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.'

By , Staff writer

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    BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said Wednesday that, when it comes to the Gulf oil spill cleanup, BP cares about 'the small people.' Gulf residents were none too pleased with his comment. Swedes say Mr. Svanberg was translating the Swedish word 'småfolket,' which has a positive meaning.
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After the very British Tony Hayward felt American ire for his multiple gaffes ("I want my life back") in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Swedish BP Board Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg may have done Mr. Hayward one better Wednesday when he pleaded that he, like President Obama, cares about "the small people."

Swedes winced as hard as many Americans at the gaffe, for which Mr. Svanberg later apologized, saying he "spoke clumsily." In an instant, Svanberg's apology – backed up by the announcement of a $20 billion escrow account for Gulf oil spill claims – was snatched away by the court of American public opinion.

On the Gulf, the gaffe took on even greater meaning, illuminating a class clash between international corporate elites and the Gulf's working class, which is bearing the brunt of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Ironically, that was precisely the notion Svanberg was addressing, trying to explain in faulty English that BP is not a greedy company that doesn't care about people who live near its wells and refineries.

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"That BP is watching out for the little guy, in the American way of saying it, is what Svanberg was trying to get at," says Kurt Volker, managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington.

But in a situation that has already inflamed some transatlantic tensions, the mistake could cause more than passing damage. "Gaffes like that in an inflamed climate can spark all kinds of emotions," says Mr. Volker.

Words and action

In a statement released after Svanberg's Rose Garden appearance, the BP chairman tried to explain his meaning: "What I was trying to say – that BP understands how deeply this affects the lives of people who live along the Gulf and depend on it for their livelihood – will best be conveyed not by any words but by the work we do to put things right for the families and businesses who've been hurt."

Justin Vaisse, a transatlantic relations expert at the Brookings Institution, suggests that the gaffe is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day. "I don't think it's much more than people don't like foreign oil companies spilling oil in their backyard."

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.

"In Sweden, the expression may work, but not in the USA," rhetoric expert Katti Sandberg tells Svenska Dagbladet. "No one in the US wants to be the small people that need somebody's sympathy."

"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."

'European arrogance'

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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