First of all, thank you to all the people commenting on our brand new blog. Much easier to write when you know there is an audience. Thanks, obviously, to those who have agreed with us and have said nice things. Perhaps TOO nice in some cases. But thanks also to the start of some debate. Very interesting (and I mean that...) to get an American perspective on the Barack Obama posting.
Plenty of stories with a cross-cultural angle in the press at the moment – like Tata, the Indian company, taking over Land Rover and Jaguar. Of course, Tata is – at least at senior level – almost more British than the British. The Indians have a name for the sort of patrician, Oxbridge-educated, leaders in the large traditional Indian conglomerates. They call them the 'brown sahibs'. And then there was that story about the number of Muslim worshippers in the UK taking over the number of Christian regular church-goers by the year 2020. Interesting times...
But, reader, back to our theme. McDonald's. Why? Well, I have not been travelling the last two weeks for a change, but sitting in my office. And the view is onto that unofficial US Embassy's local outpost. As I have not been able to comment on new cultural experiences other than the Finns leaving and entering the office, I began to think about McDonald's. Not the food – though I admit to the occasional foray when time is short. But the idea of using McDonald's as a cultural benchmark – rather in the way the Economist has its Big Mac Index to compare global price movements.
Yes, I know it has been done before. Forgotten who it was, but one cross-cultural writer back in the days when the first McDonald's opened in Russia, compared the different meaning the brand had to Russians compared to Americans. For Americans it meant a cheap fast meal. For some Russians it was a status symbol to eat there, and an expression of freedom.
Even in Finland, look round the people eating there and it is rather different from the typical McDonald's clientele in the UK. It's not unusual to see business people in suits amongst the kids and families.
And then there are the local twists in what is served. Over here you can get a McRuis burger. Ruis is the Finnish word for 'rye'. Because Finns are addicted to their rye bread. In Spain you are able to get a beer with your meal. And then think about the transference of the concept, but with totally different foods. I read a while back about a McDonald's style concept in Thailand, but the fast meals consisted mainly of crunchy fried insects.
Whether you are lovin' it or hatin' it, McDonald's is a potent symbol and a goldmine for those fascinated by cultural semiotics. Jacques Chirac, trying to bolster relations with the US during a particularly bad patch, talked fondly of his days as a student travelling around the US and his love of hamburgers. The Americans countered by re-naming French fries 'Freedom fries.'
One of my favourite pieces of political graffiti was in a lift in the Montparnasse tower which I saw more than 25 years ago. There, in the heart of Sartre's stamping ground, the slogan read 'BIG BURGER IS EATING YOU.' It seems that the route to a nation's, as well as a man's heart, is through its stomach.
by Michael Gates