Culture and communication

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?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “Culture and communication”

  1. your first paragraph gave me a chuckle / i lived in Rome for some ten years spanning 60's and 70's / i became adept at not standing in line (as a Brit friend said, the Italians will just not *Queue*) / skilled at pushing and shoving to get on a crowded bus (oh i learned that on the NY subway, heh) and holding my own at the mini super market when elderly Italian ladies tried to butt their carts in front of mine / and whacking gentlemen for pinching my various body parts / standing in line at the main post office meant holding your own to keep your place / yeah lots of body contact
    when i lived in a small rural village in Vermont i remarked on the difference in space needs / three people in line at the post office in Vermont = maybe ten Romans
    hey it was fun

  2. I think this is OK, JR
    Merriam Webster On-line dictionary:
    Etymology: Middle English, from Old English, from Late Latin font-, fons, from Latin, fountain
    1 a : a receptacle for baptismal water b : a receptacle for holy water c : a receptacle for various liquids
    Etymology 1
    Latin: fons: fountain.
    font (plural: fonts)
    1. A fountain.
    2. A receptacle in a church for holy water – especially one used in baptism
    3. A receptacle for oil in a lamp.
    Etymology 2
    Old French fondre: to melt.
    font (plural: fonts)
    1. (Typsetting) A grouping of consistently-designed glyphs, having the same size, typeface (e.g., Times New Roman), and style (e.g., bold). (Also more properly referred to as a type font.)
    2. A computer file encapsulating such a grouping, usually consisting of an association of glyphs to bytes or Unicode code points, and providing the glyphs as either precomposed bitmaps, or instructions for drawing the glyphs as a set of vectors and Bezier curves, plus additional hints and rendering guidance for different situations.

  3. "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?"
    It is important to say what needs to be said. It is important treat all human beings with the respect they deserve.
    Let us not make the mistake of reifying cultures and then sequestering them from rational criticism. That way will bring us no progress.
    It's important to learn that everyone has a culture. (Sometimes Americans think that only foreigners or people from exotic places can claim one.)
    A trivial example:
    In my Jewish suburban household, I never felt any pressure to excel at Little League baseball. I could've struck out ten times straight and my folks would have shrugged. Hell, I had to beg them to attend games.
    In other families screwing up a routine ground ball to shortstop to lose the game would likely lead to not an honor killing but severe disappointment and harranguing.
    I happen to think my parents (and their culture) had this one more-or-less right, but others might side with the jock family.
    In other instances, my family/culture got things very wrong.
    Still, what's the harm in talking about these things frankly? We're afraid we might offend people. People need to be more resilient about these things. Speak with honesty and a measure of respect. Know what you're talking about. Apologize if you're wrong. Equally important, be ready to engage in self-criticism about your own culture.
    And if people are still offended? Well, some people are just professionally offended. (Think Al Sharpton) A huge part of the problem of Black illegitimacy has been the cowardly unwillingness of the larger culture to identify and scorn this cultural malfunction. We have no problem pointing out, embracing, and even co-opting the beautiful parts of African-American culture (jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, hip-hop) so why should we be squeamish about pointing out flaws.
    There are no flawless cultures, so there's room for everyone to be critic.
    A more open dialogues will ultimately lead to growth and progress.

  4. "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."
    As Rumsfeld might say, "Heavens to Betsy" or "Henny Penny" or something equally idiotic. But I know exactly this feeling. I have the same comfort zone and I get really anxious when people invade that zone.
    So that's why W.H. Auden's poem "I Have No Gun, But I Can Spit" is probably my favorite:
    "Some thirty inches from my nose
    The frontier of my Person goes,
    And all the untilled air between
    Is private pagus or demesne.
    Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
    I beckon you to fraternize,
    Beware of rudely crossing it:
    I have no gun, but I can spit."

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