The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of and sympathy with a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb into the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern developed Euro-Atlantic culture. (Gardiner, In the Service of the Sultan, 174)
I have lived overseas in four countries and spent significant amounts of time in a fifth – it is easy to change what you wear, what you eat, when you eat, what side of the road to drive on, what days are the weekend, where the light switches are located, and what time stores are open. It’s difficult to learn a foreign language, but it is far more difficult to learn and understand new communication strategies.
I am still trying to understand and articulate how the Dhofaris who I do research with use language. Some people compare understanding a foreign culture as peeling back the layers of an onion, but to me that implies that there is finite level. To me, understanding culture is like mountains beyond mountains. You get to one level only to find there are infinitely more layers to discover.
How do I learn how to read communication exchanges? I was once talking to another American about my research and how difficult it is to get access and insight into Dhofari cultures. He said, “So you must ask a lot of questions.” I said, “No, I don’t ask any questions.” The look on his face was the look of a person struggling to reframe their whole conceptual framework of what “research” means. “Research” means asking questions, right? Socratic dialog, give and take, write a plan and make enquiries, figure out what you want to know and go look for the answers. You “pursue” research; you “hunt” for answers; you “capture” data; you “acquire” answers; there are so many metaphors of the “chase” for information.
But those metaphors don’t work here. For example, when Dhofaris greet each other, “how are you” is repeated over and over. Between good friends, the first 3 or 4 passes are expected to have a positive answer. After that, and after a little time, the actual answer can finally be revealed.
No one would think of saying, “Hey, you just said four times that you are ok and now you tell me that you didn’t get the job you wanted.” “Everything is fine,” was the appropriate thing to say before, but now it’s appropriate to reveal what is really going on. You have to wait for the information; you can’t force it.
Another communication difference is compliments. When I had moved into a new villa with a large living room I had decorated with paintings, Arabian rugs, colored glass lanterns, pillows in abundance. When men from my research group stopped by, I asked, “What do you think of the living room?” The three men stood rooted, observed everything carefully, made expressions of surprise and approval, they waved their hands elegantly; they vowed that in their lives they have never seen such decorating; they swore they did not know that such marvelous decorating was possible on this earth; they wondered out loud how was it possible to take a plain room and turn it into a palace, a castle, a dream; they declared that I must come immediately to their own houses and commence redecorating their own homes.
Compliments are often seen as something for children. A grown person should not need positive verbal reinforcements on how they look or what they have done, so my research partners were teaching me that when I disingenuously asked for compliments, I was going to get enough compliments to choke on. Either ask and accept the fake whipped cream compliments with proper abashment or (better) don’t ask. In that case I had spent three days rearranging the living room and was not really interested in the truth; the cotton candy compliments were perfect.
Compliments between adults are often used to point out a mistake. Being told I look like a bride or “nice” means I am inappropriately dressed or look exhausted. Good food is eaten without comment; over-spiced, under-cooked, burnt or over-salted food is lavishly admired. When a man receives praise on his behavior, dishdash, car, fishing ability or singing voice, there is usually a problem.
I worked for several years at MIT which has managed to connect almost all the buildings on campus to each other through underground tunnels or above-ground walkways. When you map out a path between two buildings which are distant from each other, you need to remember which floor the connection is on. For example going through a line of four buildings, you might walk between the first two building on the 3rd floor, go up the 4th floor to walk to the next building and then up to the 6th floor to get to the last building.
This is the perfect metaphor of intercultural communication – if I stayed on my own floor with my own style, I would hit cement walls. Messages sent will never be received and I won’t be able make headway. With halting steps and many mistakes, I have to try to walk up to their level of communication.
(a favorite example of cultural misunderstanding: the saying in English is ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’, in which ‘lemons’ is a metaphor for something difficult. Someone who works for Talabat misunderstood this and, to a North American, this sign means: if you don’t have enough problems in your life, we will bring you some.)