Thursday, May 3, 2012

Making Use of Past Experience

Eons ago while attending Bible college I often heard the expression "good missionary training" tossed about when life's difficulties presented themselves. It was said with laughter in the voice and a comical grimace on the lips.

Today I was thinking about my time in Japan and how it might relate to my present cross cultural prairie experience.  I realize that in some ways Japanese and prairie cultures share similar attitudes.  This may help me to better control my blunt honesty of speech.

I realize now that both cultures are indirect cultures.  Flat out honesty that cuts to the heart of the issue and expects an equally direct answer or solution is not acceptable in either culture. There is a certain amount of verbal dancing about that has to be done to achieve results. Feelings are easily wounded in both cultures by too much verbal directness that can be misinterpreted as being angry or critical.
In Alberta where I grew up, if you had a question you asked it flat out and expected a direct answer. If you had a problem needing a solution you explained it and then brought forward your own ideas, listened to the ideas of others, and argued back and forth until a solution was agreed on.  If you disagreed with another person you simply said so, and the discussion continued, no big deal.  Problems from roof repairs to asking someone on a date were dealt with one way or another in a very short time. Sometimes peoples' feelings were injured in the discussion, but that is life and we all grew up and got over it. There were a lot of corporate professional folk in my part of Alberta who wanted and required bottom line conversations.

But I find the prairie folk a lot like the Japanese for being indirect.  On the prairies you can't come right out and say you have a difficulty with something that goes on in your town/church/bookclub/insert group name, or even a difficulty in understanding something that goes on in your town etc.  To suggest that there is anything amiss or not understood is tantamount to a criticism of the town where your fellow human beings love to live, or the groups they participate happily in. It causes hurt feelings among your hearers, no matter how unintentional. To question anything is to bring about an assumption in the minds of your hearers that you are miserably unhappy with them personally.  I am learning that there is no limit to the number of times I can open mouth and insert feet!

I am learning that instead of saying we should do this or that, I need to form a question such as "What do you think is best? Hmmm...maybe this or that would be possibilities?" And sometimes it is better not even to suggest a this or a that. Instead of waiting for an answer, I have to walk away with no information and wait for their subsequent actions to tell me their answer. Attempting to continue the discussion until a solution is reached is bad form.  It is a bad thing to be direct as people here feel they are being put on the spot with no time to consider the best answer.  The people are afraid sometimes to tell me up front what they really think because they don't want to offend me with a direct answer. It is a different way than I am used to of being extremely polite and considerate of the other person's feelings.  

Japan is like that.  If I asked someone there about doing something they didn't want to do, or couldn't do, they did not say an outright no because that would be offensive and rude.  I learned that if I was told "it is difficult" that really it meant no, just in a more polite way; a way that is designed to make you feel certain that your request is at least being considered.

On the prairies a common expression is " oh, you don't have to bother."  I was hurt the first few times I was told that after offering to do something for someone. Finally I figured out that it is their indirect way of saying they sincerely don't want me to be inconvenienced, although it can also mean no, and I am still learning to hear tone of voice and figure out context so I know which is which.  

Slowly I am learning that even things that seem blatantly obvious must be verbally couched in culturally acceptable ways.  Any possible interpretation of a comment as criticism, no matter that that is not the intention, is going to be met with a brick wall of silence and a hurt expression on the face of the hearer.  If someone has agreed to make a decsion about something I have to be prepared to possibly wait and wait some more until they express their decision. They will get it figured out, just not at the pace I expected based on my own past cultural experiences.  I have to zip my lips and let life unfold here as it will. When I need to hear the answer or know the solution, I will hear or know it at the time of need, and not before. I must learn more patience, always a good lesson to learn.

Now that I have made the connection between the indirect nature of the Japanese and the equally indirect nature of the prairie people, I think I will be able to do a more acceptable verbal dance. 

I am not too old to learn to change my ways.  

1 comment:

Leah said...

Funny! You can do it! Though knowing your personality just a little bit, I imagine it's been a change. Teeheehee