America's 'small people' and BP's gaffe-prone Gulf oil spill response
The Gulf oil spill has exposed both linguistic and cultural chasms between America and Europe. BP's Swedish chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg apologized for calling Gulf residents 'small people.'
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But Swedes, who are considered among the best English-speakers in Europe, were embarrassed by Svanberg's lack of understanding of American politics, where journalists may refer to "average people," but populist politicians like Sarah Palin calls them "real Americans." In Sweden, on the other hand, "småfolket" is not derogatory, but an acknowledgment of Swedish egalitarianism.Skip to next paragraph
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"In America, this story doesn't have any national overtones at all, it's a classic political story of the people versus big business," adds Volker of the Center for Transatlantic Relations. "But on the other side of the Atlantic people are very sensitive to [perceptions around] national champions and even prominent national figures like Svanberg."
Some sense that US media outlets are picking up a rising xenophobia in the wake of the spill.
"Commentators were looking for arrogance, European arrogance … but the smile on Svanberg's face was not arrogance, but nerves," writes Hans Sandberg for the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce. "His English was broken and he talked about the affected people in the Mexican Gulf Region as the 'small people.' But this should be written off as an honest mistake."
The phrase "small people," however, quickly made its way into a depressing lexicon of rallying slogans collected by residents of the "Mexican Gulf Region." Like tea partyers wearing "right wing extremist" T-shirts, some Gulf Coast residents are wearing the moniker with mock pride.
"They can say [Svanberg] didn't mean it that way, but that's how they think of us," Lyn Ridge, a commercial contractor in Louisiana, tells the Associated Press. "They can't keep their foot out of their mouth."
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