Our Culture on the Firing Line

UN gun sculptureWe are very pleased to be able to share with you another guest post by the insightful and talented Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus, University of California Berkeley’s International House. Sadly, the topic is again, or still, timely. We published his first post on this subject, “Language Under the Gun,” in February of 2011. Let us work to change the culture of anger and violence by this time next year!

As introduction to the piece, allow me to share with you Joe’s message, urging me to publish his post sooner rather than later: “If it can be published earlier, given the ‘heat people  are packing’ now in the current ‘ballistic’ and ‘explosive’ reactions to Obama’s proposals, that would be more likely to ‘hit the bull’s-eye’ in the current environment.”

With only 5% of the world’s population, US Americans now possess about 50% of the world’s guns. Is it any wonder then that mass shootings in the US have skyrocketed in the last decade? And in the wake of the grotesque massacre in Sandy Hook, gun sales have spiked dramatically. No wonder that sales of kids’ bullet-proof backpacks have soared, or that our culture more than ever is drenched in the language of guns!

As I watch left and right wing politicians and pundits “up in arms” on TV, battling in a “cross-fire” of blame, each side looking for a “smoking gun” to explain or cast blame for horrifying gun-related catastrophes, I’ve become increasingly aware of how our culture’s preoccupations with guns are reflected even during innocent “shooting the breeze” conversations.

We often value the “straight shooter,” yet we are wary of those who “shoot their mouths off,” and those who “shoot from the hip” or glibly end an argument with a “parting shot.” We caution colleagues to avoid “shooting themselves in the foot,” and counsel them not to “shoot the messenger.”

Without suspecting what drives our language, we are “blown away” by adorable photos of loved ones. At the movies, many audiences are thrilled by “shoot- em-up,”  “double barreled action” scenes, or are excited by car chases where actors “gun” their engines.

I often ask friends to “shoot me” an email and I’ve encouraged job seekers to give an interview their “best shot” and “stick to their guns” during salary discussions. And if a job is offered, I might congratulate them for doing a “bang up” job.

In sensitive business negotiations, I’ve advised patience, urging clients to “trouble shoot” solutions, but to avoid “jumping the gun” and to be aware of “loaded” questions. To get the biggest “bang for the buck,” I’ve recommended bringing the “big guns” to the table. We look for “silver bullet” solutions, hoping for “bulletproof” results. And when success is in sight, we say: “You’re on target,” or “you’re going great guns!”

We encourage entrepreneurial risk taking, even if the project doesn’t have a “shot in hell.” Just “fire away” when you make that “killer” presentation, and if your idea is “shot down,” don’t be “gun shy.” Just “bite the bullet” and go at it again, with “guns blazing.” Don’t be afraid to “shoot for the moon,” even if it looks like a “shot in the dark.”

Having worked as a university executive with students from more than 80 countries, I’ve noticed that students from abroad are struck by the violent language in our songs and films, and they hear it bleeding into our political discourse. Many have asked me in amazement why it is even necessary to state that guns and ammunition are banned from university residence halls. Yet, “son of a gun,” 26 colleges in three states permit guns on college campuses. And gun liberalization legislation for colleges is in the “cross hairs” in at least nine more states.

I’ve heard staff and students alike stressed by an approaching deadline, instinctively describing themselves as being “under the gun.” Sometimes my colleagues have described emotional co-workers as “loose cannons” or having “hair trigger” personalities. And when a student has gone off “half cocked,” psychologists have advised employees to “keep their powders dry” and to review “bullet point” guidelines for handling volatile personalities.

In the same way that the US is flooded with millions of guns (there are 90 guns per one hundred Americans), so our newscasts — “sure as shootin’ ” — are exploding almost nightly with murder stories, reflecting the newsroom mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the local story becomes a national tragedy, there is “new ammunition” for both gun control supporters and opponents of fire arm bans in such places as elementary schools, day care centers, churches, or even the neighborhood bar!

The world of guns has had our rhetoric in its sights for a very long time. And our wounded language — now more than ever with a gun to its head — is telling us that our culture is on the firing line.

Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus at the University of California’s International House, is currently a cross-cultural communications consultant, university instructor and Cultural Detective certified facilitator. Contact Joe via email or LinkedIn.

This post builds on Joe’s February 2011 piece, “Language Under the Gun.”

Film Review by Sunita Nichani: “English Vinglish”

Reprint from SIETAR India Newsletter, November 2012
Written by Sunita Nichani

The topic of cultural dimensions (individualism vs. collectivism, monochrone and polychrone) is almost de rigeur in intercultural training workshops. Most of these models remain quite theoretical in the minds of our Indian participants.

As I watched the Bollywood film “English Vinglish,” I saw some great examples of these dimensions being acted out, and am delighted that some of these scenes can be used to illustrate these dimensions in a way that will resonate with Indian audiences. Please note that like with most films that portray another culture through the eyes of a foreigner, some of the situations and characters might seem a bit exaggerated or even culturally inaccurate. However, the film has many select scenes that would be a great resource for intercultural trainers looking for ways to connect theory and application. So read on!

This film by Gauri Shinde is a heart-warming tale of how an Indian housewife, played by Sreedevi, discovers her hidden potential after landing in the US and learning the English language. The film can be used for a variety of training objectives: questioning existing stereotypes, ethnocentrism, or how the film accurately or inaccurately depicts cultural differences.

Being part of a collectivist culture, Sreedevi puts her family’s needs before her own and her individual efforts are often unrecognized or even mocked by her family at home. She is an excellent cook and in India she sells her speciality “ladoos” (an Indian dessert) during weddings and other festivals. During her first English language class in the United States, her English instructor asks her what she does (individualist orientation) and Sreedevi, not used to talking about her individual accomplishments, sheepishly confesses that she sells “ladoos.” Her English instructor provides her with the term “entrepreneur,” and her face lights up at this definition of her individual identity. This theme is quite recurrent in the movie and can be used in discussions on how to leverage the best of both individualism and collectivism. For example, after having discovered the joys of individualism such as “me time,” personal development, and individual accomplishment, Sreedevi does not bail out on collectivism. On the contrary, she explains the core philosophy of collectivism in her speech at the wedding of her niece.

Yet another dimension is beautifully illustrated in the scene where Sreedevi orders a cup of coffee in New York for the first time. To see the differences between monochronic and polychronic attitudes. I encourage you to watch the film!

Thank you for this great review, Sunita, Cultural Detective extraordinaire and current President of SIETAR India.

We would like to encourage all of you to purchase early-bird registration before December 9th for the SIETAR India 2013 conference, “From Internationalization to Intercultural Competence.” It will take place in Mumbai on the 2-3 of February.

The Case of Who’s in Charge: Whose language will we speak?

Or: “How to lose a US$1 million investment in less than an hour.”

Cultural Detective and the Case of Who’s in Charge

This case takes place in one of the world’s largest companies. The company has recruited, at much expense, a leading Nigerian scientist to head up a project; he is perhaps the only person in the world with the unique knowledge base, experience and connections needed to see this major project through to fruition.

The company has gone to great expense to relocate the Nigerian project manager to western Europe, and to assemble a cross-functional team of the company’s leading professionals to aid with the project. The project is of huge significance for the company. The plan is that it will break new ground and shift the way such projects are implemented worldwide. There is much hope and excitement, as well as huge investment and anticipated return, riding on it.

The project manager, the Nigerian scientist, calls a meeting with three of his team members. All four people greet one another in English, shake hands, and sit at a table for the meeting. The project manager introduces the agenda, in English. After a few minutes the discussion seems to naturally shift from English into the local language, and continues for about 45 minutes.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the four gentlemen stand up, again shake hands, and shift back to English to congratulate one another. One of them says, “I think we have devised an excellent plan.”

The project manager replies, “Oh, yes? And what would that plan be?”

The three others appear puzzled. “The plan we just agreed to,” they say. “The plan we’ve been discussing.”

The Nigerian responds, “I didn’t understand a word you were saying. I don’t speak that language.”

“Why didn’t you say so?! We could have switched to English!!” The others’ mouths drop open in disbelief at this waste of time, and the scientist’s failure to speak up.

“I am the project manager. I called this meeting, and I started it in English. All our correspondence has been in English. You all changed the language. It is a power play. Your colonialist ways never seem to change.”

After this meeting, the project manager requested his removal from the project. It appeared this hugely anticipated effort was dead before it had even gotten going!

An orientation to cross-cultural collaboration, including work on understanding and learning to deal with issues of post-colonialism, may have prevented this rocky start. There are times when, once mistakes have been made, there is no rescue or remedy. Convincing these team members to give it another go, to get past their doubts and discuss ways of respectfully and productively working together, required skilled facilitation. The project manager was convinced that his team members were racist, and the team members were convinced the project manager was overly sensitive. Both thought the other arrogant.

What are some of the techniques you might use in such a scenario? How might you help the team members gain empathy for what the project manager was feeling? How might you equip them with the skills they need to demonstrate respect in such an environment? How might you help the project manager develop the skills he needs to manage team members effectively, given post-colonialist realities?