Indirect vs Direct Communication

I touched on this a bit in the post on power distance– while it *seems* like communication is often in a format that seems indirect to Americans, and Americans seem blunt and tactless to those in most Asian cultures- that doesn’t really mean what we think it means all the time. Some things are indirect, others, not so much. Partially this is reallya difference between cultures in what it is acceptable to ask or talk about and what isn’t.

It’s perfectly acceptable to comment about people’s weight in most Asian cultures, even to calling somebody fat. It’s okay to ask a woman’s age even if you hardly know her (for the record, I don’t mind this question at all, I think it’s silly that it bothers Americans. But it is not a question I would often be asked in the US, and I am asked it by the second meeting with most Filipinos). It’s okay to ask people how much they paid for just about anything, how much they spend on rent, what their utility bills are, etc, etc. Apparently, this one gets asked a lot and kind of exasperates Americans. I know I am tired of it, and find it hard not to be irritated. The reason I surmise that it is a common question with a common reaction due to cultural clashes is that one of the earliest phrases our language teacher taught us was a vague answer for this question- basically, something that means ‘so so’ or ‘about average,’ and this is what you say when you don’t want to answer. I have been sitting in my living room with an adult who went around the room asking me how much I paid for everything in the room. I’ve also been told by a lady from church that my way of cooking potatoes consumes too much gas and just watching me make the potatoes she was already tired of it, and I should not do that again. I think this was a bit different, though, because she is an older lady, so she has more freedom to tell me what she thinks, and I know she had only kind intentions and did not offend me in the least. Most of the questions don’t offend me, and even when the ‘how much did you pay for that’ question gets asked and I am irked, I know it’s a cultural issue.
Our son was regularly gawked at- I mean, people stopped in their tracks and stared, jaws dropped. Sometimes they took pictures. Often they asked to take selfies with him. Once a guy followed him around a museum, taking obvious selfies with my son in the background (he was a Korean tourist, and I don’t know if that was acceptable in general or if he was an outlier).

I don’t know if this is true here, but in Korea they can and will ask you how your pooping habits are- your inlaws might ask you if you have pooped yet, and how much without embarrassment, at least, without any embarassment on their part. If you are a westerner, you will probably be writhing inside in embarrassment and feel bathed in awkward sauce.

I watched a popular nationwide Korean television show once where they asked a popular woman singer who was in her sixties how old she had been when she stopped menstruating- it wasn’t a woman’s program, it was mixed company, a popular entertainment program. And nobody thought that was odd or embarrassing. I was recently asked- in a room full of mixed company and all ages- if the Cherub still menstruates. And to top off my embarrassment with a strong scoop of humiliation, I couldn’t understand what the question was. I have trouble hearing when a lot of conservation is going on, and the accent made it harder, plus there was a total lack of context because in my culture there is never a time to expect somebody would ask me that question while making small talk in mixed company. So, one of the men halfway between us repeated it for me, louder so I could understand, without embarrassment. At least, no embarrassment for anybody in the room but me, and I think I covered it well, but I am not sure. I don’t know what cues I sent.

Men urinate on the side of the road, you just avert your eyes. One evening while we were walking home I started counting and quit when we got to a dozen in the first ten minutes. It was a Friday night, so that was part of the reason, but still. You will see a man urinating on the side of the road almost daily, but I do not think I have seen a couple kissing since we got here. Once or twice I’ve seen a couple with his arm around her, but even then, it’s not a close, mushy thing. Sometimes it might be a pair of siblings for all I know, and probably is. Occasionally, I see hand holding, but even that, not so much. I touch my own husband in public more than most young couples here, and I am not an especially handsy person. So there’s a reversal there- in the US it would be shameful to be seen urinating in your neighborhood street, but not all embarrassing to be seen hugging or kissing your boyfriend or spouse.

I do not mean to convey that any of the above things are wrong. But… if you have the understanding that Americans are blunt and tactless while Asians are polite, indirect, and subtle in communication, questions or situations like these can feel disorienting, bewildering. It’s generally true that Asian culture is less direct, American more blunt, but it is also not that simple. Asians are sometimes really direct about some things that Americans are very, very private about, and very, very private or indirect about some things Americans are very outspoken about, and vice versa.

If somebody asks me if I can meet them at 7 on Friday or if I would like to teach a class, I have not the slightest qualm with saying nope, can’t do that. But I would rather be peeled and salted live than discuss my daughter’s menstruation habits with any but a close friend in a one on one situation and only then if I needed to vent or get advice. It would never be small talk conversation. And I think most of our friends here would be very embarrassed, possibly more for us than for them, if we asked them a direct question that they needed to answer with a no. You should know better than to ask that way. You should understand the answer is no if there is hesitancy or a redirection or no answer at all.

So some things are less subtle than others, from an American PoV.

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Davao Diary: Power Distance

I downloaded David Livermore’s Cultural Intelligence series from Audible (Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence To Adapt, Wherever You Are), and I’m still listening to it. I read his Leadership with Cultural Intelligence book (I like the series from Audible better because it’s more in depth, but that is also why I haven’t finished it yet). I also looked over his blog and website, which I don’t really like at all- I find it confusing and lightweight when it comes to helpful information, and I went there in the first place because in his book he recommended the website for further info which I cannot find on the website- a list of favourite movies he recommends for increasing your cultural intelligence. Still, in every one of the resources I’ve perused, I have found information that helps me assess and understand things I observe here in the Philippines.

Obviously, not every single interaction can be explained or interpreted through cultural differences alone. For instance, while in American culture it is considered direct, honest, and straightforward to look people in the eye, and in some Asian and African cultures it’s considered aggressive and disrespectful, I am an American who does not look people in the eye very often. I can’t maintain eye contact for long at all- even with my husband, I break off eye contact quickly. So this is very outside the American norm. It tends to be a common trait among those who experience long term abuse as children, as well as survivors of torture and prisoners of war (because all three of these have much in common). So, while in my own country, this puts me at a disadvantage as it appears shifty and unreliable, in some cultures it is seen as more polite and respectful than the average American, but neither perspective is the accurate one for me personally. There are various other reasons to consider when somebody seems to be acting outside what you understood to be the cultural norm.

It’s important to keep that in mind- generalizations are incredibly helpful when understanding other cultures, but you need to combine that knowledge with personal relationships, some careful observations, and so on.

Anyway, he sorts cultural differences into six main categories (this is all a huge generalization). One of the most interesting to me is something called ‘power distance,’ which he defines loosely:

Low Power Distance:

Emphasis on equality; shared decision-making

High Power Distance:
Emphasis on differences in status; superiors make decisions

One of the interesting distinctions here plays out when Mindanao islanders are attempting to explain why they adore President Duterte and will hear no ill of him (not that I have anything to say, but based on what I’ve read)- first of all, he is truly one of their own. In an island nation with over 140 different dialects, and I don’t know how many tribes and divisions, this president is from DAvao City, and they love him. Secondly, the explanation I commonly see in the paper is, “He’s a strong leader, he’s like your father….” and right there, the American mind balks, because we slurp up a hostility to paternalism in our mother’s milk, the air we breathe, the ground on which stand, the sun, the rain, and the wind. We don’t admire or aspire to have a leader treat us as a father treats his children. That is not because we are right and they are wrong.  It is not because they are right and we are wrong.

It is because we are Americans who live in a culture with more middling power distance- on a scale of 1-100 Americans in general score around 40.

The Philippines have a high score- 94 (from this website)

“Power Distance
This dimension deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards these inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

At a score of 94, The Philippines is a hierarchical society. This means that people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy in an organization is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat.”

The US doesn’t have the lowest score- I suspect we think we are lower in power distance than we are. But still, the difference between 40 and 94 is pretty significant.

Power Distance US- 40

“The fact that everybody is unique implies that we are all unequal. One of the most salient aspects of inequality is the degree of power each person exerts or can exert over other persons; power being defined as the degree to which a person is able to influence other people’s ideas and behavior.

This dimension deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal, and it expresses the attitude of the culture toward these power inequalities amongst us. Power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. It has to do with the fact that a society’s inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.”

This means we have had to get used to being called sir/ma’am a lot, by loads of people, everywhere. This means that we cannot call the taxi driver or the security guard at the school ‘sir’ without making them really, really uncomfortable, even when they are older than we are. Maybe we could if we were 20, I am not sure. But I know we can’t in our fifties. It means almost nobody but a couple local neighborhood children feel comfortable calling us by our first names, and those two exceptions are actually being cheeky little rascals and it is my responsibility to insist that they not call me by my first name, or worse, ‘Hey, you, Candy?’ but in fact look a bit stern and tell them to call me Tita or Lola. I am not being a good neighbor or a good adult if I pretend not to notice.

This means that I have a housekeeper, a helper, who comes two days a week who wants to be told exactly what to do and doesn’t want me dithering around saying things like, “Well, what do you think needs to be done,” and “if you feel like it” or “if you have time.”
This means that my Filipino friends think it’s amusing and rather strange that I cringe about asking her to clean my shoes (I haven’t even told them I sometimes clean my toilet before she gets here).

This also means that it is my responsibility, unlike the housekeeper/employer relationship in the US, to make sure she has a snack at 10 in the morning, and in most places again at 2 or 3, although ours doesn’t seem to want the second one. It also means it is my responsibility to provide her lunch. I can provide the food and ask her to cook it, but you are not being a good employer if you don’t plan to provide food for your helper’s lunch. This means if she comes to work on a holiday I pay extra and during the Christmas break I need to give her a pretty nice bonus even though she may be gone most of the month, and a gift for her family (she’s single, but will likely be going home to her parents’ at Christmas, so a basket of ingredients for a spaghetti meal would be much appreciated, for other cultural reasons).
And it means that the helper usually will not sit down at the table with you to eat lunch, although this varies, I am told, based on how familiar the helper is with Americans and how often she has worked for them.

It also means, this power distance, that when I was at the theater watching a movie, and in a scene where a married adult male with daddy issues bluntly said to his father, “Nobody invited you to come to my house,” the Filipinos in the row behind me gasped in audible shock, and I kind of hunkered down in my seat in embarrassment because it had only seemed slightly rude to me, not unspeakably shocking.

This means a lot of things that I obviously don’t have a good grasp on since I’m an American, but also, since I am in my fifties and an outsider (a guest) and often the customer or client or employer in my relationships, or old enough to be everybody’s mother in most of my friendships, nobody can actually tell me up front and directly when I mess up.

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Some Special Amazon Deals

1.99 for Kindle or electronic version of this book I’ve had saved on a wishlist for months- Spirals in Time, a book about molluscs in the sea.

This book about seahorses is five dollars less than usual today.

Buy ANY kindle book today and get a certificate for 40% off another book purchase (to be used later)

These little cameo pieces, olive green with fairies, are less than four dollars.

Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers is only 7.99 (it was twice that) for Kindle)

Defeating Jihad by Sebastion Gorka is 2.99 for Kindle (it was fifteen dollars)

This firefly pocket series guide to the human body is great to use along with an anatomy study in the upper years, and it was nearly 20 dollars and is currently only 3!!

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You should read these things

If you are any part of the adoption triangle, you want to read this blog and this series of posts. Begin here.

Diversity training doesn’t seem to have the desired results.

Harvard immunologist: Unvaccinated children do not post greater health risk than vaccinated children.

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Choicest Thoughts, Best Dress

Suppose “that we had it in our power to call up the shades of the greatest and wisest men that ever existed, 33and oblige them to converse with us on the most interesting topics — what an inestimable privilege should we think it ! — how superior to all common enjoyments !  But in a well-furnished library we, in fact, possess this power. We can question Xenophon and Cæsar on their campaigns, make Demosthenes and Cicero plead before us, join in the audiences of Socrates and Plato, and receive demonstrations from Euclid and Newton. In books we have the choicest thoughts of the ablest men in their best dress.” Aiken

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