Monday, May 25, 2009

Intercultural Miscommunication

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Even in a Floridian Condo Swimming-pool

What's the worst that could happen if intercultural communication goes awry? The worst: the communicators decide that one another are not human. Do I mean that they think of one another as animals? Not necessarily. Some cultures, and many individual people, revere animals.

Think vermin, i.e., the peskiest sort of animals, e.g., how Jews were regarded by our oppressors during the Holocaust. We were to be "exterminated." My mom told me that her friend Maria's dad helped invent Zyklon-B, the gas that was used in the concentration-camp gas chambers. They are Jews and my mom said he never dreamt that his invention would be used for genocide, let alone that of his own people.

I'm thinking about the mini-series I didn't want to watch with my partner Pat, about the history of Native-Americans, as I didn't really want to know how filthy a number of the first settlers were to them. "They're rich *now*," a friend remarked, referring to their success in the casino industry.

"Yeah, some are," I didn't finish my thought, which was: rich by exploiting the gambling part of human nature, and I wonder if it sometimes feels to some Native-American gambling entrepreneurs like they're avenging their ancestors, since so many of the gamblers likely have Anglo-American foreparents. I'm referring particularly to the gamblers who are addicted to it. Is there a satisfaction in seeing some of the great-great-grandchildren of one's oppressors in a weakened state? Am I projecting?

Vengeance only gets people so far; it doesn't restore the damaged psyches, and bodies, of one's forebearers. Writing of vengeance reminds me of wars, which is apt, since it's Memorial Day. Up until yesterday, I was poised simply to add a tweet to Twitter, thanking our armed-services people for their service. The book I'm reading now for my upcoming Intercultural Communication course, *The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Cultures*, moves me to write more than the 140-character max allowed by Twitter.

I am grateful for armed-servicepeople's personal sacrifices, including those of my father of blessed memory, who served as a radar technician on the U.S.S. Alabama during World War II, so that I could enjoy the freedom I do.

How Wars Begin

I'm also thinking about what *starts* wars. When beings cannot find a way to communicate peacefully, they become violent. The scar down the length of the inside of my left-hand middle-finger proves it; one of our cats was afraid to be put in a pet-carrier to go to the vet and we could not fine a way to help her understand that we weren't endangering her. So she fought bloodily.

The book I'm reading about a Hmong child's life is also a brief history of her people, and among the anthropologists it quotes, W.R. Geddes (1959) makes the analogy between the Hmong people and the Jewish people:
The preservation...of their ethnic identity for such a long time despite their being split into many small groups surrounded by different alien peoples and scattered over a vast geographic area is an outstanding record paralleling in some ways that of the Jews but more remarkable because they lacked the unifying forces of literacy and a doctrinal religion.... (p. 18).

People who feel oppressed, at some point, though they don't necessarily want to fight, are compelled to do so. The analogy with our cat Toonces is not meant to insult Hmong or Jewish people by making a comparison to animals; it's just another example of intercultural miscommunication. On Friday, as I was reading this account of an epileptic Hmong child, on the other side of the couch across from me, a crazy wail issued from the throat of one of our friends' pet-dogs. One of our friends rushed over to find her little dog stretched out rigidly, having a seizure, which had never before happened. And there was a little puddle of urine by her dog-bed, which also had never happened before.

My friend held her dog and no extra communication was necessary. We recognized what had happened. She was an old dog and she was failing, and it's sad, and they'll take her to the vet for advice in treating the seizures after the holiday-weekend. But what if she were a baby, with her natural parents to advocate for her, but no one would listen to her parents? What if they systematically misunderstood, ignored or contradicted her parents' wishes?

If I were her parents, I would fight to be understood and respected if necessary, no matter how uncivilized I seemed. And I think that's the worst that can happen with intercultural miscommunication: The cultures begin considering it to be a matter of inter-species communication challenges.

If only I could always remember the mantra about other cultures: They're not better or worse, just different, I'd be all-set. It's when I focus on how foreign they seem, or how alien(ated) I feel, that I set the stage for assuming ill-will. I'm reminded of my first few visits to Pat's family in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Pat told me that growing up, any of her classmates who were Black had to be the children of a Green Bay Packer; I inferred that there was not much diversity there.

God, how would I feel there, as someone who's Jewish from birth with East-coast roots? How exotic would I be? How exotic would they be to me with their rabid Packer football patriotism and near-Canadian accents? Standing with Pat, her mom and brother at the Packers Hall of Fame that first visit, I did feel out of my element.

Sixteen Thanksgiving visits later, I feel familiar if not fully kindred with Green Bay. I've been thinking about my historical arm's-length approach to Green Bay while watching the Native-American mini-series and reading this book about the Hmong people and the particular Hmong family. In Green Bay, the Oneida Indians have their own nation, with their own license-plates, and a huge casino. And Pat's mom was a literacy volunteer extraordinaire who helped a number of Green-Bay-based Hmong people to become literate.

The Swimming-pool as a Case Study

A circle of older women -- probably 30 years older than I on average -- stood in the shallow end of the pool when I began my laps this morning. "Would you please swim width-wise on the other side of the rope?" one of them asked me after my first lap.

"It's easier for me to swim laps length-wise. There's room for all of us."

"Well, we'll be going to the wall, so...."

I swam off in a huff and complied, with deep resentment. If I could become so irritable in such a low-stress environment, what a great reminder of how easy it is to interculturally-miscommunicate in more stressful circumstances. Why didn't they understand that it would be extra-repetitive for me to have to swim width-wise? They wondered why I couldn't understand that I had the whole deep-end nearly to myself.

Around 15 minutes into my swim, I relaxed and enjoyed it. Afterward, not yet even thinking of this swimming incident in the context of intercultural communication, I told Pat, "Pat, I know the secret of intercultural miscommunication: Everyone wants to be understood, but not to take the time to understand."

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