s sardonic and perhaps unintended conclusion: Brown-nosing really works!


Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. Kindle Edition

Goffman, Erving “On Cooling the Mark Out,” Psychiatry, vol. 15, no. 4 (November 1952), pp. 451-463.


How are the Minds of PhD Students “Disciplined” by Graduate School?

Thinking about getting a PhD? Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt is the book to read. Already getting a PhD, ditto. Already have a PhD?   You should also read this book, even though it was published way back in 2000, and relies on data from the 1980s and 1990s. It applies to today as well—little has changed. What is more, it gives an insight not only to how graduate schools seeks to shape and discipline a conservative cadre of future professors, the principles can also be applied to the pursuit of tenure for people who have made it that far. Academic winnowing works the same way at the graduate school, tenure track level, and for that matter for adjunct hiring as well. All should read Schmidt’s book as a warning about the nature of “professional socialization.” Hint: It’s not about critical thinking and high quality independent academics.

Disciplined Minds is specifically about how PhD programs select for scientists (and others) who are disciplined to the pre-existing norms of the disciplines. The pinnacle of academic achievement he writes is not about how good the students is, or how smart, but how disciplined to reproducing the the previous group of academics. Academia does it by administering a system which selects conservative people willing to reproduce the status quo. This is done through a series of examinations, particularly the “qualifying exams” that are designed to select for people who

….have an intuitive feeling for the values, attitude, outlook and approach that the tests favor-they have internalized the spirit of the tests.

(Kindle Locations 2937-2938).

Values, attitude, outlook and approach are what is sought in graduate school admissions tests like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT and for PhD students the equivalent is the qualifying exams. And what the examiners are looking for are students who have internalized the spirit of the department and the discipline. Notably, this is different than getting general smartness, brilliance, or teaching well.

When the issue is how “good” the student is, there is no criticism of what the examiners are looking for and nothing is exposed about the true nature of the field that the selection system functions to reproduce. (Kindle Locations 1911-1913).

What the tests seek is to replicate pre-existing power relations, meaning graduate school is conservative in its very nature—it seeks to reproduce the examiners, even when the examiners are left-wing professors voting urging change for other people’s institution.

Generally speaking, the greater the power, whether corporate or state or even oppositional, the more eager professionals are to subordinate themselves to it. (Kindle Locations 3208-3209).

In the case of the physics PhD education Schmidt put himself through, they are seeking students willing to subordinate themselves to the funders of Physics experiments, which are the people in the US Defense Department and industry who fund grants to professors and universities.

When the professional leaves unchallenged the moral authority of his employer to dictate the political content of his work, he surrenders his social existence, his control over the mark he makes on the world. (Kindle Locations 3222-3223).

Lest Sociologists and Anthropologists think they are immune to such pressures, I would urge them to look carefully at the funding decisions that underpin administrative decisions to fund new positions as Assistant Professors and graduate students.

Schmidt’s book obviously made a big impression on me. I urge you to read it! I will also be posting now and then about other parts of Schmidt’s argument soon.