Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Students as Diplomats

US President Barack Obama (L) bows as he shakes hands with Japanese Emperor Akihito (C) and as Empress Michiko (R) looks on upon Obama's arrival at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on November 14, 2009. (Mandel Ngan/Getty)

US President Barack Obama (L) bows as he shakes hands with Japanese Emperor Akihito (C) and as Empress Michiko (R) looks on upon Obama's arrival at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on November 14, 2009. (Mandel Ngan/Getty)

by Chris Livaccari

Recognizing patterns in culture and communication could save your life.

Just as it is critically important for the language learner to recognize and understand patterns in language, it is equally necessary to be able to recognize patterns in culture. In both cases, it is not sufficient to merely observe the patterns, but also to interrogate and problematize them. Here’s why:

In April 2011, The New Republic ran a feature on “The 9 Worst Diplomatic Blunders” that includes such transgressions as a band in Grenada striking up the national anthem of the Republic of China (Taiwan) at an event honoring the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, and Michelle Obama putting her arm around the Queen of England.

There’s even the story about an exchange of gifts in 2009 between President Obama and then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown gave the President a framed commission for the warship HMS Resolute, whose wood was used to make a desk that has been in the White House since 1880, and a pen holder made from the wood of a contemporary ship, the HMS Gannet, that played a role in Victorian anti-slavery efforts. In exchange for this “cool gift” (as Maureen Dowd dubbed it in a New York Times story shortly after the meeting), President Obama offered the “lame gift” (again, Dowd’s words) of a set of twenty-five classic movie DVDs.

Just months after the meeting with Brown, Obama was off to Japan, where he was lauded by some—and bitterly criticized by others—for bowing to the Emperor. While most commentators agreed that the gesture was culturally appropriate in the Japanese context, many took the President to task for bowing before a foreign monarch—George Washington would not be amused! A few months after President Obama’s bow, Toyota’s president made news when he bowed in apology for safety defects in the carmaker’s brakes and accelerators. Many commentators in Japan charged that he had not bowed deeply enough, and they read the gesture as a mere “sorry” rather than as the more contrite and serious acceptance of responsibility and blame that they thought would be more appropriate in this situation.

Bowing is a tricky thing. After living in Japan for three years, my wife would laugh heartily every time she caught me speaking Japanese on the phone, and bowing my head dutifully with every “hai” and “sou.” I’d have to consciously alter my bowing behavior when visiting her family in Seoul, and curtail it completely when I went to China, not to mention back in the United States. And can you imagine the horror my Korean wife felt when entering a large Italian-American family where every gathering began and ended with a long series of kisses and hugs?

If landing in Japan for the first time as a young person, it would obviously make sense to keenly observe the patterns of bowing behavior, just as it would make sense to observe patterns in the sound changes that accompany verb conjugations in the Japanese language (see the previous article in this series for more on the idea of “students as linguists”). While it is clearly important to know when to “bow, kiss, or shake hands” (to echo the name of a popular book on international cultural and business practices), the missteps described above are unlikely to cause World War III.

But if there were any proof of the life-and-death value of global competence, it would be in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent Washington Post article notes more than 50 coalition troops being killed by their Afghan allies, “the majority stem[ming] from personal disputes and misunderstandings.”

The U.S. military has trained soldiers using a video game designed to teach local customs, and now the Afghan military has released a guide to teach soldiers “the strange ways of the American soldier,” the goal being to “convince Afghan troops that when their Western counterparts do something deeply insulting, it’s likely a product of cultural ignorance and not worthy of revenge.” The guide cites examples such as NATO soldiers blowing their noses in public, patting counterparts on the back or even on the behind, and putting their feet up on desks and tables.

Earlier this year, U.S. soldiers attempted to burn almost 500 copies of the Koran housed in a prison library when they discovered that prisoners were passing notes in the pages of the books. The action caused crowds of protest, several acts of violence against U.S. forces, and decreasing trust and confidence in the U.S. military among their Afghan counterparts. While we might expect these types of cultural misunderstandings and conflicts between Americans and Afghans, there have been examples of communication issues even among the various coalition forces. A 2008 study commissioned by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.K. Ministry of Defence documents the linguistic sources of coalition miscommunication. The study concludes that these miscommunications are not due only to “lexical and grammatical differences” between British and American English but also, and perhaps more importantly, to pragmatic issues involving “differences in the way the two cultures use a ‘common’ language.” One of the best examples given of this involves British politeness: a U.S. Air Force officer interviewed for the study reported that British officers would often issue orders in the form “You may well wish to…,” which resulted in U.S. personnel misinterpreting them as suggestions.

The example above proves the quip that the United States and Great Britain are indeed two countries separated by a common language.

I had a similar experience during my first trip to China. In the mid-nineties, I spent a year in Yantai, Shandong provinceProvince, where at the time there were only a small number of other foreigners, almost all of whom were missionaries from Mississippi, Georgia, and some other southern states. While my Chinese friends encouraged me to make friends with my “laoxiang” (the Chinese term for people from the same hometown), I found that my New York-area Italian-American upbringing meant complete culture shock when dealing with Christian missionaries from the American South. Chinese culture is a lot closer to what I grew up with in the ways of food, family, and friendship. While me and my “laoxiang” and I were all Americans, I began to question and interrogate those inherited and accepted categories and constructions, most especially by recognizing patterns, much as a scientist would, in the data I was collecting from the real world.

In the same way, while people from Heilongjiang, Guangdong, and Ningxia are all Chinese, it’s clear that there are cultural differences among them.

Being globally competent doesn’t mean that I’ll instantly know the differences between them (or between Italian-Americans from the Northeast and Christian missionaries from the South)—what it does mean is that I will have the openness of mind and capacity for critical thinking to anticipate and appreciate that such differences will exist.

And in these days of cultural encounter and conflict, that skill set could just save my life.