Zaza Pachulia: Why Georgians Ruined NBA Voting

From 1974 until 2016, American basketball fans were able to vote for the starting lineup of the NBA’s All-Star game, so that the players in this exhibition game were actually the most popular players in the league, as determined by fan votes.

Last month, however, the NBA announced that the fan vote would be discounted by 50%, and the other 50% of the vote would be made up of superdelegates current players and select members of the basketball media.  Fans were disenfranchised in this way because last year, they screwed up the vote by almost putting Zaza Pachulia in the All-Star Game.

I don’t watch basketball and I have nothing against Zaza Pachulia, but the perplexed reaction of sports commentators tells me that he does not merit inclusion in the game.  He is not one of the league’s best or most popular players.  He will not draw the interest of fans who will spend money to buy tickets to the NBA’s All-Star Weekend.  The only reason Pachulia is punching above his weight in the NBA vote totals is that a sizeable number (but probably not a large percentage*) of Georgians – most of whom live in Georgia and many of whom do not even watch NBA games – are voting for him because they think it would be cool to have a Georgian in the All-Star Game.

So it is literally true that the NBA had to change its voting rules to disenfranchise fans because some Georgians disrupted the integrity of the process to inflate their own national egos.  And this year, they are doing it again.

Again, I don’t watch basketball, and the integrity of the NBA All-Star team vote is not particularly important to me per se.  However, I think it is interesting that Georgians seem to be completely oblivious to the ethical dimension of this situation.  Georgians are very proudly, publicly promoting Pachulia on social media and on the online English-language Georgian propaganda mill  I think they wouldn’t do this if they understood that many would consider this behavior to be unethical, boorish, and narcissistic.

An NBA fan complains about Georgians voting Pachulia

Giorgi’s response shows zero understanding of Mirza’s complaint, or of how to translate invective from Georgian to English

I think the article on Pachulia demonstrates this obliviousness well.  Agenda points out that the voting rules change will make it much harder for Pachulia to make the All-Star team, but not that the voting rules change was specifically done to prevent Pachulia from making the All-Star team.  The article also implies that Pachulia was good enough to have belonged on the All-Star team last year, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one who is not Georgian seems to believe that and the NBA disbelieved it so hard that they changed the voting system to stop Pachulia from getting on the All-Star team this year.

I think this is obvious to most Americans, but let me just lay out the ethical argument, briefly.  It is unethical to participate in a fan vote if you are not a fan.  Even if you are a fan, it is unethical to vote for a player with no particular star quality to join the All-Star team.  There is an implicit understanding that non-fans should not vote, and fans should vote for the best players according to their honest judgment.  For a large group of outsiders to come in and disrupt this understanding is not fair to fans who vote in good faith, or to players who deserve to have their genuine achievements recognized appropriately (and the NBA recognizes that, which is why they have changed the voting rules).

I come from the most populous city in the United States – New York City – and we have two basketball teams which, from what I understand, are mediocre.  If New Yorkers acted like Georgians, the entire Eastern Conference All-Star team would presumably consist entirely of players from these two mediocre teams, and would itself be mediocre, and would play a mediocre All-Star game.  This is a consequence that no one wants, and so very few people are willing to deliberately vote for a mediocre All-Star lineup because of local or regional prejudice.

But New Yorkers do not act like Georgians with respect to the NBA vote.  Those of us who do not care about or watch basketball do not vote in fan votes.  Those of us who do care do not blindly vote for members of our tribe, but instead vote for the best players, so that the conference can form the best team and the league can stage the best exhibition game.  Through this process, fans are rewarded for investing their time and energy into the NBA by seeing their favorite stars in the league play an excellent game.

I’m sure that many Georgians truly believe that Pachulia deserves a spot on the All-Star team.  However, I think they believe this because of cultural narcissism and chauvinism, not because Pachulia is a star.  If Pachulia were not Georgian there is simply no way Georgians would flood the NBA vote with Pachulia votes.  But Georgians have a tendency to uncritically favor Georgian things and Georgian people (cf. Stalin) to a much greater extent than any other nationality I’ve ever encountered.

But I think that even recognizing that, many Georgians would still say that they are justified in voting Pachulia even though he has not earned the spot through merit.  There are still too many Georgians who smoke in parks in front of children, who park on sidewalks, who compulsively cut in line, who litter on public roads and in public building entrances, and who have generally not developed a sense of personal responsibility to the community – who will be very nice to you one-on-one, but will act with complete disregard for the interests of other people in the abstract.  None of those people care in the slightest what is fair to NBA fans in America – all they care about is what they can get away with.

And hey – this has gotten a ton of free press for Georgia.  It’s in the New York Times.  For narcissists, any attention is good attention.  From their perspective, there’s really no reason not to just do this every year.


*I don’t want to imply that all Georgians, or even most Georgians, are cultural narcissists.  Really, we’re talking about a small, vocal minority – a group which is probably in the single-digits, percentage-wise.  Pachulia got about 440,000 votes in a week, which means it could be as few as 63,000 voters voting for him every day, which is less than 2% of Georgia’s population.  Also, because of how the NBA counts twitter votes, he also has some unknown number of votes that come from people inadvertently voting for him – for instance, if I complained on twitter “Zaza Pachulia does not belong in the All-Star Game #NBAVote” that would be counted as a vote for Pachulia by the NBA’s twitter-scraping algorithm.  Retweets are also counted as votes, so, for example, this prankster managed to rustle up at least 148 votes for Pachulia, some unknown number of which may have actually thought they were opposing Pachulia.

A tweet tricking people into voting Pachulia

I see what you did there

So presumably many people are innocently retweeting Zaza Pachulia votes without realizing that they are voting or really thinking much about it at all.  But there wouldn’t be so many Pachulia votes to retweet if the small-but-devoted group of Pachulia-partisans hadn’t started the whole thing in the first place.  So despite the innocence of perhaps 99% of Georgians, it is still the case that a group of Georgians has effectively subverted the NBA All-Star vote, twice, and thus ruined it for everybody else.

Posted in Civics | Tagged , , | 66 Comments

“Love it or Leave it” – On Cultural Narcissism

A reader asks, “why in the hell are you still living in here when every post of yours involves amd critics Georgia and its people in there”.

I actually get this question a lot – this, or its imperative version (some variation on “if you don’t like it, leave”). My point of view is that this is, fundamentally, an expression of a sort of cultural narcissism, and therefore probably not really worth engaging. However, because it is such a common point of view, I thought I’d address it once and for all, so that at least if someone asks me I can point them here.

First of all, the premise is incorrect. The post this comment appeared on was not critical of Georgia at all, unless you count a passing reference to a previous critical post, which was only made to provide an example of how different approaches to social coordination might result in practical problems for individuals. In fact the question of whether students should be asked to remove their hats indoors is an international question, and American students are at least as likely to defy this rule as Georgian students. So I submit that if you read that 1200-word post investigating the importance of etiquette in education and your principal takeaway was “Georgian students don’t take their hats off” – a takeaway which is neither true nor justified based on the text of the post – then you probably just have a chip on your shoulder.

american flag love it or leave it caption

Done, and done

The shape of that chip can be inferred from the question “why do you live here if you have bad things to say about it?”. Whenever someone tells you to leave their country if you don’t like it, what they are really expressing is cultural narcissism. They have a feeling of grandiosity – “my country is the best” – coupled with the unavoidable reality that a lot of stuff about their country really sucks. This cognitive dissonance makes people feel anxious and uncomfortable and therefore they respond by trying to get rid of the people who are causing it – for example, by asking them to leave. Then they can go back to ignoring the problems in their country and enjoying their (unjustified) feelings of grandiosity.

For example, a certain kind of American used “love it or leave it” during the Vietnam War as a kind of rebuttal to anti-war protesters. Since the war was obviously an unjustified and indefensible failure and a waste of lives and resources, there was really no rational counterargument against the protesters. But if the protesters were right, that meant that America was doing something wrong. But America can’t do anything wrong, because America is the Greatest Nation in the History of the Universe. But the protesters… okay, you have to go away now, you stupid jerks! You sex-crazed drug-addled peacenik hippy commie assholes! Love it or leave it!

st george's flag with caption england love it or leave it

“Well, if you insist,” said America

Of course, any psychologically healthy person understands that you can love something and also criticize it. This is because psychological health is typically the result of having had loving parents who criticized you as a child, but did so lovingly and constructively and in a way that helped you grow and mature into a successful well-adjusted human adult. But for narcissists, who typically grew up with emotionally unavailable parents and/or parents who endlessly and hyperbolically praised them no matter what their actual level of achievement – for narcissists, any kind of criticism at all (even a perceived slight that wasn’t even intended as criticism) invokes feelings of deep anxiety and produces reactions designed to defend an unhealthy and fragile ego.

And so that’s why I call these people – people who can’t process criticism of some particular aspect of their culture or country – “cultural” narcissists. I think every country has them. I’m not picking on Georgia (although of course the cultural narcissists who happen to be Georgian will think that I am).

australia silhouette love it or leave it

Ironic slogan for a prison colony

I think it falls on me to address a few tangential points.

First, am I in fact issuing constructive criticism, from a place of love, with the intent of improving the subject of the criticism? My wife is Georgian and we have two children, who were both born in Georgia. Even putting aside my personal feelings, I want Georgia to be a better country for their sake. I would like my children to feel comfortable in their home country, and not feel compelled to leave – like so many young Georgians who dream of going to Europe or America feel compelled to leave Georgia, or like I felt compelled to leave America. And unlike America, which I think is heading downhill in many ways, I am actually still optimistic about Georgia’s future. So yes, I do love this country, I do want it to be better, and I do want my criticisms to be heard and understood for what they are.

Second, let me reiterate that I am not overly critical of Georgia. It’s very telling what a narcissist will interpret as a criticism. When I mean to criticize Georgia, I say something like “this is something I don’t like about Georgia” or “this is something I think Georgians need to change.” I very rarely say those things, either in person or on this blog. I am very aware that by the norms of Georgian culture I do not have standing to issue criticisms of Georgia, and so I do so sparingly and on issues of low importance.

However, my purpose with this blog has always been to present an honest assessment of Georgia with a particular eye towards identifying and analyzing differences between Georgia and the U.S., or things that might otherwise be noteworthy for someone who was planning to come live here. I am aware that that can look like criticism, and so over time I think I have gotten better at adopting a more clearly neutral viewpoint, and at issuing the cultural signals that let Georgians know that I do not intend criticism, which is why I have generated a lot less controversy since you-know-what even as I have taken on increasingly controversial topics, such as racism and homophobia in Georgia.

Unfortunately, no matter how many pains I take to avoid coming off as overly critical, there will always be some people who are waiting for the opportunity to be insulted so they can reinforce their self-image at the expense of others.

My point is, I do not criticize Georgia in every post – far from it – and I try very hard not to repeat the same critiques (rather, if I have occasion to refer to a previous critique, I will simply link to it rather than rehash it in a new post).

banner planet earth love it or leave it

Actually, this one I agree with

Finally, is it valid to tell someone to “love it or leave it”? Is that even good advice? It seems like that’s encouraging people to run away from their problems, rather than fix them. On the other hand, like most Americans of European descent, at some point in their history most of my ancestors decided to leave their birthplace and venture to a new land – as did I – and so there is certainly an argument to be made for leaving a place if it really sucks that much. So it is certainly conceivable that if you have a friend who seems to be stuck in an undesirable situation, the best advice for them might be to consider a change of scenery, to try moving somewhere else and starting a new life.

But internet strangers? You don’t know me that well. You don’t know the totality of my situation. You don’t know my daily life. You see what I choose to present to you – a choice which has a purpose which you clearly do not understand. To think that you know someone well enough, based on a few blog posts, to honestly advise them to up and move to a whole different country, and expect that they might actually benefit from this advice – if that isn’t narcissism, I don’t know what is.

So no, I can’t take seriously the idea that this might be genuine or well-intentioned advice from people who care about my well-being. It’s either advice from narcissists who think they can understand a stranger’s whole life better than the stranger himself based on a blog, or it’s bloviating, defensive flailing from narcissists who feel threatened by someone who doesn’t constantly acknowledge their imagined superiority.

Either way, this is the last time I’m going to address such a question or comment, so if you’re planning on asking or telling me some variation of “if you don’t like it, leave”, don’t bother: your comment will not make it out of my moderation queue.

Canadian flag love it or leaf it

Okay, I made this one up

Posted in Culture Shock! | 6 Comments

On “Hats Off”

What is the point of having students take their hats off when they come into the school building?

As far as I can tell, there is no educational benefit to be gained from removing your hat. It’s not like the hat is keeping the knowledge out.

Upon introspection, I came up with two related answers:
– Manners/etiquette/respect/politeness
– Tradition

Google seems to have similar answers. Note that I say that these are “related” answers because the first one is really dependent on the second, in that the reason that it is now considered polite to remove your hat is that it has traditionally been considered polite to remove your hat.

Some manners have what you might call practical purposes – some are related to health and hygiene, and many are related to coordinating group behaviors that would otherwise be chaotic (things like turn-taking, establishing the right of way, etc.) In cases of group coordination, manners are often arbitrary, but that does not diminish their importance. For example, it does not matter which side of the road you drive on – some countries choose the left side, others the right – but it is vitally important that everyone in a particular locale follow the same convention. Now you may not consider driving habits to be a subset of “manners”, but I would argue that they are close enough for comparison – and consider the parallel (but perhaps less vital) case of determining which glass is yours when seated at a round table on a formal occasion. Do you reach for the glass on your left or your right? Even one person who doesn’t know or observe the (arbitrary) rule could cause someone else to be left without a glass. Of course this situation is fairly simple to resolve and therefore the rule is not considered particularly important.

On the other hand, some manners do not seem to have any practical purposes at all, whether vital or trivial. For example, verbal politeness rules do not seem to have a practical purpose. Georgian and English have different verbal politeness rules (different words and different situations in which they apply) and Georgians often consider me to be strangely polite because I am forever trying to apply English politeness rules in the Georgian language, which is not an exact match. Socially, this can make some things a bit awkward, but it doesn’t seem to have any practical effects. For example, if I’m overly polite or indirect in asking a shopkeeper for some bread, I still get the bread even if it comes with a perplexed look. In contrast, Georgians’ different turn-taking etiquette has often caused me to have practical difficulties in making basic purchases or other transactions.

Hats are not a part of social organization or coordination scheme – they do not help us to resolve ambiguous situations in which everyone must make the same arbitrary decision. They do not facilitate the orderly conduct of commerce. In this regard, taking your hat off is more like an act of verbal politeness. At some point in the obscure, distant past, there may have been a practical reason to take off a hat indoors, or at least some relevant social significance beyond “because that’s what I was taught”. However, as my introspection and googling reveal, those reasons are essentially lost to us today. And so today the effective reason for taking your hat off in a building is “because it is polite”. And the question I asked earlier becomes “what is the point of politeness?” or perhaps “what is the point of requiring students to be polite?”

Now I’ve argued that politeness rules do not serve a practical purpose, but that doesn’t mean that politeness *itself* doesn’t serve a practical purpose. The forms that politeness can take are different from culture to culture, but the phenomenon of politeness (and its opposite, rudeness) would appear to be universal. So what does politeness actually do?

Well, it’s essentially a form of social signalling. By being polite, you are showing the people around you that you are prosocial – that you are willing to follow social norms, and to regulate your own behavior for the benefit of others. By engaging in politeness, you are proclaiming that you will also follow the more practical rules of etiquette and manners. This, in turn, allows others to feel comfortable interacting with you in hopes that you will make good on the implied promise to be an upstanding member of society.

I think that teenagers can relate to the concept of hats as signalling. By wearing a hat in school – a harmless but noticeable display of rule-breaking – you are clearly signalling. You are signalling that the school authority cannot control or regulate your self-expression (or to borrow a very outdated turn of phrase, that you are “too cool for school”). You are signalling that you are laid-back, and relaxed, and that strict rules of formality don’t concern you that much – and by doing so you are making some of your peers feel comfortable and relaxed around you as well. In some sense wearing a hat could be considered pro-social – that is, if the student in question wishes to firmly delineate students as a *separate* social group from teachers.

But you are also signalling to the adults in the building that you are anti-social, at least where they are concerned. You are telling us that you are not willing to regulate your own behavior for the benefit of the group. You are warning us to watch out for you because you do not follow the rules, and we generally take that warning seriously. Most teachers probably associate students who wear hats indoors with students who break other rules, who are often in trouble, and who do not perform well academically. When we see you with a hat inside we lower our expectations of you, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually end up hurting your education. And although we may consciously try not to discriminate against you, the social wiring which tells us to prefer members of the group to outsiders – a result of millions of years of evolution – basically ensures that we will fail. If you dress up like a problem student, we will see you as a problem student, and treat you as a problem student. Unconscious bias is hugely powerful. (And by the way, a benefit of school uniforms is that it helps to remove opportunities for that bias to manifest itself.)

And so to come back around to the question – what is the point of making students take off their hats – I think we can be very cynical and say that we have a rule against hats because we know that troublemakers will break the rule and then we will have a very obvious and easy way to identify them. Or, we can be more generous and say that the rule facilitates prosocial signalling among students and teachers, in order to improve educational outcomes by taking advantage of natural human tendencies to cooperate with members of the tribe in good standing and regard them more highly than outsiders or outcasts. So I have to revise my earlier, naive hypothesis: if we regard school education as a primarily social activity, there actually *is* educational benefit to be gained from removing your hat.


Posted in Education | 2 Comments

This is why we can’t have nice things

Perhaps you’ve already heard the news that’s prompted me to come out of retirement and get back on my high horse: a group of Georgian chauvinists decided to bust up a film screening at a vegan cafe, because these days just being a complete asshole apparently passes for a political statement.

Reportedly this group came in with sausages strung around their neck and wielding skewers of meat. Kiwi cafe is also a non-smoking restaurant, but not for this sausage party! They lit up, and when staff complained they became aggressive and physically violent, thus reinvigorating the term “meathead” for a new generation.

Then, the cops came and decided to investigate and detain the victims, because of their “alternative” appearance, because in Georgia having a mohawk is cause for suspicion but wearing a meat necklace is just another Sunday night on the town. I’ve remarked before that many Georgian men seem to smell like smoked sausages for some reason, but I never knew it was because they sometimes wear it as jewellery.

Jokes aside, this is a pretty disturbing attack. I mean, okay, I personally don’t really care about veganism per se – no hostility there, it’s just not my issue. But I do very much care about living in a society in which some very basic rights are respected. This country has seen attacks on freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. Now we’re seeing an attack on the freedom to choose what kind of food to eat? The freedom to operate a non-smoking cafe and the freedom of patrons to choose to dine in such a cafe? I don’t think the Soviets even told people what to eat.

Now imagine if this group had attacked a Georgian restaurant during Orthodox fasting season and started throwing meat into people’s vegetarian meals. The people would have risen as one in defense of someone’s right to eat lobio for Jesus, and the attackers would have been mauled by the crowd. Police would have investigated zealously.

But of course the two situations are not remotely comparable. In Georgia the only freedom that is respected is the freedom to be like everybody else.


RFE/RL has an analysis of the attack in the context of current and historical trends in Georgia. It’s good, I recommend reading it, even if it is a tad glib about the severity of the attack itself.

The obvious takeaway from this analysis is that this can be seen as an anti-Western, anti-liberal attack and even grouped with anti-LGBT attacks in Georgia in that the attackers seemed at least partially motivated by the idea that being vegan is gay (I invite the reader to insert their own sausage joke here).

The less obvious takeaway is that the apparent rise in nationalist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric in Georgia, post-Saakashvili, is perhaps a regression to the mean from the relative liberalism of the Saakashvili regime. The RFE/RL piece suggests that this nationalist vein in Georgian culture played a role in the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

What I don’t quite have a handle on is how strong and widespread this nationalism actually is. Most of the Georgians I interact with are more Western-leaning and cosmopolitan – but that is clearly a self-selected group. I would guess that the average Georgian doesn’t have much of a stake in the issue of veganism as a threat to the Georgian identity, and hasn’t deeply thought about the contradictions between the liberal democratic EU regime and the obligations of defending tradition and conformity. What I don’t know is how many Georgians are prone to be riled up, given the right circumstances, into nationalist violence, or into a pivot towards Russia.

Another question is whether this is an isolated incident or whether it will embolden other Georgians to take similar actions against nontraditional groups. Sometimes things like this are growing pains – an adjustment period of mutual fear and distrust that occurs when any new idea is introduced. Other times they’re a shot fired across the bow – a precursor to more frequent and dangerous attacks. If the Georgian government is concerned about the latter possibility, they’re certainly not showing it.

I wish I had more insight to offer here, but I don’t. I don’t think anyone knows – the situation is unpredictable and unstable. I was always broadly pro-Misha and so I have to take care not to exaggerate my criticisms of Georgian Dream or make dire predictions of doom because my guy lost an election. It’s hard to tell whether this is confirmation bias, but I’m left thinking that this wouldn’t have happened during Misha’s time, when rather than a vegan bar in that neighborhood there were actual gay bars which largely went unmolested. And I’m dead certain Misha’s police would have taken the matter seriously.

But on the other hand, there wasn’t a vegan cafe to attack in Misha’s time. It’s undeniable that Georgia is still making Westward progress under GD and that some of the anti-GD rhetoric has been overblown. There are also more non-smoking restaurants than ever. And of course that has to do with demand – people who run vegan cafes and American burger joints and whatnot understand that they are cooking for people who actually want to taste their food – that there is a sizeable market share for people who want a smoke-free dining experience. But GD has not done anything to impede this progress, so that’s something.

I guess I’m very concerned about the possibility of things on the anti-Western front getting worse before they get better, but I remain cautiously optimistic. Even if nationalists start winning elections, Georgians have tasted Dunkin Donuts and they’re not going to give them up. Globalization has worked its magic and an undeniable transformation has taken place in Tbilisi over the last six years (even though we still don’t have a damn Starbucks).

My other worry is that the most pro-Western Georgians will simply leave – especially if there is visa liberalization with the EU – and let the country go to the dogs. If you know you could feel safe in a vegan cafe in any European capital – I’d bet even in Moscow – why would you stick around here and wait for the brownshirts to come for you when they decide that your favorite digs don’t jibe with Georgian tradition?


Finally, I’ll just note that it’s hard for me as an American to even understand the mindset here. The freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights are part of the fabric of American society. We’re attached to them sometimes to the point of irrationality. Some countries have a national religion – we have the Bill of Rights. And the right to choose your own diet is clearly reserved to the states and the people. Take our most unhealthy foods and drinks and the only debate permitted in the public sphere is whether or not the state can restrict the amount we are allowed to buy at once. I have trouble imagining it even occurring to an American to try to force someone to eat meat if they didn’t want to. I think I speak for most meat-eating Americans when I say “fine, don’t eat meat – more for me!”

Georgians clearly have a very different understanding of rights and freedoms – an understanding which strikes me as somewhat ad hoc, given that there’s no document or philosophy they can point to other than a vague understanding of what is “normal”.

I think that veganism poses a very clear problem for that mindset: veganism is clearly not “normal” by almost any definition of the word, and yet it is also clearly a personal choice which threatens no one. I get that if everyone became gay, making children would be a much more complicated affair, and so nationalists who want to advance the bloodline at least have a twisted rationale for their hatred. But if everyone became vegan? Oh no! We’d have to convert all our pastures to wheat fields! That could take days!

But of course, in any society, there is a group of people who believe that when something challenges your mindset, your best bet is to attack it. It’s just unfortunate that Georgian society doesn’t have any reasonable check on those sorts of people.

Posted in Civics, Politics | 6 Comments

You really have no idea, do you?

One of my colleagues asked what the worst thing about living in Georgia was.  Now, I’ve learned my lesson about being negative and I rarely offer Georgians unsolicited criticism of their country in normal social interactions (contrary to what you might expect from reading this blog).  But I strive to be honest and she seemed to actually want to know what I thought, and I had just been talking about some of the many reasons I like living here, so I decided to venture a response.

One of the first things to come to mind was the streets and sidewalks.  Walking in Tbilisi varies from inconvenient to hazardous in most residential neighborhoods – I’ve sprained my ankle once or twice because of uneven pavement in the dark; a friend of mine busted up her knee because of an unmarked open hole in the sidewalk related to some construction; and that’s more on the inconvenient side given that many of us are forced to walk with our children in the street with cars because Georgian drivers have no qualms about parking on the sidewalks – and that’s when there are sidewalks.  Georgia has a lot of pedestrians die in road accidents.

So I tried to politely express this thought without rambling too much – I said something to the effect of “the streets – you know, walking around, the potholes and uneven pavement and cars parking on the sidewalk.”  As I recall I didn’t get to finish the thought, because my colleague interrupted me to ask for my honest opinion.  “No, come on, be serious,” she said.  “That is not the *worst* thing about living in Georgia.”

Well, actually, it’s up there.  I guess it depends partially on how you weigh problems – for instance, I think of the homophobia here as a huge problem, but it doesn’t personally affect me on a day-to-day basis.  On the other hand, I have to trek through mud and gravel and across uneven streets and risk my life dodging traffic practically every day of my life here, and it has resulted in injury to myself and my friends.  She was asking what the worst thing about *living* here was, and in my day-to-day life, that’s a contender.

The other contender is the smoking.  And I know that people smoke all over, but at least in New York the public is well into the process of chasing smokers out of the shared public spaces that ought to be smoke-free: restaurants, bathrooms, elevators, and other enclosed spaces; and also parks and recreational areas where families bring their children to play in a safe environment.  New York has whole smoke-free apartment buildings.  Many other cities and countries are similar – some even ban adults from smoking in cars with children, which I think ought to be the law everywhere.  Someday perhaps it will be.

Anyhow, today I was on my way to take out the garbage, which had accumulated to an almost embarrassing quantity, and I planned to take the elevator rather than walk it down the eight flights of stairs, but when the elevator came to my floor there was a very large dude in it, smoking a cigarette.  I looked up at his face, then down at his cigarette, and then I dropped my garbage on the landing and went back into my apartment to wait for the air to clear.

Now obviously from his perspective this is, at the very least, extremely odd behavior.  He’ll probably chalk it up to my being a foreigner.  He probably has *no idea* that by smoking in the elevator he was inconveniencing me, and he certainly has no idea how many times I’ve had to wait for an elevator to air out before getting on, especially when my kids are with me.  He has no idea how many buses and marshutkas I’ve had to get off because the driver lit up a cigarette, in violation of Georgian law.  He has no idea about the time I had to leave Vake park because after trying three playgrounds I finally found a smoke-free one for my son to play on and not five minutes after he started playing an old man came and started smoking on it, and wouldn’t put out the cigarette when I asked him, and it escalated into a shouting match, and the police came.

He has no idea that I spent several minutes waiting for that elevator to air out, cursing him and his family and wishing I could see him punished and basically projecting all the accumulated stress and anger from dealing with inconsiderate smokers for five years onto his filthy tobacco-stained head.  And I don’t think he’d even be able to comprehend such sentiments even if I could somehow communicate them to him.

I think these things are connected – the smoking, the streets in disrepair, the litter, the driving, the walking.  I think that in some sense it’s the tragedy of the commons being played out across every aspect of Georgian public life.  Georgians are very warm, helpful, social people – in face-to-face interactions.  And yet, they act as if they are *completely blind* to the effects that their actions have on others if those effects are even the slightest bit attenuated or cumulative.  They seem completely unaware that social obligations might extend to people who you aren’t in direct contact with at the moment.

The two worst aspects of my daily life in Georgia – poorly maintained public walkways, and cigarette smoking in enclosed and/or family spaces – don’t even seem to be recognized as problems by Georgians.  There’s no sense that these are things that can be addressed.  There’s no sense that Georgians’ lives would be better if they could make a small set of important and quite feasible changes to their environment.  There’s no awareness, no social consciousness beyond one’s immediate circles of friends and family.

And of course, by bringing it up, I’m casting myself as the enemy, the perennially complaining foreigner who should just go back to where he came from if he doesn’t like it here.  That’s the flip side of having zero awareness of your own shortcomings – when someone points them out you tend to respond with bewilderment or aggression.On the other hand, I think the younger people are a little better about this – for example, there’s a Georgian organization dedicated to improving Georgia’s walkways and shaming drivers who park on sidewalks, and there are some burgeoning environmental groups.  So far, from what I’ve seen, they haven’t really made a dent in any of these problems, but at least some people are starting to be aware of them.

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Myths about the Georgian Alphabet appears to be a mildly nationalistic, pro-regime English-language news site in Georgia. They often write feel-good pieces promoting Georgia to English readers, and there’s really nothing wrong with that, and so even though the faint whiff of propaganda rises off every article I read, I have had no actual cause for complaint with their news coverage up until now.

This week, they published an article which espouses a few myths about the Georgian alphabet. The first of these is the 14 alphabets myth, which goes something like this: “Georgians are among 14 lucky nations in the world who can be proud of their unique writing system.”

TLG said this too – that there exist exactly 14 alphabets in the world which are currently used to write currently existing languages. As far as I can tell, there is no reasonable counting method under which this claim is true. I would like to know where it came from, but oddly enough no one ever cites a source. lists 16 alphabets as “currently in use”, and this is under the most restrictive possible understandings of the terms “alphabet” and “currently in use”. It excludes alphabets like Coptic and Old Church Slavonic which are currently in use but only in a limited context, for example for religious writings and ceremonies. It also excludes alphabets that do not mark vowels with their own letters (instead they use diacritics, or nothing – called abugidas and abjads, respectively) such as Hebrew and Arabic. It also counts all the different Latin alphabets as one alphabet, even though, for example, the English, German, Spanish, French, Polish, Slovenian, and Turkish alphabets (among many, many others) all use the “Latin” alphabet but all with their own distinctive variations, including differing pronunciations, diacritics, and added characters.

So okay, if you don’t count the Hebrew alephbet as an alphabet and you don’t count Old Church Slavonic as “currently in use” and you don’t count the Spanish alphabet as different from the English one, then you can get down to a number that is at least close to 14. If you understand “alphabet” and “currently in use” as a member of the general public ordinarily would, the claim that there are only 14 alphabets currently in use in the world is inarguably both false and misleading – it’s not even close to accurately conveying reality to a reader.

Georgians were apparently taught this 14 alphabet thing during Soviet times and never thought to actually check to verify this claim, so it gets repeated and repeated in nonserious contexts, like on a pro-Georgia-puff-piece-mill like or in a hastily implemented and underfunded language exchange program like TLG. I occasionally ask Georgians I meet if they’ve heard of the 14 alphabet thing and most of them have. I wonder what it would take to dislodge this meme from the Georgian collective mind.

The next alphabet myth is that Georgian “is the only alphabet in the world that is pronounced exactly the same way it is written.” This is not even close to true for a number of reasons. It contains a few grains of truth – just enough to be annoying to someone who actually cares about getting language facts right – but not enough to withstand even a moment’s thought.

Consider Georgia’s four neighboring countries: Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, and Russia. Consider what you know about their alphabets. Turkish pronunciation is 100% predictable based on the Turkish alphabet leaving basically no room for error, and it is also particularly straightforward (for instance, there aren’t letters that change pronunciation depending on their place in a word). Correct me if I’m wrong. Azerbaijani is a bit more problematic because of its “k”, which has some range of pronunciation, but as we will see Georgian also has at least one consonant with a range of pronunciation. Armenian has letters pronounced differently in its different dialects but I believe consistently within dialects. And finally, Russian, which has some entirely predictable variation in pronunciation of some letters based on their place in words and sentences – meaning that spelling absolutely determines pronunciation in Russian, just perhaps not entirely straightforwardly. Contrast that to Georgian, in which variations from spelling-sound correspondence rules are often unpredictable and idiosyncratic. (Again, I am not an expert in any of these languages, so it is possible I myself have consumed some bad information – you can consider my claims about Georgian somewhat authoritative but my claims about the neighboring languages are based only on a superficial understanding and some basic research).

In short, not only is Georgian not pronounced exactly the same way as it is written – it is actually worse at this than literally any of its neighbors. Many Georgians at least know Russian, if not Armenian or Turkish, and so it is hard to imagine how Georgians can make this claim with a straight face. It’s like a Radio Yerevan joke: “Is Georgian the only alphabet in the world that is pronounced exactly as it is written?” “In principle yes, but there are many alphabets in the world that are pronounced as they are written, and Georgian is not one of them.”

I suppose you’ll want examples.

Let’s start with ბავშვი – bavshvi. This word has a range of pronunciations (like many Georgian words) but the most common seem to be “bow-shwee” (rhymes with “cow-shwee”) and “bow-shwi” (rhymes with “show-shwee”). (Incidentally, it is interesting that the word “bow” in English has two pronunciations corresponding to the two alternate pronunciations of this Georgian word.) I think the “show” pronunciation is more typical of West Georgia, but I’m no expert.

The reason I bring up this example is that the letter “ვ” is supposed to be pronounced like English “v” and the letter “ა” is supposed to be “ah” (or like the o in not). So in IPA the word would be [bavʃvi] if the Georgian alphabet were phonetic, but it is in fact [baʊʃwi] in its most common realization. In five years I have never heard a Georgian pronounce this word as it is spelled, and it is an extremely common word (especially in schools – I basically hear it every day).

I cannot think of another context in Georgian in which the “ავ” is shortened to an “aʊ” sound, and it is a very common cluster (it is one of several standard verb-forming suffixes, for example). There do appear to be other examples of the “ვ” disappearing itself while turning the preceding vowel into a different sound entirely – like “კიდევ”, which should be “kidev” (key-dev), but is often pronounced “kido” (key-dough). I also theorize that the slang “baro” for hello is actually a reduction of Armenian “barev” (also meaning hello) following the same phonetic pattern, but this is unconfirmed and I can’t think of any other Georgian words ending in “-ევ” to test the theory.

In addition to that, the letter “ვ” in Georgian is problematic in a whole host of other situations. It normally varies between /v/ and /w/, and I have not been able to find a way to predict this. When I compare notes with other students of Georgian their observations are different from mine – for instance, I’ve never heard “Vake” pronounced with a /w/ but several friends say they have. Or maybe I just didn’t notice. Variations appear to differ both by word and by speaker. Sometimes, like with “bavshvi”, it seems to always be a /w/. Other times it seems to always be a /v/. This would be a good area for a research paper, because my personal experience has not led me to be able to determine what, if any, rules or patterns are at work here.

Moving on, we have the word “marshutka.” This is a loan word from Russian. Georgians decided to drop the second “r” out of the original word – “marshrutka” – in spoken language. I have met one or two Georgians who pronounce this second r, but the vast majority do not. However, the spelling of the word varies much more freely – on Google the one-r version gets 109,000 hits while the two-r version gets 22,500 (or 35,500 depending on which “t” you use). I have met many Georgians who spell the word “marshrutka” but pronounce it “marshutka”, which would not be possible if Georgian were spoken exactly as it is spelled.

The vowels are actually much more complicated than the consonants. The “ე” (e) and “ო” (o) vowels are the most unstable and are often strongly colored by their surrounding letters. The “ო” changes before an “რ” (r) in much the same way it does in English (contrast “so” and “sore”). The “ე” goes from what we would call a “long e” (c.f. “way”) to a “short e” (c.f. “wet”) based on whether it has a vowel or consonant after it – and perhaps also changes with the voicing of the consonant as well. This also has some variation from speaker to speaker. For examples, compare the “ე” in “თეკლა” (“Tekla” – [tɛkla]) with the “ე” in “მეორე” (“meore” – [meɪɔreɪ]), or the “ო” in “ბატონო” (“batono” – [batono]) with the “ო” in “ორი” (“ori” – [ɔri]).

Also, there are diphthongs that traditional Georgian language pedagogy says don’t exist. These are most noticeable when an “ი” (“i”, pronounced “ee”) follows another vowel. The famous Georgian alphabet primer is called “აი ია” (ai ia, but pronounced more like “I, ee-ah”) and of those two vowel combinations, the latter is very clearly segmented into two syllables while the first is very clearly merged into a diphthong. “აი” doesn’t always form a diphthong – sometimes the syllables remain distinct, but it depends on the word and the situation. A word like “დაიბანე” (“da-ibane”, or “go wash yourself”) seems more likely to maintain separate syllables – perhaps because the “da” and the “i” are distinct morphemes (that is, units of meaning: the “da” is a fixed verb prefix used to mark what you might think of as tense, and the “i” indicates that it is an animate object being washed). Another example is the name “მაია”, or “Maia” – this is essentially always pronounced with two syllables, similar to the Slavic name “Maja” or its English respelling Maya. I think Georgians would agree that it would be extremely weird to hear this name pronounced with three distinct syllables, but I could be wrong.

Contrary to the example verb above, some verbs do seem to form diphthongs even across morphemes. Consider “მოიცა” (“moitsa” – meaning “wait”). In high-prestige Georgian, this word contains the diphthong /ɔɪ/ (the “oy” in “boy”). Occasionally this is cut short at one syllable but it is often lengthened at the end so it sounds like the diphthong plus the long i – I would render it [ɔɪi] or /ɔɪ:/. Imagine Flavor Flav saying “Yeah boy” – the “oy” in his “boy” is the “ოი” in “მოიცა”.

In some West Georgian dialects, “moitsa” is changed to “meitsa” (pronounced like “May-tsa”. In practice this means that Georgians are spelling a word “moitsa” but saying “meitsa”, except when they dare to actually spell the word in dialect (indeed, you can google “მეიცა” and see almost ten thousand of these brave souls). But furthermore, they aren’t saying “meh-eetsa”, they’re saying “may-tsa” – two syllables where Georgian spelling rules dictate there should be three. This also happens with a number of “ეი” combinations.

To summarize the diphthong issue, there does not appear to be a single consistent paradigm under which some vowel pairs become diphthongized and there is also considerable regional variation, and so if we want to know how native Georgian speakers produce any give vowel pair ending in “ი” we have to admit that we cannot find out through an examination of the spelling of the word. This fact alone – although minor – probably puts Georgian behind all four of its neighbors when it comes to the ability to predict pronunciation based on spelling. Add in the problems with “ვ” both alone and after a vowel and you have an alphabet which unambiguously does not unambiguously describe the pronunciation of the language.


In conclusion, this article reproduces two very common misconceptions that Georgians have about the Georgian alphabet. These misconceptions probably stem from two problems. One, lack of contact with the outside world – if Georgians studied their language in the context of other global languages they might have a more accurate idea of what actually makes their language unique rather than focusing on superficial and ultimately incorrect aspects of their alphabet. Two, nationalism – these language myths are nothing if not self-serving, and they are repeated ad nauseam to feed the paper tiger that is Georgians’ national pride.

I would like to see these myths eradicated. They are part of what makes it difficult for foreigners to learn Georgian – the dogmatic approach most Georgians take to their own language is incredibly frustrating when an outside observer can immediately and clearly see that the native-speaking teacher is constantly breaking the rules he or she is claiming to follow. Repeating these canards also reflects badly on Georgians, and I would like to see Georgians put their best face forward when dealing with the world. Also, I just dislike anything that smacks of nationalism, since nationalism is unseemly at best and genocidal at worst.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a say in the matter. Georgian journalists and philologists tend to be too insular and stubborn to listen when bloggers point out their mistakes.

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the heart of amusement world

Indeed, I have already obtained some measure of amusement from the new East Point shopping center.  It’s an innovative kind of bad Georgian English – almost Palinesque in its placement of imagery over grammar, evocative of a poorly translated Chinese menu read by Shalva Natelashvili (youtube).

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh (although I’m not exactly sure to whom), but go and read it.  Or if you’re reading this in some dystopian future where the East Point website has been competently edited, have a gander at this screenshot:

East Point English

I kept rereading that second sentence looking for a predicate until I realized there wasn’t one.  Georgian English is usually big on comma splices, but I’ve never noticed a sentence fragment before – certainly not one this big.

It’s sad, because this is actually decent writing.  The copywriter has made some bold choices – like capitalizing “Shop, Dine, and Have Fun” – which suggest more than a passing familiarity with idiomatic English, slogans, and ad copy.  Since Georgian doesn’t have capital letters, this is an unusual area of focus in Georgian English style.

If I were proofreading this it would be easy: swap around some articles and hyphens, perhaps fix some of the fragments and splices (this fragment might even be okay if it started with “An open-concept” – fragments certainly aren’t unheard of in ad copy), and maybe fix a few word choice problems further down the page.  Aside from figuring out how to rephrase “heart of amusement world”, I would barely be earning my fee if I were proofreading this.

And yet, I’m not proofreading this – and neither is any other native speaker of English – because apparently someone decided that the exclusively English-language landing page of their 85,000 square meter real estate and business development project did not need to actually be written in proper English.

It can’t be about money.  If you can afford a web designer to build you a Bootstrap page you can afford the eight bucks it would cost to pay an English major to proofread four paragraphs.

No, this is clearly a case of neglect, but the question is, whose, and for what reason?  Someone was responsible for producing English text for this website, and that person either thought that this was correct English or thought that having your English be correct didn’t matter.

How does this happen?  My current theory is that someone was hired to be an interpreter or customer service representative, or something, and got this task foisted on them through no fault of their own.  This person would have had to say either “I cannot write English at the native level” – something you wouldn’t want to admit if you’ve taken a job based on a claim to know English – or just go ahead and do their best.  Presumably this person did not think of consulting a native speaker themselves.  Perhaps this person even thought that he or she *could* write English at the native level.  In any case, I think we should have sympathy for this person.  The job market is tough in Georgia and the education system categorically fails to teach proper English, so what is a person to do if they want to feed their family and all they have is a degree in tourism or marketing and a B2 command of English?

So let’s not blame individuals.  Systemically, the institutions in this country generally fail to realize their employees’ inadequacy as English translators, copywriters, and proofreaders.

English teachers in Georgia are often asked to translate materials into English as (unpaid but mandatory) side work at their schools.  A teacher who is qualified to teach students at the A1 or A2 or B1 level (beginner through intermediate, say) is not necessarily qualified to translate academic or professional texts – a C-level task.  No one in Georgian schools speaks C-level English unless they’ve lived abroad or had some kind of extraordinary circumstance (like the ten-year-old girl I once taught who watched hours of English television a day and could speak flawlessly in not one but a variety of American accents), and even they might not be able to produce professional written texts.

Teaching skills are different from writing skills, and the basic communication taught in high school EFL is insufficient for either teaching or professional writing.  None of this is a dig on Georgian education.  I wouldn’t hire an American to write or proofread professional copy in a foreign language if they had only encountered that language in school.  If they hadn’t lived among native speakers of that language for at least a year I just wouldn’t trust them to have a native’s ear for the language, no matter what their diploma said.  And even then, I’d still prefer a native speaker for the job.

So really, what needs to happen is that firms (corporations and government agencies) have to decide, at the highest levels, to take accountability for the quality of English texts they produce, and hire qualified and competent proofreaders accordingly.  Until that becomes standard practice, the production of professional Georgian English will remain a laughingstock and an embarrassment.

And yes, I know Georgia has worse problems.  Still, if my business was trying to lure rich Tbilisians out to the airport highway to shop at stores most of which already exist all over the rest of the city, I’d make damned sure I spent eight of my marketing dollars to get the website copy proofed by a native speaker.

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