Monday, May 03, 2010

Making the meeting: cross cultural conflict

How can you practice nonviolence with someone whose conduct makes you confused and uncomfortable? It is quite hard, and indeed, not accurately reading the meaning of someone's words and gestures usually means it's hard to trust that person.

A rudimentary example is personal space. We in the US believe that expansive spaces mean freedom and that is what we stand for. When people with whom we may disagree get too close we are uncomfortable and indeed our perceptions of what they mean moves from assertion to aggression.

Meanwhile, in that person's culture, personal space may be quite small. They may be a tactile sort, trying to come close to reassure you of their basic good intent by moving close in, possibly even touching you. For many Americans, by this time all the warning bells are going off in our brains. Danger! Enemy! Imminent Attack!

The basics of intercultural conflict management begin with intercultural communication, which relates to intercultural literacy.

Some cultures are monochronic, time-driven, nearly obsessed by arriving and departing on time. They tend to feel as though anyone practicing time management in any other way is disrespecting others.

Some cultures are polychronic, and a 9 a.m. meeting means morning, which means before lunch, and if necessary, lunch can be later. If a person from such a culture is meeting with someone from 8 a.m. and the 9 a.m. meeting is going to begin, they often have an impossible task of stopping the 8 a.m. meeting. They tend to feel that ending something abruptly is a sign of disrespect. The people at the next meeting will understand--if they are also from a polychronic culture.

I think it's interesting that it's all derived from respect, from the desire to save face for everyone involved.

When a person from a monochronic culture arrives in a polychronic culture, some adjustments help. When a colleague of mine was involved in the peace process in Nicosea, in Cyprus, an American negotiator arrived in town, gung-ho and making dates to talk to everyone. He set up several meetings. Everyone insisted on meeting in cafes.

The American arrived punctually and no one else was there. He waited and waited and after 15 or 20 minutes decided he must have made an error, and left. This happened several times with different people and groups of people.

By the end of his first two weeks, who do you suppose had the reputation as the no-show? Yes, the American. Everyone else came to the meetings, arriving and enjoying coffee and conversation while waiting for the new guy, who never showed--since he had already left, increasingly frustrated with the no-show Greeks and Turks. They always met at coffee shops for exactly that reason; might as well have a good time while waiting for everyone to arrive.

The real peacemaker becomes culturally literate and operates in the cultures in which she finds herself. I saw Dimitris the Greek peace radical do this when he introduced the brand new Turkish-Greek Student Association at Portland State University, where I teach. The room was packed. The 7 p.m. start time had come and gone by half an hour. Finally, a Turk and a Greek stood by the podium. Dimitris drew up his five-foot-seven figure with his sparkling friendly eyes and said, "Thank you for your patience. We're starting a little late. It's cultural."

Everyone laughed because he didn't say it was Greek nor Turkish, just, It's cultural. Thus, he used the polychronic similarity to bond everyone to each other and make all sides instantly relaxed, either sharing an element of identity or appreciating his note that the Turks and Greeks shared it and were such good peacemakers themselves. It was a simple, brilliant declaration.

When I worked with tribes I learned about this and thought I had it well understood. So when my fellow peace and justice organizer scheduled us for a meeting to plan a walk around Lake Superior to honor the memory of Walter Bresette, I said, well, we realistically can help in two ways, neither of them major. Let's let the people from around this lake gather in the morning and we'll show up just after lunch, when they finally stop socializing and get down to business.

We showed up at 2 p.m., which is when I thought the 9 a.m. meeting would actually get underway in earnest, discussing the actual logistics. Turns out when we walked in the last of the important people had just finally arrived from Ontario and they were about to have lunch. Good lesson! They had spent all morning and early afternoon gathering, catching up, being respectful of the long journeys everyone had made. If we had been operating on the American mainstream model it would have been business at 9 a.m. and it would not have allowed for the knitting of the social, tribal, familial fabric so necessary to a culture so beaten down for so long.

Learning about another culture before experiencing it is a faster path to peaceful relationships. Contextualizing responses that seem odd helps to appreciate responses that might otherwise be offensive and alienating. This is all part of nonviolence, if we seek success with it.

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