By Gerry Murray. 07-08-2022
(Scroll down for a laugh)

“Without context words and actions have no meaning at all.” ~ Gregory Bateson

Last week I finished reading Gillian Tett’s excellent book, Anthro Vision. Although currently a senior editor at The Financial Times, she has a PhD in Anthropology. The purpose of the book is to explain how the tools of Anthropology can provide deep insights into the world of work and the big problems we face as humans. 

By applying her Anthropology skills, Tett predicted the financial crisis in 2009. She covers a wide range of topics in the book, including demonstrating how an anthropological lens could’ve enabled governments to respond better to the Covid pandemic, why children seem addicted to digital devices, how the company Mars used Anthropologists to sell more pet food, etc. 

I studied Anthropological Linguistics as part of my first degree and it was one of my favourite subjects. So, I was naturally attracted to the concept of Anthro Vision. Also, in my recent TEDx talk I framed Adaptive Capacity as being a vital skill in navigating multiple and varied situations. I invoked the principle from Anthropology that “All meaning is context dependent”. Therefore, we need the capacity to change our response depending on the situation. 

Curiosity is a core attribute of Anthropologists. As I continue my vacation in the US I’ve been trying to stay curious and suspend judgement to better understand the American culture and way of life. As you might expect, it’s not homogeneous. There’s a  wide variety on display (hint: I’m currently in Vegas!). 

So, now you’re probably curious to know what wrestling has to do with it! 

Well, it seems that Anthropology can explain how Donald Trump got elected as US President and why his brash braggadocio style works so well. 

Tett explains that most western educated people - including the media - tend to believe that good Presidents and Prime Ministers should be well-behaved, logical and linguistically articulate. She cites a journalist who stated that the media and the elite took Trump literally but not seriously. Whereas his supporters took him seriously but not literally

There was a lot of dissatisfaction with the Washington D.C. establishment and he was able to leverage this to his advantage. 

Many have recognised his use of a “Reality TV” approach to how he ran his presidency. 

However, Tett goes on to expand on how the reference points for Trump’s behaviour come more from his time involved with the World Wresting Entertainment than with The Apprentice. 

Here are the key parallels from wrestling that she outlines: 

  • He gave his opponents nicknames 
  • He manufactured bouts of melodrama 
  • He engaged in displays of extreme aggression 
  • He whipped up fervour amongst his audiences 

Anthropologists call this type of behaviour “Performative Signalling”. These simple techniques then served as anchors for his supporters. A Trump rally became like going to a World Wrestling match. 

What are the lessons for the rest of us? 

We tend to see and filter the world through our own lens and we often don’t take context into account. However, this leads us to see things, that don’t fit with our preferences, as strange. Yet, throughout Tett’s book she highlights that a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich, Democratic) perspective often appears weird to others. 

And, she poses the ultimate question: 

What would a Martian think of us if it landed on Planet Earth? 

I’ll leave you to ponder that this week…


Listen to the Podcast


Where do Martians drink beer?
At a Mars Bar.

Two silk worms are in a wrestling match
It ended in a tie.
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