I watched the 2012 Olympic games with my family every night we were in Geneva and our identification with our national groups revealed itself in different ways.
We had already lived something very basic about group identification while on vacation in Malta, the week before the games started. Our resort on the island was a caricature of ethnic and linguistic fractionalization: The probability that the next person we met came from the same country or linguist group as that of the previous person was something like .09. And even within linguistic group the variability was high. A Scottish woman heard my accent and enthused, “ooooh, what a loooovely accent. Where are you from?” Wow. Chicago?
Anyway, our group identification experience on Malta occurred when too many people signed up for the same boat trip to the Blue Lagoon at Comino for swimming and then to a second location near Gozo for snorkeling. To manage the surplus of tourists, a second boat was pressed into service. The organizer called out, “people with blue tickets, you are over here. Those with yellow are over there, and reds, you stand right there.” The members of my family walked over to a Norwegian family that was hanging around the location designated for the “blues” and asked, “are you blues?” They were.
And we became a group. One of us punched the air with their fists and yelled, “go blues!” We didn’t know each other’s names yet, and we had been together for exactly 30 seconds. Social psychologists have studied the same effect for years in something called the “minimal group paradigm.’ What their research shows is this: When people are attributed to groups on the basis of tiny, seemingly uninformative and unimportant criteria such as the color of their tickets or their tee-shirts, they start to behave like a group. Part of that behavior is being proud of and attached to the group, and part is disliking other groups that differ on the defining criterion. Near the end of our excursion on Malta, people from the other “ticket color” groups ended up in our boat. The Norwegian woman leaned to me and whispered, “who are these people, the yellows?” She didn’t like them. And neither did I. We didn’t know them at all, and they had been in the boat for exactly 30 seconds.
Imagine the implications for the Olympic Games. Imagine. The. Implications.
First of all, no matter what you do, if you are actually paying attention, you start to feel some group identification. Nationalism. My family watching the Olympics involves identification with three nations: France, Germany and the U.S. Except for our two younger boys, no two people in our family of six possess the same suite of passports. Markus, my husband, just has one passport, from Germany. I have one, from the U.S. Our oldest son, my step-son, carries passports from those two countries (his father is German and he was born in Boulder, CO) and also from France (his mother is French). His brother, of the same parents was not born in the U.S. and so carries passports only from France and Germany. France, like Germany, has the law of paternity for citizenship, so our little boys, who were born in France and raised there until they were 8 and 10 years old, are not legally French. They hold German and U.S. passports. They are however identified with France, what with being raised there and all.
So here is how it goes during the Olympic games: Markus makes a good show for the U.S. and France. But he is unhappy that the German swimmers aren’t performing better. He announces the German players’ names out loud, and he suffers with the German fencing star when she doesn’t take the gold. He chafes at the psychotherapy that the German channel that covers the Games seems to insist on carrying out live on the air: Interviewers sit around with the coaches and athletes asking what is wrong and trying to process it together. I understand him; the psychotherapy sessions annoy me too. We want to see the actual sports events.
And I can’t help myself; I tear up at the Star Spangle Banner “This is the only national anthem that ends on a question,” I keep saying. Or, “no, no, the rockets’ ‘red GLARE’,” I fuss when someone does not know the words. My kids are growing weary of me. I also worry about the possible clichés that the games provoke. Are people thinking that Missy Franklin’s smile is another “fake, American smile”? What about Nathan Adrian’s smile? It is so awesome; can’t his be the prototypical American smile? I can hear in my head remarks possibly uttered at least by non-Americans about every gesture of every athlete. This American is smiling too much, this one looks too arrogant, this one waved for too long, that hug was fake, she didn’t really mean it. I know I am making this up, I am creating clichés in my head, but I can’t help myself because I have heard similar remarks so many times, and I feel defensive of my country.
But the younger boys are attached equally to the three countries; their group identifications extend to them all. When German, French and U.S. swimmers all qualify for the finals of something, the kids bounce up and down and name the names, “Look, they are all there, we can’t lose!” they shout. They sing the Marseillaise.
Group identification research shows that people manage the importance and visibility of their identification for reasons of self-esteem. Bob Cialdini, a social psychologist from Arizona State, showed years ago that the day after a big football game many more students at the winning university will put on their university tee shirt and wear it publicly than at the losing university. Students at the losing university need to distance the loss more (especially if football is important to them) in order to maintain their self-esteem.
All of this, the minimal conditions for identification and the use of group success for self-esteem enhancement, are “normal” group processes. What we feel occasionally, though, is the concern, underneath, of what nationalism can produce in the wrong context. It has produced heinous behaviors, even at past Olympic games.
For now, though, I am enjoying the inclusive nationalism of my children. Maybe it is the beginning of a new group process.