Monday, May 16, 2011

Intercultural Communication, 101

I think that in any town, region, or country, you are bound to find a variety of people, and thus, a variety of communication styles. Even so, people in my town happen to err on the side of being more 'indirect' than not on the direct-indirect spectrum, and my formal counterpart himself tends to have the most indirect of local tendencies. I myself tend to err on the direct side, and since we come from opposite perspectives on communication, I think our time together has led to lots of personality-expanding learning experiences for both us.

Some days I feel as though my counterpart and I have come to our own sort of peace: he is more direct with me, and I'm more indirect with him, without being too timid or too pushy. Other days it still seems as though we are communicating from different planets using walkie-talkies that someone's little brother accidentally dropped in the toilet.

In my first three or six months I was in a flexible, more passive mindset, open to getting my bearings and learning “when yes means yes and yes means no” (in the wise words of our training director). Now that I’m in my last year, I'm going to admit that I hear the clock ticking: I'm impatient, stir-crazy, and antsy to get something substantive done. It's still crucial to remain flexible, but in this context, attaining fluency in “indirect-speak” has been on my mind more than ever.

In that spirit, I present to you a sampling of common phrases, translated from "indirect-speak" (What You Say) to "direct-speak" (What You Mean):

What You Say (WYS): Yes, that is totally necessary. I agree.

What You Mean (WYM): The idea may interest me right now in this particular second since you happen to mention it, but the honest truth is that I would probably watch paint dry for 24 consecutive hours than follow through on what you’re proposing.

WYS: “Yeah, that’s what I’m looking at, that seems good to me, we’ll do that.”

WYM: “It seems that I genuinely agree with you, since I am nodding and making eye contact with you, but in reality I’m actually mentally planning which fields I’m going to be planting potato in next weekend, I’ll get back to you on that idea next year, if I remember.”

WYS: Let’s have a meeting on the 13th.

WYM: Actually, let’s plan to have a meeting on the 13th, but it’ll actually be held a week earlier, and we’ll call you between two days and two minutes before to let you know.

WYS: Okay, we’ll leave at 9 tomorrow.

WYM: If I’m feeling punctual, I’ll roll in around 10:30.

WYS: Yes, I will be there tomorrow.

WYM: I would really love to be there tomorrow, however, since I already have six other obligations for that same time, it will be difficult for me to actually arrive. However, I hope you will accept my agreement to be there as an apology in advance for my absence.

WYS: Yes. I’d love to.

WYM: Probably not.

WYS: Yes, that’s fine.

WYM: No, not likely.

You also have subtle differences in communication. Aside from downright fibbing and an aversion to saying no, local (and you could argue, generally, Guatemalan) language is simply more formal and protracted. For example, instead of “Could you pass me my pen please?”, you have to say, “Could you do me the big favor of passing me my pen?” or “Will it be that you can pass me my pen?” or “I don’t know if you could do me the big favor of passing me my pen?”

Another clear example: the ubiquitous “welcome” and “acknowledgements” that must be given at every public forum, lest people be put off by the informality of it all. What in the US would be, “Thanks everyone for coming”, turns into: “Before everything else, I just would like to thank everyone for their presence today, anticipating their valuable efforts in carrying out this small project which we are carrying out, and which I am sure will prove to be quite valuable for us.”

Obviously, there is a lot of room for indirect-communicators to be perceived as long-winded and pointless, and for direct-communicators to be perceived as downright rude. And then you also have the other side of indirect speak: What You Say is What You Mean, but the listener is reverse-translating into Oblique Speak, converting WYS/WYM into What He or She Understands. I’m getting better at recognizing such situations, but this has happened to me several times when I forget about cultural differences, and chatter away to people as if I were at a sorority social, thinking they will appreciate my friendliness, e.g.:

What You Say/What You Mean: [to a person who is arriving late]: Gosh, you must have a lot of work to do today!

What He/She Understands: I am personally offended by your tardiness, explain yourself.

WYS/WYM: “Don’t worry, there’s no rush, we’ll be here until 5.”

WHSU: “There is a rush, be sure to get back to me by 5!”

(If there really was no rush, you wouldn’t say anything at all. That’s the assumed baseline state of existence.)

Communication is something I love and have always felt fairly good at, and so it came as a surprise to me how frustrating and tiring it could be. I realize now that my cross-cultural exposure was low before coming to Guatemala, and the challenge was something I really needed to grow as a person. All part of the process of identifying and stretching my limits...

1 comment:

  1. Oh how that all brings back such memories of my time in Peten! Especially the WYM for Yes, I'll be there tomorrow!
    And I'm guessing you'll be surprised at how much you really have adapted your pace and expectations. I was such a disaster about meeting people on time when I got back to the states!!