Monday, October 5th 2015
Practitioners of Public Diplomacy work in intercultural settings and come to know at first hand the challenges of communication between cultures. Much of a Public Diplomacy officer’s cross-cultural moxie comes from living and working abroad. There’s also a large and growing body of literature on intercultural work and communication.
Over the years the armed forces sponsored a great deal of academic research in this area. Deployments without much preparation combined with short tours, however, have impaired their full use of the knowledge.
While I was in Afghanistan, I was surprised that many military counterparts, facing intercultural challenges, were unaware that the archives contain many studies from, say, the Vietnam era that could still be applied in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Here are a few paragraphs from one 1966 study, “Conflicts of Culture and the Military Advisor,” by George M. Guthrie, professor of psychology at the Pennsylvania State University and a consultant to the Institute of Defense Analyses. Even though many American “technical assistants, teachers, military advisors and Peace Corps volunteers” had been sent to developing countries, he wrote, “advising is still considered more an art than a science.”
“[A]lmost all assistance programs have ideological components,” moreover. “We want to support and encourage friendly and/or democratic processes and factions within the recipient country,” Guthrie continued, “but we cannot do so too blatantly without defeating our own purposes. Each of the various groups and interests with whom we must deal has its own expressed and unexpressed objectives too. Finding common ground among stated goals is difficult . . .”
Guthrie drew profiles of three American advisors in the Philippines, India, and Nigeria. The entire report is worth reading, but the portrait of a visiting American, “Professor Markle,” may be most suggestive for Public Diplomacy work in education and exchanges – especially during orientation sessions for newly arrived American Fulbrighters.
The next term the American was scheduled to conduct a seminar on curriculum development for which 20 students enrolled. Trying to relate discussions to Indian rather than American problems he had deliberately resisted issuing his reading lists from home and decided to have the group define their purposes and goals. He wanted them to develop their ideas rather than simply record his. The first few sessions of a seminar are always rather inconclusive as people strive to know one another, and to avoid taking stands which others might attack. But the Indian students were even more reluctant to talk, and when he pressed them they insisted that he was the specialist. Faced with this dilemma he invited them to discuss specific problems rather than general issues. Several students responded to this by describing complicated situations which appeared virtually insoluble and then asked for simple straightforward solutions. He had been called an expert and the students wanted the benefit of his expertise. The balance of the seminar was a continuing struggle with Markle wanting to discuss issues and the students wanting facts and solutions.
In the following terms Markle did more lecturing and relied less on discussion techniques. However, the students did not respond in the way he had anticipated. Rather than at least learn what he had to say, they began to miss classes and at the end of the term presented desperate stories of fates that awaited them if they did not receive passing grades. When he finally failed three obviously inferior students he was called in by the administrator of the college and urged to re-examine the students' performance. There were some hints that a left wing student group might hold a meeting protesting his attempts to indoctrinate students and a couple of critical letters were written to the cultural affairs officer at the embassy. On the other hand several students wrote to him after he returned to New York telling him how much they had learned from his lectures and regretting that they did not have the opportunity for further study with him.
This example emphasizes the competitive struggle which may arise when host nationals are embarrassed that advisors are present. Markle knew very little about India and Indians responded by proving that he could not solve their problems. Furthermore he tried to use a pedagogical technique which was unfamiliar students and which would impart very little to them which would prove useful in the all-important examinations they faced later. * * * *
At the outset, assistance activities appear to be a simple matter of those who have or know sharing with those who need. The motivation of the giver may be honorable and unselfish. The recipient's need for change may be apparent to all. But helping relationships soon become complicated as the recipient resents his implied inferiority and as the donor becomes impatient for changes that do not appear.