The title of this post is a messy play on Clifford Geertz’s essay, “Being There, Writing Here” in Harper’s Magazine in March 1988, pp 32-37. Part of the point of that article, and of Geertz’s interpretive anthropology, was that social observers face the dilemma of making their empirical observations (of another’s culture, in particular) ‘on location’, but returning to the familiar spaces of home to do the writing – and facing the interpretive dilemmas of that other world and one’s own.
The strained parallel I want to draw involves the mediation, negotiation, or dispute resolution trainer with his or her bag of tricks developed in one context, training and consulting in another, and at times caught in the cognitive, interpretive limbo of being neither here nor there (a notion also made perhaps more famous by Bill Bryson in a book of that title).
This question comes to mind in thinking about student responses – here in Singapore – to two negotiation training reources (for want of a better word) – tools that many other trainers will be familiar with, and which served not only the same familiar purposes but also added some intercultural colour to our reflections.
First, I showed the film Twelve Angry Men – the classic, Henry Fonda version. I’ve done this for classes in New Zealand, and the class here elicited many of the same responses to Juror #8’s techniques of influence: the use of doubt; the insistence on talking (“we need to talk”); the review of evidence; occasional personal connections with individual jurors; coalition building strategies; targeting persuasion; moral and legal persuasion (through affirmation of the role of the jury); and so on. They also discussed the possible impact of seating arrangements – i.e. sitting opposite each other as a possible source of perceptions of opposition. (It should also be noted that trial by jury was abolished in Singapore by the former Chief Justice some years ago.)
In later individual and class blog comments, students also wondered what a different version of the film might look like: Twelve Angry Asian Men. Amongst the comments and reflections:
- it would be unlikely to be ‘angry’ men – other than the Bruce Lee type of film (martial arts) you’re not likely to see displays of anger and overt aggression;
- it would be unlikely to cast characters whose principal mode of operation was the display of emotion (e.g. Juror #3 – the last to ‘fall’);
- nor would you show open displays of prejudice or racial hostility;
- interactions would be – for the large part – focused on the preservation of ‘face’ in the decision-making process (both face-giving and -saving: own and other);
- there would be greater overt deference to age and seniority;
- decision-making would be very concerned with building quiet consensus; and
- contradiction – as a strategy – would be largely avoided.
Probably not the makings of a box-office triumph!
Second, I use the ladder of inference as a framework for exploring the patterns of perception, interpretation, assumptions, and action – as the originators of the model indicate, it’s a descriptive framework as well as being an analytical tool. It is also the basis for introducing the twin tools of advocacy and inquiry. So far so good . . . all of that made sense; it was readily applied in a couple of brief examples.
But . . . back came the now familiar question: would this really work here in Asia? And especially would the apparent directness of both advocacy and inquiry work in societies where there is a preference for the elliptical, for the unstated but mutually understood (in a high context world)? Would it not seem too pushy, too “Western” to want to dig beneath one’s negotiation counterpart’s thinking, through inquiry, in order to understand their thinking? And would it not seem equally blunt to advocate one’s perceptions and preferences by laying out the foundations of one’s thinking (surely, it seems, this should be implied, inferred, understood . . . but not necessarily articulated)?
And, given the research (especially Nisbett and his colleagues on comparative cognition and perception) these questions are probably on target. This doesn’t mean, I think, that models and tools such as the ladder of inference need to be left at home: they do still travel well, but when they arrive in a different location, they probably take on a different meaning, and evoke or require new strategies. Inquiry and advocacy are still possible – but in the style and language understood in the new location.