Learning China. Of Intercultural Communication Workshops, Cultural Intelligence, and Regional Expertise

Since moving back from China to Austria, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the ways (inter)cultural intelligence and area expertise are built.

After all, even as a cultural anthropologist, given how academic disciplines are organized here, I’m not quite supposed to work on the question of (Han) Chinese identity (as I am doing right now), for that’s the purview of Chinese studies.

There’s also the tension of in-country/out-of-country observation:
You can study a country all you want from afar, but it does not tell you anything much about the ways the people who actually make up that culture and society are going to react, let alone how you will interact with them. All theory is grey…

At the same time, being in-country can be too close for comfort; the very hustle and bustle that is real life on the ground does not necessarily make for a great situation in which to observe and critically interpret. Or even to study: Literature on China is so much easier to find at the university library here…

Thinking of ways to build the cultural intelligence others may need to work in China or at least with Chinese, similar issues arise.

Workshops for intercultural communication all too often focus on the blatantly obvious differences which can easily be taught… to have business cards, present and accept them with both hands, comment on them, not put them away immediately and dear lord not into the back pocket of one’s pants.

Culture reduced to chopsticks vs. cutlery.

In reality, what typically causes problems are the small differences that are hard to notice. Things like the extent to which deference is paid to superiors, the raising (or not) of various issues, the telling (or not) of white “lies that bind” and their interpretation and judgment

The cultural intelligence to be aware of such differences and one’s personal reaction to them can be learned.

In fact, there are enough differences between social groups and strata within any society, so that it would be easy enough  to practice ‘at home.’ When did you last speak to somebody who is poorer or richer than you are? To a recent immigrant? To any of the people whose behavior or opinion raises your hackles?

Workshops that just stay at the level of apparent things and behaviors won’t cut it, though.

Arguably, a similar problem applies with the (especially, practically-inclined) building of professional expertise about an area. When you just study a culture/society/country/… in order to illuminate on one particular issue, for one particular purpose, you are probably going to get too tight a focus.

I got to thinking about that all the more reading Robert D. Kaplan’s NYT op-ed on and inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor, once described as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”:

Because America’s own security will rest in a world where tribes matter as much as Twitter, Fermor is an icon of the kind of soldier, diplomat or intelligence expert we will need: someone who can seamlessly move from any one of these jobs to another, who is equally at home reading a terrain map as he is reciting the poetry of the people with whom he is dealing. The more depth and rarity of knowledge we can implant in our officials, the less likely they are to serve up the wrong options in a crisis.

But as Fermor shows, knowledge can’t be selectively learned for utilitarian ends. He was driven by the kind of appreciation of beauty with which life itself is sanctified.

Maybe we need fewer intelligence officers and more intelligence in officials – and most of us. The argument rings true, anyways:

It would be a lot better if more – and especially of cultures – would be learned with devotion, but without overspecialization on just one area or issue; without forgetting about practical uses, but not only trying to quickly “know the other” for the purpose of business and nothing more.

Many misunderstandings that I have seen had come from that. From people who had barely scratched the surface, but thought they understood it all. – And typically, it was easy to recognize those with this lack of any deep understanding: The more superficial it was, the more they sounded as if they knew it all with absolute certainty.

There is more than the surface appearances – and even the knowledge of such “deep” drivers of behavior such as 面子/face are just such ephemera – to another culture and its members, more diversity and individuality.

Acknowledgement of this fact makes intercultural trainings harder to sell, but if a workshop or an expert.teaches certainty of a cultural other that does not raise questions, it is sure to be too dumbed down to be of much value.

The only certainty of culture is and remains that “it depends,” and in intercultural interaction, the diversity because of which “it depends” even includes the background you yourself have, culturally and psychologically.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.