Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It’s the Culture Stupid

May 7, 2011

For those who have never worked in a foreign country, it is difficult to imagine why there can be so much misunderstanding between two people from different cultures even if they can speak the same language and seemingly agree on certain points. Let me try to elaborate.

After three frustrating weeks of trying to come up with a plan for my project, “The Samoan Challenge”, I finally had a meeting with my Samoan sponsoring organization, “Women in Business Development” (WIBD). I presented a very simplified program of providing a basic framework and letting Samoans develop it further in their own way. This would meet The WIBD’s objective of a program maybe workable in rural villages, the Peace Corps objective of having volunteers participate in a significant health project, and my objective to get rid of 5,000 pink wristbands.

WIBD said my plan was the plan they wanted last year! They blamed the Peace Corps for making last year’s program too complicated, leading many participants and Peace Corps to simply bail out. Also, WIBD was not aware all Peace Corps then and now in Samoa were teachers, usually unfamiliar with the complicated politics of village life, and not Village Based, as Mary and I.

When I brought this up to the Peace Corps staff, they were amazed at how after so many meetings with WIBD, they had never expressed any concerns about the program’s direction, nor even after WIBD attended the training of Peace Corps, and did they not know that all PC are primary school teachers?

Another case study was when explaining to a Samoan woman that after my Peace Corps job in Samoa, I was returning to the States and going to marry a Samoan man and an American woman. What she heard and thought for quite a while was “I am going to marry a Samoan man”. This really didn’t upset her because in Samoa “Fa’afafine, man-woman” are quite acceptable, so my marriage might be strange, but not out of the realm of possibility. She was relieved to learn, a Fa’afafine I am not.

Still another case study was this past week when I sat for an entire day’s program with thirty WIBD employees. WIBD had hired two women from New Zealand, one with multiple educational degrees and the other a psychotherapist to conduct a training session. I asked the educator what she wanted the people to walk away with. She rambled on about something to do with team building and the evils of office gossip.

One of the exercises was to break into four groups and work together to build a tall giraffe out of newspaper, tape, and string, an exercise familiar to anyone in a western organization. One of the most successful groups was the one which approached the task in a typical Samoan manner. They selected a leader, in this case an older man amongst the women, and followed his decisions. The women in his group were quick to point out that their leader was very good in listening to their ideas, but he made the final decision which they accepted. Everyone in that group felt their giraffe was the best, which it was. The educator gloriously wrote many words on a whiteboard expressed during the ensuing discussion and espoused how everyone should work together in some vague democratic manner. She then took a picture of the almost blacked whiteboard. She totally missed how Samoans actually do work together.

Another exercise was to discuss what you found difficult about yourself (presumably work related). I said “It was the man in the mirror”, leading to a quick suggestion that I should break the mirror. Anyway several of the women broke down in tears as they revealed typical office problems, the psychotherapist listening with empathy and care as she encouraged even more to be reviled in this group of work associates.

I had to contain myself even more when the consultants put a bowl of chocolates in the middle of the circle during the “difficulty” segment. On top of that, they exhorted the group they were to take just one when their turn came for a candy. It was like putting raw meat in front of hungry lions. There was no understanding that in Samoa take one, means one handful.

The task before me was even further complicated during lunch. Here I was working for probably the most health conscience organization in Samoa to reduce obesity and promote “natural, organic foods” when trays of the most delectable and greasy food were served. In true Samoan fashion, people heaped piles of stuff on their plates. When finished with one plateful, they heaped on seconds. The only food left over was the cucumber, asparagus sandwiches. I sat there wondering if even my sponsoring organization was capable of participating in this project I am supposed to do.

The final segment had to do with gossip and the destructiveness thereof. The Samoans are masters of gossip. It is one of the reasons they can sit around in a circle for most of the day. In fact, Samoans have different words to discuss different types of gossip. They are light years ahead of us. Whereas Gossip might be very destructive in western decision making, it is not a big deal in Samoa where the decision is made by one person, not by a vote, regardless of what appears to be happening. I had to laugh as the consultants efforts educate about the evils of gossip actually fed the flames of future office gossip. I laughed even harder when at the beginning of their program they had everyone agree that whatever was said during their program not to be discussed outside of the room. What planet did they come from?

Eureka! We have a failure to communicate here.

Indeed, thinking you are both on the same wavelength is difficult even in your own culture, but extend that to a different way of thinking and interrupting the same word, you get a feel of why so many efforts of world peace, understanding, and aid end in failure. This Peace Corps stuff is hard work. The temptation to write off your efforts as falling upon dumb aboriginals is your own failure to realize the ignorance and shortcomings of the man in the mirror.

Somehow I have to learn how to operate in a culture with little or no feedback, thus reinforcing my notions of progress when there isn’t any, and Samoans have to grabble with my directness and lack of formal protocol, thus reinforcing their notions of my rudeness when I simply want to meet a deadline to get things done. I guess that is why the project is called,” The Samoan Challenge”.


Teri said...

Wow. You do have your work cut out for you, daddy-o. I give you a lot of credit for sticking with it. As much as I enjoyed reading this entry, I could feel my own frustration rising as I read. Your recognition of the man in the mirror is an insightful observation. It is something I must remind myself with some frequency.

Mary said...

This is a riot!!

Jane said...

Very entertaining & enlightening. I'm enjoying your blog.

Benjamin H. said...

Well.....Good Luck!

Lew said...

I am an Invitee awaiting Staging to serve in Macedonia. I have been following your blog because I, too, am older and have a different perspective than the majority of the PCVs. This particular posting was well written and reinforced my resolve to be aware of "the man in the mirror" as I approach each challenge each day.
I both enjoy and appreciate your humorously objective writing style.