BBC 2024-02-28 04:31:35

Biden wins Michigan primary but suffers Gaza protest vote

President Joe Biden is projected to win Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary comfortably, despite tens of thousands of protest votes against him.

Activists urged Democrats to vote “uncommitted” rather than cast a ballot for the president because of his stance towards Israel’s war in Gaza.

With 32% of the votes counted, more than 40,000 had chosen “uncommitted”.

Mr Biden had received 80% of the vote, according to BBC partner CBS News.

In statement that did not reference the campaign against him, Mr Biden thanked “every Michigander who made their voice heard today”.

Mr Biden is largely unopposed in the Democratic Party’s search for a nominee, meaning he is on course to face off in November’s presidential election against Donald Trump – in a rematch of 2020. The former president is also projected to win Tuesday’s Republican primary in Michigan.

In remarks given to a celebration event by his team, Mr Trump was quoted saying it had been a “great day” in Michigan. “[W]e’re going to win big, and it’s going to be like nothing that anybody has ever seen,” he added.

The numbers of “uncommitted” voters surpassed the expectations of some of the groups opposing 81-year-old Mr Biden.

Grassroots organisation Listen to Michigan, which was part of the campaign, also hailed the day as a win.

People were in tears at a watch party hosted by the organisation as updated vote tallies were periodically announced.

Congressman Andy Levin who supported the “vote uncommitted”movement told the crowd: “I take no joy in being here tonight. This moment is a child of necessity because people are dying by the thousands.”

Michigan is one of a handful of major swing states that each party’s nominee will battle for in 2024. Mr Trump won it in 2016, helping propel him to the presidency. But Mr Biden flipped it back in 2020, taking the state by around 150,000 votes.

Tuesday does not mark the first time a significant portion of Michiganders opted to cast votes as “uncommitted”. Around 19,000 residents did so in 2020’s primary and more than 21,601 did so in 2016. In 2008 it was 238,000 – after Barack Obama’s campaign encouraged them to do so, because he chose not to be on the ballot due to party squabbles.

But campaigners in Michigan have been organising for months to send Mr Biden a message of “no ceasefire, no vote” over the war in Gaza. Tuesday’s primary was their first chance to send a statement.

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The state has the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the country. Nationwide, 64% of Muslim voters backed Mr Biden in 2020, according to the AP News agency.

Frustrated with Mr Biden’s backing of Israel during the war, some of his supporters said they had changed their minds.

At Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn – across the railroad tracks from a sprawling Ford factory – the BBC spoke to Hala, 32, who said she voted “uncommitted”.

She did not “want to vote for Genocide Joe”, she explained – alluding to allegations made against the Israeli military during its campaign in Gaza, which Israel strongly denies.

In her heavily Arab-American community, “vote here” signs were translated in Arabic, as well as the pamphlets volunteers handed out encouraging voters to “Abandon Biden”.

Hala – who declined to share her last name for privacy reasons – said she voted for Mr Biden last time, but was was not sure she would do so again when the presidential election came round. “Maybe, if he calls for an immediate ceasefire, but he’s not going to do that,” she said.

Other Democrats remain supportive of Mr Biden, including Kim Murdough, an office manager at a church in the city of Flint.

“I voted Democrat. I personally don’t have an issue with anything that the administration has done,” she said.

She added that concerns about Mr Biden’s age – 81 – were not a deal-breaker for her. “I’d rather have someone in office that forgets a few things than a criminal,” she said, referencing Mr Trump, who faces federal and state criminal charges.

Margaret Won voted for Mr Biden, too. She is mostly happy with the work Mr Biden has done, though said he had been blocked in some of his aims by Republicans in Congress.

She said she wished the frontrunner presidential candidates were younger and said if Ms Haley beat Mr Trump to the Republican nomination, she might get her vote.

Like dozens of other states, Michigan has open primary elections – which means Democrats, Republicans and independents were all able to vote in Tuesday’s contest, though they had to ask for a specific party’s ballot when casting their vote.

Unlike Democrats, the state’s Republican delegates will be formally awarded later at a state convention on 2 March.

But in the wake of the war, the movement has gained endorsements from at least 39 state and local elected officials, including congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud.

“I was proud today to walk in and pull a Democratic ballot and vote uncommitted,” Ms Tlaib said in a video shared to social media. Her sister was the campaign manager for Listen to Michigan campaign, which aimed to score 10,000 “uncommitted” votes.

Samraa Luqman, an activist with the Abandon Biden campaign, said her goal was to “oust somebody from office for having this many lives lost without calling for a ceasefire”.

One woman told the BBC she had even changed parties over the Israel-Hamas conflict. “I always vote Democrat, but this year I voted Republican because of Palestine, because of the massacre of Palestine,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

Senator Gary Peters, from Michigan, told reporters at a meeting arranged by the Biden campaign on Monday that the president understood voters’ concerns about Gaza.

However, the White House has been reluctant to row back its support, sending billions of dollars in military aid to Israel and three times blocking a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Instead the US has called for a pause in fighting and defended Israel’s right to hunt down the Hamas gunmen who killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October. Meanwhile, the death toll in Gaza is nearly 30,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-led health ministry.

Speaking earlier this week, Mr Biden said he hoped there would be a ceasefire by Monday – following reports of some progress in indirect negotiations involving Israeli and Hamas officials..

Michigan’s presidential primary election also came after months of dysfunction among Michigan’s Republican leaders. Earlier this year, the party voted to oust its chair, Trump supporter and election-denier Kristina Karamo, over party in-fighting and fundraising issues.

She had declined to step down from her post, arguing the vote to remove her was illegitimate. A Michigan judge found on Tuesday that she had been properly removed.

Netanyahu and Biden spar over Israel-Gaza war support

Popular support for Israel in the US will help it fight “until total victory” over Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

In a statement, Mr Netanyahu cited polls showing that more than 80% of Americans support Israel during the conflict in Gaza.

His comments come after US President Joe Biden warned that Israel risks losing global support in the war.

US officials say they are working on a possible ceasefire deal.

In his statement on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu said that, since the beginning of the conflict, he has been leading a campaign “countering international pressure to end the war ahead of time and mobilise support for Israel.”

“We have significant successes in this area,” Mr Netanyahu added, citing a recent Harvard-Harris poll showing that 82% of the American public supports Israel. “This gives us more strength to continue the campaign until complete victory.”

On Monday, Mr Biden said the US hopes to have a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza “by next Monday.”

The US president also suggested later on that Israel could “lose support from around the world” if it “keeps up with this incredibly conservative government they have”.

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Another poll, from the Associated Press and Norc, found that about half of US adults in January believed Israel had “gone too far” – up from 40% in November.

White House and State Department officials on Tuesday confirmed that negotiations on a temporary ceasefire were continuing, but declined to give details on the substance of the talks or potential timelines.

John Kirby, the White House’s National Security Council spokesperson, said that “significant progress” had been made towards a deal last week to allow hostages to leave Gaza and let humanitarian assistance in.

“We’re building on that progress this week and the president and his team remain engaged around the clock with multiple partners in the region,” Mr Kirby added.

“But as the president said just in the last 24 hours or so there’s no deal as of yet. And there’s a lot more work to do.”

The ceasefire, Mr Kirby said, would “hopefully” allow for a six-week pause, significantly longer than previous pauses in the fight.

“Maybe that could lead to something more in terms of a better approach to end the conflict,” he said.

At the State Department, spokesman Matthew Miller said that US diplomats – working with Qatar, Egypt and Israel – are “trying to push this deal over the finish line”, but that “ultimately, we would need Hamas to say yes.”

A Hamas official had earlier told BBC News the group’s priorities were on ending hostilities, rather than the release of hostages.

Israel launched a large-scale air and ground offensive in Gaza after Hamas gunmen killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel and took 253 hostages, some of whom have since been released.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip says at least 29,878 people have been killed in the territory since then – including 96 deaths in the past 24 hours – in addition to 70,215 who have been wounded.

Why South Korean women aren’t having babies

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Yejin is cooking lunch for her friends at her apartment, where she lives alone on the outskirts of Seoul, happily single.

While they eat, one of them pulls up a well-worn meme of a cartoon dinosaur on her phone. “Be careful,” the dinosaur says. “Don’t let yourself become extinct like us”.

The women all laugh.

“It’s funny, but it’s dark, because we know we could be causing our own extinction,” says Yejin, a 30-year-old television producer.

Neither she, nor any of her friends, are planning on having children. They are part of a growing community of women choosing the child-free life.

South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world, and it continues to plummet, beating its own staggeringly low record year after year.

Figures released on Wednesday show it fell by another 8% in 2023 to 0.72.

This refers to the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime. For a population to hold steady, that number should be 2.1.

If this trend continues, Korea’s population is estimated to halve by the year 2100.

A ‘national emergency’

Globally, developed countries are seeing birth rates fall, but none in such an extreme way as South Korea.

Its projections are grim.

In 50 years time, the number of working age people will have halved, the pool eligible to take part in the country’s mandatory military service will have shrunk by 58%, and nearly half the population will be older than 65.

This bodes so badly for the country’s economy, pension pot, and security that politicians have declared it “a national emergency”.

For nearly 20 years, successive governments have thrown money at the problem – 379.8 trillion KRW ($286bn; £226bn) to be exact.

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Couples who have children are showered with cash, from monthly handouts to subsidised housing and free taxis. Hospital bills and even IVF treatments are covered, though only for those who are married.

Such financial incentives have not worked, leading politicians to brainstorm more “creative” solutions, like hiring nannies from South East Asia and paying them below minimum wage, and exempting men from serving in the military service if they have three children before turning 30.

Unsurprisingly, policymakers have been accused of not listening to young people – especially women – about their needs. And so, over the past year we have travelled around the country, speaking to women to understand the reasons behind their decision not to have children.

When Yejin decided to live alone in her mid-20s, she defied social norms – in Korea, single living is largely considered a temporary phase in one’s life.

Then five years ago, she decided not to get married, and not to have children.

“It’s hard to find a dateable man in Korea – one who will share the chores and the childcare equally,” she tells me, “And women who have babies alone are not judged kindly.”

In 2022, only 2% of births in South Korea occurred outside of marriage.

‘A perpetual cycle of work’

Instead, Yejin has chosen to focus on her career in television, which, she argues, doesn’t allow her enough time to raise a child anyway. Korean work hours are notoriously long.

Yejin works a traditional 9-6 job (the Korean equivalent of a 9-5) but says she usually doesn’t leave the office until 8pm and there is overtime on top of that. Once she gets home, she only has time to clean the house or exercise before bed.

“I love my job, it brings me so much fulfilment,” she says. “But working in Korea is hard, you’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of work.”

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Yejin says there is also pressure to study in her spare time, to get better at her job: “Koreans have this mindset that if you don’t continuously work on self-improvement, you’re going to get left behind, and become a failure. This fear makes us work twice as hard.”

“Sometimes at the weekends I go and get an IV drip, just to get enough energy to go back to work on Monday,” she adds casually, as if this were a fairly normal weekend activity.

She also shares the same fear of every woman I spoke to – that if she were to take time off to have a child, she might not be able to return to work.

“There is an implicit pressure from companies that when we have children, we must leave our jobs,” she says. She has watched it happen to her sister and her two favourite news presenters.

‘I know too much’

One 28-year-old woman, who worked in HR, said she’d seen people who were forced to leave their jobs or who were passed over for promotions after taking maternity leave, which had been enough to convince her never to have a baby.

Both men and women are entitled to a year’s leave during the first eight years of their child’s life. But in 2022, only 7% of new fathers used some of their leave, compared to 70% of new mothers.

Korean women are the most highly educated of those in OECD countries, and yet the country has the worst gender pay gap and a higher-than-average proportion of women out of work compared to men.

Researchers say this proves they are being presented with a trade-off – have a career or have a family. Increasingly, they are choosing a career.

I met Stella Shin at an afterschool club, where she teaches five-year-olds English.

“Look at the children. They’re so cute,” she cooed. But at 39, Stella does not have children of her own. It was not an active decision, she says.

She has been married for six years, and both she and her husband wanted a child but were so busy working and enjoying themselves that time slipped away. Now she has accepted that her lifestyle makes it “impossible”.

“Mothers need to quit work to look after their child full time for the first two years, and this would make me very depressed,” she said. “I love my career and taking care of myself.”

In her spare time Stella attends K-pop dance classes with a group of older women.

This expectation that women take two to three years off work when they have a child is common among women. When I asked Stella whether she could share the parental leave with her husband, she dismissed me with a look.

“It’s like when I make him do the dishes and he always misses a bit, I couldn’t rely on him,” she said.

Even if she wanted to give up work, or juggle a family and a career, she said she could not afford to because the cost of housing is too high.

More than half the population live in or around the capital Seoul, which is where the vast majority of opportunities are, creating huge pressure on apartments and resources. Stella and her husband have been gradually pushed further and further away from the capital, into neighbouring provinces, and are still unable to buy their own place.

Seoul’s birth rate has sunk to 0.55 – the lowest in the country.

Housing aside, there is the cost of private education.

From the age of four, children are sent to an array of expensive extra-curricular classes – from maths and English, to music and Taekwondo.

The practice is so widespread that to opt out is seen as setting your child up to fail, an inconceivable notion in hyper-competitive Korea. This has made it the most expensive country in the world to raise a child.

A 2022 study found that only 2% of parents did not pay for private tuition, while 94% said it was a financial burden.

As a teacher at one of these cram schools, Stella understands the burden all too well. She watches parents spend up to £700 ($890) per child a month, many of whom cannot afford it.

“But without these classes, the children fall behind,” she said. “When I’m around the children, I want to have one, but I know too much.”

For some, this system of excessive private tuition cuts deeper than cost.

“Minji” wanted to share her experience, but not publicly. She is not ready for her parents to know she will not be having children. “They will be so shocked and disappointed,” she said, from the coastal city of Busan, where she lives with her husband.

Minji confided that her childhood and 20s had been unhappy.

“I’ve spent my whole life studying,” she said – first to get into a good university, then for her civil servant exams, and then to get her first job at 28.

She remembers her childhood years spent in classrooms until late at night, cramming maths, which she loathed and was bad at, while she dreamed of being an artist.

“I’ve had to compete endlessly, not to achieve my dreams, but just to live a mediocre life,” she said. “It’s been so draining.”

Only now, aged 32, does Minji feel free, and able to enjoy herself. She loves to travel and is learning to dive.

But her biggest consideration is that she does not want to put a child through the same competitive misery she experienced.

“Korea is not a place where children can live happily,” she has concluded. Her husband would like a child, and they used to fight about it constantly, but he has come to accept her wishes. Occasionally her heart wavers, she admits, but then she remembers why it cannot be.

A depressing social phenomenon

Over in the city of Daejon, Jungyeon Chun, is in what she calls a “single-parenting marriage”. After picking up her seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son from school, she tours the nearby playgrounds, passing the hours until her husband returns from work. He rarely makes it home by bedtime.

“I didn’t feel like I was making a major decision having children, I thought I would be able to return to work pretty quickly,” she said.

But soon the social and financial pressures kicked in, and to her surprise she found herself parenting alone. Her husband, a trade unionist, did not help with the childcare or the housework.

“I felt so angry,” she said. “I had been well-educated and taught that women were equal, so I could not accept this.”

This sits at the heart of the problem.

Over the past 50 years, Korea’s economy has developed at break-neck speed, propelling women into higher education and the workforce, and expanding their ambitions, but the roles of wife and mother have not evolved at nearly the same pace.

Frustrated, Jungyeon began to observe other mothers. “I was like, ‘Oh, my friend who’s raising a child is also depressed and my friend across the street is depressed too’ and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a social phenomenon’.”

She began to doodle her experiences and post them online. “The stories were pouring out of me,” she said. Her webtoon became a huge success, as women across the country related to her work, and Jungyeon is now the author of three published comic books.

Now she says she is past the stage of anger and regret. “I just wish I’d known more about the reality of raising kids, and how much mothers are expected to do,” she said. “The reason women are not having children now is because they have the courage to talk about it.”

But Jungyeon is sad, she says, that women are being denied the wonder of motherhood, because of the “tragic situation they will be forced into”.

But Minji says she is grateful she has agency. “We are the first generation who get to choose. Before it was a given, we had to have children. And so we choose not to because we can.”

‘I’d have 10 children if I could’

Back at Yejin’s apartment, after lunch, her friends are haggling over her books and other belongings.

Fatigued with life in Korea, Yejin has decided to leave for New Zealand. She woke up one morning with a lightbulb realisation that no-one was forcing her to live here.

She researched which countries ranked highly on gender equality, and New Zealand emerged a clear winner. “It’s a place where men and women are paid equally,” she says, almost disbelievingly, “So I’m off.”

I ask Yejin and her friends what, if anything, could convince them to change their minds.

Minsung’s answer surprises me. “I’d love to have children. I’d have 10 if I could,” So, what’s stopping her, I ask? The 27-year-old tells me she is bisexual and has a same-sex partner.

Same-sex marriage is illegal in South Korea, and unmarried women are not generally permitted to use sperm donors to conceive.

“Hopefully one day this will change, and I’ll be able to marry and have children with the person I love,” she says.

The friends point out the irony, given Korea’s precarious demographic situation, that some women who want to be mothers are not allowed to be.

But it appears politicians might slowly be accepting the depth and complexity of the crisis.

This month, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged that the attempts to spend their way out of the problem “hadn’t worked”, and that South Korea was “excessively and unnecessarily competitive”.

He said his government would now treat the low birth rate as a “structural problem” – though how this will translate into policy is still to be seen.

Earlier this month, I caught up with Yejin from New Zealand, where she had been living for three months.

She was buzzing about her new life and friends, and her job working in the kitchen of a pub. “My work-life balance is so much better,” she said. She can arrange to meet her friends during the week.

“I feel so much more respected at work and people are less judgemental,” she added.

“It’s making me not want to go home.”

Additional reporting by Leehyun Choi and Hosu Lee

Related Topics

  • Asia
  • Women
  • South Korea
  • Parental leave

How to become a ‘supercommunicator’

In his book Supercommunicators, the writer Charles Duhigg argues that you can learn to get better at connecting with people. David Robson asks him about the neuroscience, how he improved conversations with his partner – and what he learnt from The Big Bang Theory sitcom.

A rich, deep conversation can be wonderful, yet feels rare in day-to-day life. Whether it’s with your partner, family or a colleague, it’s easy to find yourself talking at cross-purposes or unintentionally falling into pointless disputes, without ever understanding one another.

How can we avoid these pitfalls? To find out, science writer David Robson spoke to author Charles Duhigg about his new book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection.

How do you define a supercommunicator?

So I have a question. If you were having a bad day, and you wanted to call a friend, and you just knew that talking to this person would make you feel better – does someone come to mind?

Definitely, I immediately think of one of my best friends.

So for you, she is a supercommunicator, and you are probably a supercommunicator for her. You both know how to listen to each other in a way that you really hear what the other person is saying. And you know how to prove that you’re listening. You know how to ask the right questions, the questions that really make you realise things about yourself, and she gives you evidence that she wants to be there for you.

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Now, some people do that consistently. They can connect with almost anyone. And those people are consistent supercommunicators. When I started reporting this book, I figured that these people must be really charismatic, or extroverts. But it turns out that it’s just a set of skills or tools that anyone can learn.

What does neuroscience tell us about the secrets of good communication?

When any of us communicate, our bodies and our brains become entrained. The pupils of our eyes are beginning to dilate at basically the same rate, and our breathing patterns are starting to match each other. And most importantly, our neural activity is becoming more and more alike, as we are beginning to think the same way. The point of communication is that I can describe feeling an emotion or experiencing an idea, and you then feel some version of that. Our brains would become more and more similar.

In your book, you cite some beautiful research by the neuroscientist Beau Sievers, which reveals how supercommunicators change group dynamics.

It’s really fascinating. He put these groups together and asked them to discuss some movie clips that were really confusing. He found that some groups just bonded and connected with each other, and their answers were much better. Inside each of those groups, there was at least one person who was a supercommunicator. They would do things like ask 10-20 times as many questions as the average person. Some of their questions were designed to invite other people into a dialogue and others allowed the other people to expose something more meaningful about themselves. These participants also matched the other people’s jollity or seriousness.

Talking at cross-purposes happens when two people are having different ‘types’ of conversation (Credit: Getty Images)

Most importantly, they recognised that there are different kinds of conversations. Most of us think that a discussion is about one thing. We’re talking about my day at work or my kid’s grades. But actually, every discussion is made up of different kinds of conversations, and most of them fall into one of three buckets. There are practical conversations, where we’re making plans or solving problems. There are emotional conversations, where I’m telling you how I’m feeling, and I want you to listen and empathise. And then there are social conversations, which are how we relate to each other and the social identities we carry with us. Sievers found that supercommunicators are so effective because they pay attention to what kind of conversation is occurring. And then they matched the other people in their group, and they invited those people to match them in return. So they were all having the same kind of conversation at the same time.

That reminds me of psychologist Anita Williams Woolley‘s research on collective intelligence, which found that team members individual social sensitivity determined how good they were at solving problems together.

Absolutely, and when you think about what we call social sensitivity, or being an empath, it really means you’re just paying attention to what the other person is telling you they need right now, and what kind of conversation they want to have.

You argue that we should ask more deep questions. How come?

Deep questions ask someone about their values, beliefs or experiences. When we talk about those things, we talk about who we really are. And they’re really easy questions to ask, right? If you’ve met someone who’s a doctor, you could ask: “What made you decide to go to medical school?” Or “what do you love about practising medicine?” Those are both deep questions, because they invite the other person to say something real and meaningful about themselves. And they make it easy for us to reciprocate to tell them why we decided to do our job.

Well, along those lines, I wanted to ask you a deep question. What personal experiences prompted you to write Supercommunicators?

I was working as a manager at the time, and I turned out to be terrible at it. I was okay at the strategy part and logistics, but it was the communication that I just messed up. I would fall into this pattern with my wife, where I would come home after a long day at work, and then start complaining about my boss and my co-workers. And she would very reasonably suggest some advice like, “why don’t you take your boss out to lunch, so you guys can get to know each other a little bit better?” And instead of being able to hear her, I would get even more upset. And then she would get upset because I was suddenly yelling at her just for giving me advice.

About 50% of the way that we send signals and receive information in a conversation is not tied to the content of the words

When I told the researchers, they said that I was trying to have an emotional conversation, and my wife was having a practical conversation. If you’re not having the same kind of conversation at the same time, you’re not really going to hear each other and you’re definitely not going to connect. That’s known within psychology as the matching principle: real communication requires you to have the same kind of conversation at the same time.

Whats the role of non-linguistic communication?

We know that about 50% of the way that we send signals and receive information in a conversation is not tied to the content of the words but everything that surrounds it: the tone of voice, the speed at which someone speaks, their body language, the expressions on their face. Our brains have this capacity to detect how people feel, by paying attention to two things: their energy and their mood.

Babies will be able to pick up on their parents’ mood, even before they know how to speak or understand words. But as we get older, words themselves become so captivating, so information rich, that we tend to stop paying attention to everything else, and sometimes we have to remind ourselves to do it.

In your book, you illustrate this with The Big Bang Theory sitcom.

The Big Bang Theory was a total flop at first, and the reason it succeeded was because the writers figured out how to have the characters express their feelings without using words.

It’s about these physicists who are very bad at conveying their emotions or their feelings. That’s where the humour comes from – they’re so awkward that it’s funny. But the problem is, how do you write a sitcom when your main characters can’t get across what they’re feeling or thinking?

Social awkwardness and bad communication among the characters made it difficult to write The Big Bang Theory sitcom using dialogue alone (Credit: Getty Images)

After the first pilot bombed, the writers came up with a new recipe, in which each of the characters shows what they’re feeling through their mood and their energy. So in the new pilot, there’s a scene where two of the physicists meet this beautiful woman Penny for the first time, and all they can say is “Hi”, “hi”, “hi”. But each time they say “hi”, they say it in a different way. They change the mood, they change the energy, and [suddenly] you know exactly what they’re feeling. At first, they’re excited, and then they’re feeling really embarrassed, and then they’re feeling like they need to like retreat – even though the words don’t change. Just because their mood and energy changes, we, as the audience, know what they’re thinking and feeling. And the same thing is true of any conversation that occurs.

How has writing about supercommunication changed your own life?

Now, at the beginning of basically every conversation, my wife and I talk about what kind of conversation we want to have. Liz will say something like, “do you want me to help you solve this problem? Or do you just need to vent and get this off your chest?” And I’ll do the same thing back to her. And then we’ll prove to each other that we’re really listening: asking follow-up questions or repeating what the other person has said.

Most importantly, we just show each other and tell each other that we want to connect. Because once we know that somebody else wants to connect with us, we want to connect with them.

Charles Duhigg’s book Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection is published by Cornerstone Press (UK)/Random House (USA)

*David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA). He is @d_a_robson on Twitter, and @davidarobson on Instagram and Threads.

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Saltburn’s ‘tacky rich-kid’ noughties look is everywhere

The award-winning costume designer of Saltburn, Sophie Canale, talks about the film’s blend of aristocratic and Y2K styles that has inspired designers.

For a film that seamlessly melds Y2K fashion and aristocratic English-rose style, it’s ironic that the most iconic scene from Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn features no clothes at all – Barry Keoghan’s middle-class striver Oliver Quick gallivanting nude throughout the titular manor at the conclusion of the movie to the strains of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 hit Murder on the Dancefloor.

More like this:

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–          Zendaya’s robot suit and other wild Mugler looks

–          Beyoncé and the reinvention of the cowboy hat

“There was a costume for that scene!” says costume designer Sophie Canale who, the night before we spoke, had been awarded the Costume Designers Guild honour for excellence in contemporary film. Canale originally had a velvet robe with the Saltburn crest made that was ultimately scrapped, and now, Canale thinks, belongs to Keoghan. While TikTok has a no-nudity clause, it’s this scene that has inspired the TikTok craze of wealthy youths parading through their own stately mansions. “I knew the film was going to be a gift but it’s crazy how much of a cult classic it’s become,” Canale exclaims.

The debauched Midsummer Night’s Dream party in Saltburn portrays a decadent Y2K (Credit: Warner Bros)

Despite this controversial scene, there are plenty of clothed encounters that have been just as inspirational – and aspirational. The recent London Fashion Week was awash with what has been dubbed “the Saltburn look”, a throwback to the “loud luxury” of the noughties – in which logomania, boho bags the size of carry-ons, and bright yellow Livestrong bracelets like Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton wears in the film – reigned supreme.

They’re these spoiled rich kids who can just wear anything – Sophie Canale

At Masha Popova’s show, we saw low-slung jeans, exposed underwear and pops of metallic favoured by Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver), while models at Edward Crutchley dangled durries and stomped the catwalk in Ugg boots at Tolu Coker.

“It was a trip down memory lane of brands that I admired so much and couldn’t afford at the time,” Canale says of her research process, which included tapping into formative moments from her school days by trawling old Facebook photos of her and her “friends, drunk at university”. It was also a chance for Canale to nab items that she coveted, such as the Marc Jacobs cherry watch necklace that she put on Venetia, and Kate Moss’s Top Shop line, which many of the girls at Oxford wear in the film.

The spring/summer 2024 collection by Masha Popova channels the Noughties look of Saltburn (Credit: Getty Images)

“With much of the 2000s there’s something that’s a bit cheap and tacky,” Canale says of Venetia’s painfully aughts wardrobe, which was a balance of “sluttiness”, as with the too-short black slip Venetia wears under her diamante spiderweb dress that Canale designed for the fateful Midsummer Night’s Dream masquerade party, while also maintaining that air of money being no object. This is reflected in Venetia’s ever-evolving closet of new clothes that she throws on, like the Christopher Kane gown she lounges around the stately home  in. “They’re these spoiled rich kids who can just wear anything.” 

“There’s nothing more humanising than being the richest, most gorgeous person in the world and still having the worst fake tan and most embarrassing tattoo and badly shaped jeans,” Emerald Fennell said in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine. Not to mention the ratty hair extensions and chipped nails..

Meanwhile, at London Fashion Week, Erdem and Simone Rochas‘ floral patterns, delicate bejewelling and fur accessories conjured Elspeth Catton, or the actress who plays her, Rosamund Pike, for that matter, who has been channelling the Saltburn matriarch’s vibe on the awards circuit. Canale pulled archival items from Valentino and Ossie Clark for the actress and former model, while Chanel fine jewellery partnered with the film to outfit “Poor Dear Pamela” (Carey Mulligan) – her actual character name in the credits – in a mass of strands of interlocking Cs. “The day I put 11 necklaces [on Pamela the] sound [department] were not very happy with me!” Canale laughs.

Dressed to kill

“I love the fact that we have this crossover between fashion designers and costume designers,” she continues. “It’s a huge respect to even be mentioned with those names.”

Lest we think Saltburn is all about the women’s fashion, Oliver, Felix, cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) and lord of the manor James Catton (Richard E Grant) get their fair share of sartorial shine, which is where, arguably, the class implications of the movie really reveal themselves.

Models backstage ahead of the Masha Popova catwalk show at London Fashion Week – the collection has been described as ‘Saltburn style’ (Credit: Getty Images)

While James may come from old money, he mostly gets around in the classic British staples of corduroy trousers and a checked shirt, which Canale shopped for in Piccadilly and on Savile Row. Farleigh is constantly reckoning with his place within the family, and that’s reflected in his unorthodox look, including a replica of Britney Spears’s “Dump Him” T-shirt from the time that can be found all over Etsy and Redbubble juxtaposed with the Saltburn crest signet ring – designed by Emerald Fennell’s father Theo Fennell, who also made much of the jewellery that Elspeth wears – that tips Oliver off to his presence at the masquerade ball.

The hidden underbelly of Oxford’s dark academia reverberates through to the debauchery of Saltburn and the Midsummer Night’s Dream ball

But it’s Felix and Oliver, the two characters at the centre of Saltburn’s rotten core, in whom this disparity can most clearly be seen. Felix’s rich-boy nonchalance is exemplified by his floppy, side-swept hair, eyebrow piercing and the assortment of Thai bracelets that he accumulated during a gap year backpacking through Asia.

Canale says that she distressed his polo shirts to give them a relaxed quality, whereas Oliver is box-fresh, appearing as if he’s spent all of his limited funds (which we come to find out aren’t so limited after all) trying to buy into an echelon of society he’ll never belong to. At Oxford, Farleigh pointedly remarks on Oliver’s “rented” tuxedo, with all that implies.

Jacob Elordi’s character, the aristocratic Felix Catton, wears noughties accessories, including string bracelets from his gap-year travels and garish sunglasses (Credit: Alamy)

After all, these people will always think of him as “the scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam”. Canale attempted to thrift a lot of the 2000s clothes, which you’d think would still be floating around the charity shops, but fashion has changed in recent years. Charity shops are marketing towards what’s fashionable, while people are buying new clothes with the intention to resell them at a faster turnover.

As Fennell has said in multiple interviews, 2007 exists in this in-between time that’s not long ago enough to be cool, but too long ago that many of us have purged our Von Dutch trucker hats and “oversized belts that had no point”, as Canale calls them, in a fit of trauma cleaning. For the rare few items that are still floating around, Canale managed to pick them up from eBay, Depop and literally “buying them from people’s wardrobes”.

Canale was also inspired by Martin Parr’s photo series that revealed the hidden underbelly of Oxford’s dark academia, which reverberates through to the debauchery of Saltburn and Midsummer Night’s Dream ball.

Although Canale’s work was recognised by the aforementioned Costume Designers Guild in the contemporary film category, Canale sees Saltburn as a period piece. “I was so inspired by the script, because you could read it and think of Brideshead [Revisted], but having it set in a contemporary world with contemporary fashion – but with a period backdrop – was genius. It was such a new visual for audiences to enjoy,” she says.

Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver) sports various Y2K looks, including exposed underwear and metallic partywear (Credit: Warner Bros)

Canale is no stranger to that genre, having worked as an assistant costume designer on season one of Bridgerton, before being promoted to head of the department for season two.

“It’s a lovely experience to have such a breadth of work,” she continues. “I very much want a career that’s very different. I don’t want to be typecast into any one [era].”

Scarlett Harris is the author of A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler.

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