Return of the prodigal Hamburger

People with German ancestry are the single largest ethnic group in US.  Yet, it’s a testament to their ubiquity that it’s often not understood by Americans themselves just how subtly German popular culture has influenced their own.  My mother’s family are typical German-Americans as they live in Midwest in a semi-rural setting. German-americans largely live in “fly over” country, not the coasts.  My great grand-parents immigrated to the US shortly before World War 1 and made a bee-line to Midwest and it’s promise of relatively cheap farm land.  My Grandmother spoke a dialect of German (similar to Luxembourgish or Blatt in Alsace) with her parents and 14 brothers and sisters.  While she continued to speak German with her sisters into old age it was very much a private, behind closed doors activity.  The last thing she would have ever considered was teaching her own children to speak German.  World War 2 comprehensively denatured a whole generation of Germanic Americans.

In the Americas (aka the New World), the word “European” is used almost as a snobby superlative.  There is common delusion, for example,  that all Frenchmen are chain-smoking philsophes with 3 mistresses and a fine wine cellar.  Germans are coldly efficient techocrats, and so forth.  OK, there is some truth to stereotypes, but most “culture” is low-brow, and Europeans are no exception.  I put forth to you that much of Midwestern US “redneck” culture is German popular culture, crudely grafted to a new location.

The most obvious vestige of this German heritage is food.  Much of what we think of as generic “American” food is German; Hamburgers, sausages (including the ubiquitous hot dog), inordinate fondness for bread, dill pickles, potato pancakes, fried fish and beer to name a few.  If you’ve eaten at a State fair in the US and then attended a similar event in Germany, the parallels are obvious.  Home style baking in the US is largely influenced by German, not British or French, tastes.  The German fondness for big portions arrived in America and immediately took steroids.  The apfel doesn’t fall from the tree, y’all.

In my last post I mentioned that I took part in a 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation last weekend  https://wordpress.com/post/expatpowerlifter.com/1438.  The competition took place is a smallish town in a beautiful semi-rural setting to the north-east of Cologne.  In short, it was the German equivalent of the community that my mother’s family hails from in the US.  And, yes, it was a powerlifting meet, not post-doctorate symposium on String Theory.  It was a perfect setting to observe German popular culture in action.

First, however, a quick word about me and the German language.  I’ve never failed so completely to learn a language.  Experience has shown that give me a Romance or creole/pidgen language and I’m off to the races…so I’m not a language dunce.  It was therefore with quite a bit of hubris that I began my study of German…and failed spectacularly.  My kids speak (amongst other languages) German and my daughter has a special fondness for it, maybe because it confounds her parents.

Nevertheless, when I arrived in the parking lot of the facility that was hosting the competition, I couldn’t help but feel at home.  There was just a very familiar red-necky vibe…if I squinted a bit I might have been in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Literally,  as in some of them looked like cousins of mine, dark hair, stocky compact builds.  Beer, check, fried food, check, baked goods, check.  Talk about sports, check, talk about cars, check, crude jokes, check.  “Unique” grooming and vestimentary choices, check.  The attitudes, the facial expressions were uncannily like a backyard BBQ in Michigan.  Good people, for the most part, but with a pronounced insular streak, just like back home.  The event was only in German so good luck to the non-Germanophones.  I was the only non-European at the event and people couldn’t have cared less except for a few odd grumbles about my lack of German.   Again, just like you know where.  (The ironic part is that I am 1m80, fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.  So I while look the part in a central casting sort of way, the reality is most Germans don’t seem to fit the blond hair/blue eyes mold.  In my experience, it’s much more common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.)

I wish I could describe this feeling better.  I feel more comfortable in a similar situation in the UK or France, Belgium, etc because I speak the languages.  Yet, in spite of my profound ignorance of the language, this felt more “familiar”.  It felt like home.  Take that as you will.  Home is often far from perfect, but it undeniably informs who you are.

The Mythical Land of Oz

 

I was born in The Land Down Under.  While it wasn’t exactly an accident of birth (heck, I was even conceived in Oz) my birthplace is not one of my more salient facts.  If you met me today absolutely nothing about me screams, or even whispers, Australian.  I am relatively unsullied by and downright ignorant of things Oz-related.  The closest I’ve to Australia in the past few decades has been in travelling SE Asia and, culturally speaking, attending a Midnight Oil gig at the Paradise in Boston way back in the day.   (Oh, yeah, and I read The Fatal Shore  some years back)  You see, my parents were expatriates at the time and we left Oz when I was still a wee sprog.  Realistically, I’ve not really been there…and yet, in a rather important sense, I have.

It’s funny how seemingly insignificant facts can influence one’s life.  I feel like the Mariner in Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Australia is the Albatross around my neck. It’s a fact that I’m not allowed to forget and that I am required to explain the circumstances of ad infinitum.  This is no slight on Australia, by all accounts I hear it’s a lovely place and the Australians I’ve met, without exception, were good craic.  You’d be surprised how many official and professional documents require to list your birthplace.  Often these documents assume your birthplace=your nationality which always requires further explanation for people like me.  For some reason, this singles me out for extra questioning at Customs/passport control without fail in Anglophone countries.  “Let’s see, you were born in Australia, you are X nationality, you’ve traveled widely and you live in Y country”.  So you’re obliged to give the whole spiel about who you are.  Interestingly, Customs agents in non-English speaking countries don’t bat an eyelid – never question it.  I wonder, when I do eventually visit Australia,  if Australian Customs will even notice.  It’d be hysterical if they didn’t.

A few years back I found myself in a fairly stressful situation.  I was being interviewed by a committee and they had my dossier.  The forms in my dossier asked for my place of birth but not my nationality.  I should note that this interview was not in English so while I have a slight Anglophone accent, it’d be rather hard to judge my nationality.  Anyway, they lit up like Christmas trees when they saw the word Australia and people started to wax melodic about Sydney, the Outback, Barossa Valley, etc.  I just smiled and made non-commital comments, neither denying nor confirming my Aussie-tude.  The rest of interview went swimmingly, better than I can could have imagined.  Cheers, Australia.

Those of us of a certain age will remember things Australian were hugely trendy in the 80s – at least in North America.  This was largely due to a God-awful movie called Crocodile Dundee, a film that has not aged well at all.  Honestly, try watching it now, it’s painfully bad.  People at that time just couldn’t get enough of Australian accents – it was a veritable strine-mania.  I remember briefly thinking they were cool without giving it too much thought.  I do watch Australian TV shows (via Netflix and UK-based TV) these days and I can’t help wondering why Australian accents were considered cool.  They’re just as horrid as any other accent, but that’s not necessarily a pejorative.  It means they’ve got character.  I lived in Boston for 12 years and during that time I had a complicated relationship with the real Bawstin accent, theah.  It grated on me after a while.  Now, when I hear a real honest to goodness Boston accent, I can’t help but smile, I love it.  The Boston accent has character, it’s like no other US accent you’ll hear.  It’s also a reflection of the culture, it’s an unapologetic, unique mindset of its own.  People from Mass can be loud, brash, bordering on the obnoxious sometimes but also funny and really good-hearted.

So I am thinking of finally visiting Australia next year.  Mostly sticking to Sydney and Melbourne but I’m open to suggestions.  I will also probably visit, for the complete heck of it, the city of my birth as it’s between Sydney and Melbourne.   Also looking to visit the best powerlifting gyms I can find in those locations. If anybody has suggestions about what to do in Australia in general or powerlifting gyms in particular, I’d be much obliged.

 

Been down so long looks like up to me

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To those of you who started reading this post because you are fans of Richard Farina – my apologies.  This post will not discuss his seminal novel of the same name/title (see above).  For some reason when I sat down to ponder reverse culture shock this phrase/title literally popped into my head.  Score one for the subconscious, that industrious bastard is always cooking up something on the down low.  I think maybe the title came to me because (forgive me, it’s been maybe 30 years since I read the novel) on a broader sense the novel is about shifting paradigms, of examining the familiar from a different critical perspective.  Or maybe it’s just a really cool title.  Perhaps a little of both.

Anyway, I have been pondering this phenomenon of late.  Is it a real thing?  The short answer is “yes”.  Has technology muddied the waters?  Oh hell yes.  (“Muddied the waters”, man, the ol’ subconcious is working overtime today.  I just realized that the title of this post( and Richard Farina’s book) originally comes from an old Blues song.  Muddy Waters didn’t sing it, but you see where I’m going with this…)  Technology, and how it affects acculturation, is a subject fit for a book, not just a blog post.  Suffice it to say that when I was a kid, living outside of my “passport” country, my only real links to that culture were my parents and books.  Powerful forces, to be sure, but add satellite dishes and the internet and you have a very effective layer of insulation between you and the host culture.  This phenomenon is, of course, a very sharp double-edged sword.

Let’s assume, hopefully, that one has adapted in a healthy way to their new host country.  After living there for a number of years you should have learned the language and culture mores, made friends/social acquaintances of different nationalities and feel comfortable, “at home”,  in your host country.   Granted, you have increased ties to your “homeland” thanks to technology, but let’s not forget that those ties are “virtual” at best.  Let’s assume that distance (and maybe inclination) precludes you from visiting your home country often.  At what point does “reverse” culture shock kick in?  2 months, 1 year, 15 years?  And what is reverse culture shock anyway?  A sense of anomie in one’s own country?  This short article from Investopedia (of all sources) describes it fairly well: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

To add some personal perspective to the issue, I will say that nothing is weirder than experiencing culture shock in your own culture.  By now, I have lived outside of my home culture country the majority of my life.  I do make it back there, albeit very infrequently.  The first few days are always a complete head-wrecker.  No joke, I sometimes lean on friends and family in certain situations to tell me what to do or add context, as if they’re cultural Sherpas or something.  It’s faintly ridiculous, of course, so it’s best to recognize the humor and roll with it.  To answer the question above, all the TV and YouTube videos in the world cannot (re)acclimate you sufficiently to a culture.  You need to live in that culture.  While reverse culture shock is indeed a thing, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ve got all the tools you need: family, friends, language, etc.  Reverse culture shock just means that your mastery of the culture has become a bit fuzzy and needs some fine-tuning, like trying to improve the focus of a local UHF TV channel back in the day.  (For you young’uns who don’t get that reference, look it up on the interwebs).

 

 

 

 

The best books you’ve never read

 

 

The purpose of this post is share my all time best literary “finds”.  My definition of a “find” is a work that is not mainstream but undeniably brilliant.  These books are, in my opinion, masterpieces.  A masterpiece is, in my experience,  a book that is usually not very accessible at first but once you’ve entered it’s universe you feel your mind literally expanding.  It’s technically brilliant, it offers unique perspectives and tackles multiple universal themes simultaneously.  You can revisit/reread these works many times and you’ll learn something new.  Hamlet, Moby Dick, The Invisible Man and The Iliad are some of my favorite works and are undeniable masterpieces,  but they aren’t exactly finds. I’d like to start a dialogue in which we share our favorite, lesser known books.  In essence, I’m saying “Trust me, you might not have heard of this book, but it’s well worth your time”  So, without further ado, below a few of my best, unexpected finds.

  • “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz:  This one almost qualifies as mainstream as it had much critical praise and won many literary awards when it was published.  There is a relatively small but fervent bad of “Oscar Wao”-heads and I count myself among them.  This book deserves a much wider audience, I think, now more than ever.  “Oscar Wao” is ostensibly about a sensitive, obese young Dominican nerd growing up between NJ and the Dominican Republic in the late 70s and into the 80s.  It explores so many themes so well that I actually had to put the book down a few times when I first read it – from sheer exhilaration.  My mind was blown.  I have reread this many, many times.  Some books will make you laugh and some will make you cry, but Oscar Wao is the only book I’ve read that will make you do both.  For real, don’t read this on the subway or you risk making a scene of yourself.  (Sidenote:  I grew up in the Caribbean (in a country veeerrry close to the DR – hint) during the time this book takes place and also spend a certain amount of amongst Caribbean communities on the US East Coast so the book resonates even with me, a quiche-eating gringo/blan.  The language, the descriptions of Caribbean history and culture, comic books, youth culture of the time, hip-hop, the outrageously debilitating “fineness” of Dominican women, it’s all there.)
  • The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra:  The subtitle of this books is “An Explanation of the Parallels of Eastern Mysticism and Modern Physics” which sums it up pretty neatly.  I love this book for many reasons, not the least being that it’s a “period” piece.  This book could only have been written in California in the early 70s.  It fairly reeks of patchiouli oil and acid trips, but I mean that in a positive sense.  Fritjof Capra was a renowned Quantum physicists whose “aha” moment came, as one might imagine, whilst he was tripping balls at Big Sur.  If you’ve ever wondered why leading physicists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr were adepts of Eastern Mystical traditions long before they became trendy in the west, this book answers that question.  Granted, some of the physics is somewhat dated (at least in my old edition) but the basic premise remains valid.  Capra succeeds in describing the basics of each tradition and the underlying theories of Quantum physics and ties them neatly together.  I’ve read and reread this book many times and will often just revisit specific chapters.
  • The Zanzibar Chest” by Aidan Hartley:  This book is very much off the radar, I suspect.  It’s a nonfiction work that tells the story of the author’s work as a Nairobi based Reuters correspondent in the 90s.  It’s also part family history as Hartley frames his story in the wider context of his family who were British colonial expats par excellence.  As a correspondent, Hartley covered most of the well-known “micro” wars from the Balkans to Rwanda, Somalia and beyond.  This book was criticized when it was published for lacking politically correctness.  Hartley is both a product of British colonialism and a war correspondent.  He doesn’t try, however,  to whitewash his past or his some of his behavior, about which he himself is very conflicted.  Hartley’s own story, and stories he reports on, are very Joseph Conrad-ian in tenor.  In the age of the Oxfam scandal (in my “home” country no less, and no, not at all surprised – such behavior is the rule, not the exception.) this book is perhaps a bit less shocking.  As somebody who has lived and worked a fair bit in various parts of Africa, as student of history and as a human being I found this book to be riveting.  It’s book that stays with you long after you’ve read it and one that you will most probably read more than once.

3 lesser known books that are well worth your time.  What are your favorite finds?  Please comment down below.

Coming to America…and then leaving.

In the mid-80s I was finishing my somewhat checkered high-school career in a 3rd, no, scratch that, 4th world country somewhere in Latin America.  I lived with my mother who is a highly educated, brilliant woman who, nevertheless, was not paid very much at that point in her career.  Anybody familiar with 3rd world countries knows that scratching out a living is a challenge.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – forget NYC, which is a cakewalk in comparison.

Anyway, we had a standard of living that you might call middle-class for that country (whose middle-class was very small indeed) but would probably be considered poverty level in the US or Europe.  I should add that as blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man I rather stuck out in the neighborhood.  (NB:  I am American born to US parents, I just wasn’t born nor spent most of my formative years there).   Without straying too far into the minefield of political correctness, suffice it to say that without money in a place like this you are powerless.  I learned early on that many people of who have any sort of power love to see desperate people squirm.  I had a very hard time with that dynamic, it stuck in my throat.

It wasn’t all bad.  I wouldn’t have swapped growing up there, at the time that I did, in the way that I did, for anything.  It’s an amazing country, culturally vibrant, amazing beaches and blessed with a very funny, welcoming populace.  I was an overwhelming minority, and people brought it to my attention all the time, but it was usually not mean-spirited. It was so much fun that, upon discovering partying and girls, I pretty much kissed my high school career goodbye.  In spite of outstanding SAT scores and potential, I barely graduated from high school.  2 weeks later my long-suffering mother wished me well and put me on a plane for States.  I was 18 years old, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket and vague plans of either living with my sister (who was going to college) or some high school buds who were in very similar situation.  I hadn’t bothered to apply to any colleges because my grades and financial situation meant it wasn’t an option.

Given my level of maturity and proclivity for partying, I lasted roughly 3 weeks with my sister before she gave me the heave-ho.  I didn’t have any hard feelings then, nor do I now.  It was best for everyone that I go.  So I took the train a few hundred miles up the East coast to join up with my aforementioned pals.  The five of us managed to score a small studio that was leased to one of the guys’ older brother.  We had 2 twin beds and 3 additional mattresses on the floor.  We had to be very careful about not drawing attention to ourselves given we’d have been thrown out if the landlord found out 5 guys were living in 1 studio.

Failure was not an option and that realization clarified my goals and game-plan almost immediately.  I knew I was in for a few years of hard-slogging so I resolved to make the best of it.  Crappy, minimum wage dead-end jobs weren’t going to cut it as they were a waste of time and potential.  I took the best-paying jobs a mere high school graduate could hope to score, but also ones that would hopefully allow me to progress to better jobs.  I started working in high-end restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then bus-boy, waiter, apprentice baker and eventually as a commis.  Restaurant work was exhausting, but it was an education.  There were periods when I held down 2 jobs.  All the while I lived in series of horrible apartments in crappy neighborhoods with, of course, room-mates who were in similar situations.

I eventually scored a mail-room gig in a bank in the financial district.  I mean, this was straight up old school – I don’t think mail rooms even exist any more.  Basically I delivered mail, and written memos (common use of email – and networked PCs – where still a year or 2 down the road) as well as performed a number of odd-jobs.  I busted my butt and hustled on every single task because I knew it was the only way to get noticed.  I eventually was promoted into “Data Processing” (the IT department as it’s generally known now) and I was off to the races.  I began to acquire valuable skills that enabled me to find better paying jobs, pursue my college degree (while working full-time) and, some years later, finally get an apartment all to myself.  This was the Holy Grail, a studio in a trendy downtown neighborhood.  It was also strangely lonely at first, after so many years of living with friends.

I finally had my own apartment, a college degree, a less than impressive used car and a decent job that employed both my IT and language skills.  I traveled often to Latin American, Africa and Europe for work.  I’m happy to say that all of my pals from the “5 guys in a studio” days had similar trajectories.  So there came a point when we were victims of our own success in the sense that people began to move away to follow their careers.  I had just turned 30 and I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to stay.  Many of my friends were moving away and I had just ended a serious relationship.

This was at the height of the “internet boom” of the 90s.  I realized that I had been working very hard over the last 12 years, often taking, at best, a week of vacation per year.  I figured that I could probably find another job pretty easily.  So I quit my job to go backpacking for a few months through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with these French girls I knew.  I have never, before or since, taken off that much time just to do my own thing.  For those of you who know Mexico, at the time Playa del Carmen was a village where we rented hammocks on the beach for 3 dollars a day (i.e. you slept in them) and there was virtually nothing in Tulum.  Hanging at the beach all day and sleeping under these huge palapas, surrounded by legions of hot euro-babes, I though I had died and gone to heaven.  Not to mention the cheap tacos, ceviche and beer.

When I got back to the US, I found out that I had scored a 2 year contract in Europe was welcome news as I was short of funds and I was itching to move.  So I did, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’ve only been back a few times given most of my family is living elsewhere.

I often wonder if my trajectory would be possible for a young guy starting out now.  I sincerely doubt it.  Firstly, I did not have to deal with globalization so I was competing for jobs on a national, not international level.  I was at the tail-end of the last generation when it possible to pull yourself out of the muck without impeccable academic credentials.  Also, by going to a very good state university (partially subsidized by my job) I graduated without crippling debt.  In my generation, having any college degree on your CV was good enough to get your foot in the door.   From what I hear and read in the US media, that is not the case any more.

As a father and somebody who interacts a fair amount with younger people, I always try to stress that excelling academically is actually the best way, to “hack” the system.   If you’re a young person blessed with the common sense to not go off the rails academically AND have a good idea of what you want to do in life, you have an enormous advantage.  I was able to find a reasonable level of success, but I worked extremely hard to do so.  Young people these day do not have the luxury my generation had of going to college to “find themselves” or earn less than practical degrees.  In the age of outsourcing, you best choose your academic path extremely wisely and pursue that career to the best of your ability.

 

 

Most Embarrassing Gym Stories

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Gyms are a sub-culture unto their own.  The reason that some people find Gyms, and especially specialized Gyms/Training facilities, so daunting is the mini-“culture shock” of learning parameters of this subculture.   These are the “do’s and dont’s” that allow one to avoid “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, aka complete social humiliation.   Sometimes, however well-versed one is in gym culture, we all fall prey to the occasional faux pas.

A few years ago, when I first started getting interested in powerlifting, I trained exclusively at a big commercial “Globo” gym.  My enthusiasm for squats was matched by only by my complete, blissful ignorance of technique.  So there I was in a squat rack – completely raw – no knee sleeves, wristwraps, shoes or belt – but on the other hand the weight I was lifting probably didn’t warrant that.   In those days my benchpress was many kilos more than my squat.  To my credit, though, I was wearing Chuck Taylors, and not spongy running shoes.  I was also wearing those sort of thin nylon running trousers, the type you wear to go running when it might rain a bit.  They were the only non-shorts gym bottoms I owned and they had a drawstring that I could tighten to avoid the dreaded “carpenters’ crack” at the bottom of a squat.  They were not, however, very heavy-duty.  Anyway, I am at doing my 5×5 squats at 6:30PM on a Monday night, the height of gym rush-hour.  I am on the 4th rep of the last set, coming out of the “hole” when I hear an audible tearing noise, then a pop and, suddenly, a cool breeze invigorates my nether regions.   The trousers had split wide open from the waistband down to my knee.  The ‘back end” of the trousers had ceased to exist. You know how mothers always tell their kids to wear clean underwear in case they get into an accident?  Words to live by, y’all.

Not long after the “Flapping in the breeze” incident, another ignominious event took place at the same Globo gym.  The gym was packed and I had just completed a killer training session.  I was more than a little light-headed as I proceeded to the showers with my brand new towel, which I had literally just bought at a store just before going to the gym.  The showers in this gym have towel hooks to right of each shower stall (which are enclosed by doors).  So as I faced the shower I hung my towel on the hook to the right of my shower door and took a nice hot shower.  As I exited the shower with steam and water in my eyes, I reached to my right, grabbed the towel and vigorously dried every damp nook and cranny.  This towel went from dry and pristine to wet and befouled in roughly 20 seconds.  As I opened my eyes, I realized to my horror that I had just besmirched somebody else’s towel.  Just as this dawned on me, the owner of said towel exited his shower.  No, he was not pleased and no, he would not accept my brand new, never been used towel in exchange…nor my apology.  Some people apparently lack social graces as well as the common sense to take an unused new towel.  Oh well, lesson learned, always drape your towel of the shower stall door so it’s impossible to mistake.

Finally, in the embarrassing but unavoidable category, I once tore a hamstring muscle by freak accident during a powerlifting competition.  It was so painful that I could barely walk.  I thought this meant that I couldn’t deadlift and consequently would not finish the competition (meaning my other lifts (squat and benchpress) wouldn’t count) until another competitor pointed out that I could just lift the absolute minimum once.  So I went up to the organizers table and told the nice ladies that I wished to change my first deadlift attempt to 70kgs.  I had to say it 3 times as they thought they hadn’t heard me correctly.  I explained that I had hurt my leg but I sort of still got some side-eye.  Anyway, the message didn’t get to the team loading the plates so when my name was called they had to take plates off and leave, I believe, just 2 measly blues on the bar.  Most of the spectators didn’t I know was injured so the scene must have looked faintly ridiculous;  some burly dude walking out for a 70kg deadlift in a competition.  So I “hammed” it up a bit as I hobbled out to the bar, sort of did my deadlift set-up, and invented what might be a new deadlift form – the modified Bulgarian split deadlift.  I did the lift, got 3 white lights, and informed the nice ladies that I wouldn’t take my other lifts.

What are your most egregious gym gaffes?

Gym Etiquette – Unsolicited advice vs. Solicited advice

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Warning – this post will likely appeal mostly to hardcore gym rats and/or inveterate students of human behavior.  As I have said in a previous post, a gym is to human behavior what a watering hole is to the Serengeti.  You see a lot of different types of behavior concentrated in a relatively small space.

Today’s topic of discussion concerns what is perhaps the thorniest topic in the entire canon of Gym Etiquette – unsolicited gym advice.  Should you ever offer advice to somebody at the gym and, if so, under what circumstances?  Also, how should you handle unsolicited advice?   Finally, on rare occasions you might be asked for advice or will ask somebody else for theirs – what is the best way to do this?

First let’s establish the parameters:  we are talking about a large commercial gym and you are interacting with somebody you don’t know.  I will also assume that you, dear reader, are reasonably adept at reading social cues.  In a commercial gyms we need to:

  • Realize that a big commercial gym is, sociologically speaking a public space akin to a subway or a shopping center.  The norm for interaction with strangers in these cases is usually limited to a brief smile or nod and maybe brief eye contact.  You might speak briefly to strangers in all of these contexts, but you would not normally  share your unsolicited opinion.  It’s the sort of behavior that makes people change seats on the subway.
  • Realize that people in big commercial gyms have wildly different goals.  Some people want to lose weight, others just want to get jacked, or just get out of the house, or might not even have a clear goal just yet.  How do you know your advice is relevant to a complete stranger?
  • Be sensitive to social norms when travelling.  Social norms for public spaces such as gyms differ from country to country.
  • Realize that the business model of most large commercial gyms does not always empower the client.  It’s more profitable to install weight machines (almost zero knowledge or technique needed), change half-baked classes frequently (Zumba-combat) and have trainers who run people through bosu ball and mini-trampoline workouts.  Novelty sells.  In short, a lot of people in the gym aren’t learning a new skill or any useful information.  It engenders constant beginner syndrome which is psychologically fatiguing.  Approach with caution, Mr. Knowitall.

Given the social dynamics we’ve just explored, in my opinion, I think you could or should offer unsolicited advice in the following situations:

  • Imminent danger – Barbell training is a skill that has to be learned.  Done improperly you can potentially harm yourself.  People new to the sport sometimes unintentionally put themselves in danger.  I have pulled failed bench presses off solo benchpressers who didn’t use safety pins or ask for a spot.  I’ve also had to jump in more than once to re-rack bars for people who squat backwards (i.e. go forward out of the J hooks and then back up (blindly) to re-rack the weight).  Deadlifts are a grey area, sometimes you will see somebody with terrible form attempt weights that are way too heavy.  In most cases, I don’t say anything unless they are kids or seniors.
  • Advice hacking – Every so often, I’ll be in a commercial gym and I can see that somebody in the rack next to me who is obviously new to barbell training but visibly enthusiastic about it.  Clues include new weightlifting belt and shoes while making some obvious beginner errors (example, knees caving in while squatting or leaving that foam thingy on the bar).  I have soft spot for these people because I remember how enthusiastic I was in the beginning and also how (at first) I had nobody to teach me the finer points.  So I might start-up an innocuous conversation  (hey, I am looking for a pair those shoes, where did you get them?) and if the conversation progresses, talk a bit about technique cues that I like to do.  Notice I did not say “you should fix a, b and c”.

Those are only scenarios in which I think one could or should interject themselves into a strangers’ workout.  I should also point out that I’ve never attempted to give unsolicited “beginner” pointers to a woman I don’t know.   One could be accused of Mansplaining, having ulterior motives, etc.  Finally, I should point out that the unsolicited advice dynamic is not the same in speciality gyms (powerlifting, etc).  These gyms are smaller, people share the same specific goals and the social dynamic is more like a club than a public space.  Chances are people are only too happy to get feedback or discuss technique.

I have received my share of unsolicited advice in commercial gyms and it doesn’t bother me.   I don’t understand why some people get so butt-hurt about it.  I think in most cases it’s simply a way of starting a conversation.  It shows some concern on the other person’s part so God bless ’em. Also, I have actually received some pretty good unsolicited advice – it’s not all bad.  Yes, sometimes you run into Gym Haters but that is the topic for another post.  The unsolicited lifting advice I find objectionable is usually outside the gym.

Solicited advice:  Sometimes I’ll see an experienced lifter doing something new or cool.  In most cases, I might just straight up ask them about it.  If you ask a legit, intelligent question most people love to talk about themselves.  The other day a guy asked me about floor presses I was doing as an accessory to my bench workout.  It was a good question so of course I was cool with discussing it for a few minutes.