You can know something without understanding it. This happens to me frequently here especially in the case of communication. Just yesterday I was having a conversation with an island woman I hadn’t seen in a year. In the first 5 minutes of our conversation she had thoroughly insulted me from commenting on my weight to my poor language skills to the highest insult, in my mind, calling me a liar. I. Do. Not. Lie. Insults are a common way of communication as are unflattering comparisons.
That’s beside the point. The point is that people communicate in different ways. I know that. But I certainly don’t understand it. Sarah Lanier, in her book Foreign to Familiar tries to explain some of the common differences between cultures. She breaks the world into two categories: “cold-climate” cultures that are mainly task-oriented and “hot-climate” cultures that are relationship-oriented. Obviously in a book that breaks the entire world into two categories, you will find some serious generalizations and stereotypes but it is still a helpful guide.
Most people find that when they read these types of books that categorize people, they usually don’t line up with everything individually that their culture collectively values. For example, “cold-climate” people are supposedly time-oriented and always show up time. But there are people that live in cold-climate cultures that would say this does not describe them individually. Not me, though. Every book or article that describes Americans or Westerners or “cold-climaters” and says as “this is how [they] act” versus other cultures, I always find myself nodding my head. Yep, that’s me.
Lanier writes a chapter about communication called “Direct versus Indirect Communication”. She writes, “In the relational cultures, being indirect is not only a way of avoiding offending the other person and keeping that “feel-good” atmosphere, but also a way of making sure that in no way is one’s own preference imposed on another person. The “cold-climate” person, valuing accuracy, will be direct. He will answer the question as efficiently as possible.” [i]
Once again, I nod my head. I don’t even know how to be indirect! If you want something or you don’t want to do something or anything else, why wouldn’t you just say it? I don’t mean you have to be rude about it but there are nice ways to say things directly. Often the examples given for “indirect communication” are simply lies with a pretty name. An example given in the book was a tourist looking for the post office in a small town. They ask people passing by and they receive directions and a smile. But increasingly they become frustrated because the directions given do not lead to a post office. Come to find out, there is no post office in the town! But the townspeople didn’t want to disappoint the visitor. What??!?!? Not only would I be disappointed after walking around aimlessly for who knows how long but I would have a very bad opinion of those people who lied to me and I would never visit that dumb little town again!
What does this have to do with me and Clove Island? I will tell you.
Last week I began teaching a new English class: A Look at Racism Through Film. I’ve been preparing for this class for almost a year. I raised money to buy a projector. I had it shipped from the states. My church sent me a box full of DVDs. I bought nice, loud speakers. I printed off advertisements and invited all the advanced English speakers I knew. All I needed was…electricity. The one thing I had no control over.
You see, here on Clove Island electricity is a luxury. About a year ago, the director of the power company stole all the money and hightailed it out of here. For months we would go days with no power. Since then the situation has improved dramatically. My neighborhood was getting power every weekday morning from 8am-ish to 1pm sharp. Then we would get power in the evenings every other night from 6pm to midnight. Except on Sundays. Sundays were anyone’s guess. Sometimes it came at noon. Sometimes at 6pm. Sometimes never (like my Christmas party from my last blog post). I scheduled my film class for Sundays.
I decided to see what I could do about this uncertainty. I had no intention of leaving the fate of my class up to chance. I started asking islanders if it was appropriate to speak with the director of the power company about my situation. I received all affirmative answers usually accompanied by caution. “He’ll tell you what you want to hear, but you’ll never get what you ask for”.
After a failed attempt at a meeting on Monday, where I waited for two hours with an island friend and the director never showed up, I went back on Wednesday. This time I was ushered right away into the air-conditioned office and sat in a leather swivel chair. With finger steepled under his chin, the director asked how he could help me. I began by explaining who I was and what I was doing on his island. When I had some trouble expressing a phrase in the formal French I was attempting to use, he began to speak English.
“Oh! Where did you learn English?” I asked.
“I studied in Madagascar. American Peace Corps Volunteers taught me.” Of course, my face lit up.
“How interesting! I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea. Since you speak English so well, you should come to my class.” I handed him the advertisement. And with that he told me that he would “do what he could” to help me out.
At this point, I had a choice to make. There’s a big disparity on the island as to which neighborhoods get more electricity. I’m guessing it’s based on what important people live in what neighborhood. My neighborhood apparently has no important people. If I went with my natural tendency of directness, I would have said something like this, “Listen, M. Director, I have friends who live in such and such a neighborhood. They get more electricity that I do. That’s not fair! Electricity should be equally spread throughout the neighborhoods. So please do that.” Instead, I without a lot of forethought I said, “One more thing. I’m just curious. You see, I’m a foreigner here and I don’t understand how things work. My friends who live a few neighborhoods from me, they receive power two nights out of three. And well, my neighborhood, we only get it every other night. Could you explain to me why that is?”
He didn’t explain. Instead he introduced to me the technical director, the guy who actually pulls the switch. Leaving me in this second director’s office, he let me know that this guy could definitely illuminate me. I explained, once again, how I was curious and blah blah blah.
“Ok,” he said, “Hold on.” He called in an employee. He asked me where I lived, exactly. His employee, who is from my town, told the director, who is from a town on the other side of the island, where it is I live based on the owner’s name I had provided. Then, without so much a stab at justifying the neighborhood power differences, he calls in another employee. Once he enters, in rapid-fire local language, he tells this man where I live and that I need more electricity during the week. Then he turns to me, “Tomorrow is a holiday but we should have the situation rectified by the next day.”
What just happened?
I think I just spoke indirectly. I never said I wanted more electricity. I never asked to “have the situation rectified.” But he knew. And I knew. And it worked. I left that office walking on clouds. Not because I was just promised the coveted prize of more power but because I had successfully used a communication tactic that is so completely foreign to me.
On the downside, I did not have electricity the next Sunday for my first film class. I was so disappointed that all my hard work and getting out of my comfort zone didn’t pay off. However, on the bright side, in the past 6 days we have had electricity for 5 of them- 4 in a row! Unprecedented. Today is Sunday and we have power. So maybe it did pan out?
[i] Lanier, Sarah. Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures. Loc. 299.