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What does a helicopter mean?

On June 2, 2014 at 10 a.m. Central European Time, King Juan Carlos of Spain announced he was abdicating the throne and handing it over to his son Prince Hottie – er, Felipe. In less than an hour I heard a familiar sound over the apartment I was living in a quarter mile from the Puerta del Sol, an enormous plaza ringed with government buildings on one side and shopping, restaurants, bars and cafes on the others.  Sol is both a must-see tourist destination and a must-do protest site, and the familiar sound was taka taka taka takatakataka takataka:  helicopters that always sounded like they were directly overhead, rather than a 15 minutes’ walk away.  The sound came and went every evening for the next few weeks, and was still coming and going when my time doing research in Madrid ended. Earlier that spring I was walking with a friend and asked him why there were helicopters over our downtown neighborhood at 10:30 p.m.

He looked up as if he had just noticed they were there.  “Must be watching the traffic.”

“Traffic? At this hour?”

“Traffic is ALWAYS a problem in Madrid.”

“In downtown?”

He looked uncertain. “Well, that’s all I can think of.”

The Prime Directive of the ethnographer is to work diligently to understand the native’s point of view.  To strive for that understanding rather than imposing one’s own is, essentially, what it means to do ethnography.  I was an outsider in a cultural scene where I was mystified about the meaning of an event: the sound, actually, because with tall buildings all around and the narrow streets, I heard the helicopters more than I saw them. I asked the native who had lived all his life in Madrid what the sound meant.  He answered, and although I still didn’t know what the sound meant I was pretty sure he was wrong about it being traffic control.


By the time the king abdicated, I had asked other Spaniards about helicopters over downtown. They had more definite responses:

“They’re keeping watch on the protests in Puerta del Sol,” said Luisa, a veteran of many such events.  “They watch and they count but” she smiled “they don’t beat anybody up.”

So I knew just how to understand helicopters overhead from 11 a.m. until midnight on June 2, 2014, and in late afternoon into evening for days afterward. In the year since then, I’ve asked Americans what meanings they assign to the sight or sound of helicopters. Their responses have become a gallery of cultural contrast:

People who have lived in Oakland, LA, Tucson, other big cities in the West:  “There’s a police action going on, maybe a hunt for somebody on the run.  You stay inside so you don’t get shot.”

People whose formative years involved watching the Vietnam war on the news: “That’s the sound just before they announce the body count for the day.  Different kinds of helicopters have different sounds, too; back then I could have told you whether this one was carrying the wounded or shooting.”

My own understanding, back in Iowa City:  “Another Life Flight - ambulance - headed to or from the hospital.”

No one has said:  “Must be traffic watch,” or any other news reporting function, although every night on the news I see weather or traffic-related footage. Why don’t we see those, or hear them, often enough to notice they’re up there? Are they invisible, unheard, in the heat of such a moment?  Do we take them for something else, like searching for a fugitive or transporting a victim or counting the protesters?  Do our cultural frameworks of meaning not stretch far enough, as was the case with the first Spaniard I asked, to grasp the real meaning of them?

This is the first time I’ve noticed a single sound having so many different experience-driven meanings. Do you have other meanings for helicopters?  Will drones take over the functions of helicopters and be so much quieter that we won’t have those sound associations much longer? Do you know other sounds with rich or varied cultural meanings?

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Traffic? Protest? Police action? Life Flight?

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Kristine Muñoz

Curriculum Vitae




Interpersonal Communication