Before I first spent a significant time in Italy, I had the great good fortune to read Barzini’s The Italians (still a font of useful and relevant insights after thirty years) and Edward T. Hall’s pair of books about cultural aspects of time and space, The Hidden Dimension and The Silent Language. Hall probably saved my life at a party when I was backed up to a low railing on a terrace five stories above a Roman street, as an Italian who couldn’t converse outside a personal space of about twelve inches radius advanced into my three-foot zone and I kept retreating, adrenaline pumping, until I was leaning backwards into the street. I flashed on Hall’s lessons, said “OK, I read the book and he didn’t, so I have to stand still and let him choose the distance”, gritted my teeth, and stood up straight. I have over the years learned to accommodate much more easily (it’s never effortless) to all sorts of cultural conventions, when I have my wits about me, from Latin American time to Mediterranean conversational distance to southeast Asian rules about when a dinner is over (the host decides, not the guest). But I still remember how hard it was to let that perfectly nice man literally get in my face and how I completely lost all ability to understand a word of Italian, a coherent logical sequence, or, affectively, that he was nice. Never effortless, because all these practices and habits are invisible to most of the people you are dealing with, and wired directly to my, and their, reptilian, emotional, brain zones. Talking to someone from too far away isn’t like conjugating a verb wrong or speaking with an accent, it’s hostile, and trying to interact when you have contradictory conventions can be disastrous (or hilarious), like the adjacent apartments miswired so each had the other’s thermostat.
In fact it helps a lot simply to know intellectually about (for example) high-context/high-content cultural norms, and the other contrasts in the unspoken and pervasive understandings people in different places have among themselves. In Iran, I learned the (adopted from Arabic) formula, “what I say three times is true” and its corollary, “what I say once is to protect your and my honor and self-respect, and has nothing to do with the physical world or any commmitments to consequential action”; from Japanese students when they first started to turn up here, the minefield our exactly opposite conventions about direct questions and “no” answers put us in.
This personal history came rushing back reading Michael Slackman’s article about Iranian indirection and press coverage of Louann Brizendine’s new book about the differences between male and female brains. Cultural conventions are almost as hard to change from inside a society as it is to do autoneurology
(Brizendine’s take anyway is that a lot of these differences are genetic, not learned) – imagine learning a new mental habit or skill without ever seeing it used, knowing a name for it, or having heard it described. It’s affectively hard if you confuse your identity with your personal beliefs and habits. The analogy is not a silly one; Marvin Minsky conceptualizes the brain as a society (The Society of Mind, a book I remember especially for its one-question devastation of the concept of an immortal soul as useful or interesting: “Does the soul learn?”).
It’s a bromide, and a test of political correctness in many circles, to say that “every culture is just as good as any other.” It’s certainly a good caution against careless judgment. But this sentiment does not easily accompany reflection on, say, conservative Islamic prescriptions for the place of women, or American anti-intellectualism and obsession with getting more stuff. Some cultures have exterminated the populations that hosted them, like the Easter Islanders; some have been quite toxic to neighbors; some, like the “amoral familialism” of southern Italy (Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society), have chronically impoverished their people. The difficulty of distinguishing intrinsically dysfunctional cultural conventions from abuse visited on people from colonists, invaders, local abusive elites, bigots, and condescending outsiders (Said, Orientalism) is great. Are the Roma wretched because the people they live among treat them cruelly, or because of their ultraxenophobic attitude toward the Gadje?
Slackman’s article instructs us to understand the Hallian perspective that Iranian political discourse incorporates “a whole framework for communication that can put Iranian words in a completely different context from the one Americans are familiar with….’You have to guess if people are sincere, you are never sure’, said Nasser Hadian, a policial science professor at the University of Tehran. ‘Symbolism and vagueness are inherent in our language.'” His point is a duty on our part to understand Iranian negotiations, public statements, and symbolic behavior on their terms, which is certainly good advice on prudential grounds, just as it was up to me to stand still on that terrace because I had read the book, even though I had every moral right to demand my Italian friend respect my personal space convention, which was certainly just as good as his.
But Slackman also implies that the Persian cultural norms of debate and deliberation may not be working for the Persians; that Iranian society is profoundly disabled precisely because it maintains a set of cultural conventions, learned as a defense against imperial oppressions, that have lost their utility but become ossified in manners, an adamantine fortress in social terms. What are aspirationally cosmopolitan liberals to do, negotiating with or just trying to learn from parties who appear stuck in hall of mirrors that they identify as (part of) their distinctive culture, that appears actually to be doing them a lot of harm? Conventions about time and space are morally neutral and no grounds on which to preach or proselytize: the idea that the meaning of “come at eight” translates from Mexican Spanish into “come at ten” in US English has absolutely nothing to do with responsibility, honesty, diligence, or trustworthiness, any more than using “we must have lunch sometime” to mean “I can’t imagine that we will ever meet again” nails Americans as liars. But other conventions, like not educating women in southern Afghanistan, are another story. Is it possible to seriously criticize this or that aspect of someone’s culture without being heard as an arrogant, prejudiced, jerk – as disrespecting the whole other society?