A couple of years ago, I wrote in a chapter in a book on An Asian Perspective on Mediation, that:
What these comparative, communicative and cognitive analyses indicate is that patterns of social relationships and the shared experience and memory of common histories will have an impact on disputants’ modes of perceiving and addressing conflicts. In a sense, the empirical work serves to confirm the experience that many will have had in communication across cultures, though that experience is more likely to have led to frustrations with the logic and priorities of the negotiation counterpart. In particular, as these differences rest on the weight given to relationships, it will seem – to Western negotiators, and in Western mediation – that at times “face” and “facts” come into conflict, and that the communication tools used to preserve face – indirectness, vagueness – compete directly with the pursuit of facts. Conversely, Asian negotiators or mediators will observe that the Western pursuit of “facts” or the literal truth seems abrasive and ignorant of the importance of pursuing a “public” truth that will preserve relationships.
“Contradiction and Conflict – High- and Low-Context Communication in Mediation” in Teh Hwee-Hwee & Joel Lee (eds), in An Asian Model of Mediation (Academy Publishing, Singapore, 2009)
A couple of incidents or conversations involving interpretations of the “truth” still puzzle me after doing the thinking involved in this and other writing on intercultural communication, and after quite a proportion of my life living in parts of Asia. The issue here is expressly not about lies – I think that adds a judgmental element that is not right here. But it is about competing interpretations of what it is I might want to hear.
One observation comes from a colleague of mine at Singapore Management University in a faculty seminar on seeking to create the classroom ethos in which student arrived on time, were “present” while in the classroom (absence via Facebook is an increasingly common cause of despair). His simple comment: while I do mind that students arrive late, what matters more is the “bullshit” that accompanies the lateness – usually excuses about failed battery alarms, the rain (it always rain in Singapore), the traffic (the traffic is always heavy here) . . . and so on. The simple recognition that they were late, an apology, would do perfectly fine – but not the evasion.
But . . . is this a part of what I note above, that facts and face come into conflict and where that happens, face takes precedence?
The other more recent example arose from the fact that the apartment we live in has been on the market, and every weekend the owner’s agent has brought potential buyers along with the viewers’ agents. There were meant to be more viewers this past weekend, mid-afternoon, but the agent turned up (generously, with a bottle of wine!) to say that the viewers had cancelled the appointment. As it happened, there was a Deepavali (Festival of Light) party at the condo that same evening and an agent who had recently accompanied a couple came up to tell me that the apartment had sold that morning. Now, all parties will have known this – so my puzzle is, why didn’t the owner’s agent simply say it had been sold? Face vs. facts again?
The talk of “truth” in such cases is, perhaps, to add a moral loading that isn’t right; but you can see where the puzzle arises and why it’s easy to fall into judgment, either:
- because one party appears to be “evasive” or is simply parsimonious with facts; or
- the other is too blunt, too direct
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