How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.
This is Culturally Attuned. Brought to you by the United States Institute of Peace, in partnership with Burning Man Project.
As a matter of fact, that whole group of people have a very close relationship to the shark. In fact, their leader is descended from a shark who came upon the land and became a human in order to protect this group of humans, it’s a long story. It’s a well-known story.
When people speak to us, we may find their meaning fairly straightforward when the speakers are from our own community. The same may be true in how we express and interpret gestures, body language, and facial expressions with people in our culture. However, effective communication across cultures can be much more complex. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand the context and meaning of what is being said, particularly across language barriers. Missteps, miscommunication and misperceptions are common as we try to understand, and be understood by, others who are culturally different.
I’m Dominic Kiraly, and in this episode of Culturally Attuned we explore the topic of effective intercultural communication. Our guest is Sarah Fisk, an organizational development consultant, who lived and worked in the island country of Fiji, located in the South Pacific Ocean. We’ll join Sarah as she tries to navigate the challenges of communicating with Fijians, reading the situations that arise, and adjusting accordingly.
First of all you have to understand Fiji is a very relational society and everybody knows who they are based on who they’re related to. And when you walk down the street and you pass someone, you say hello, you greet them, you say “bula bula vinaka bula bula” you know there’s … you don’t just walk by people. Even in the city where people are rushing, if you watch people walking down the street, they are sort of bobbing their heads at each other as they go by. They are not just ignoring each other.
And one time I talked to a Fijian friend and she said, “Why are white people so sad all the time? Why are they so in a bad mood all the time? We feel really bad for white people because they seem so sad and anxious. What are they scared of?”
And I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know if they are sad.” And so I put these two things together that white people think, I mean Americans and Australians and everything, we think Fijians are shy, and the Fijians think that we’re sad or anxious or whatever.
And what I realized was, this is how it happened. I was trying to learn Fijian. So I was asking my Fijian friends to tell me what the words of the songs meant, like, and learn the words. And there was this one song and I said, “Well, this is a beautiful song. What’s it about?” And Joelle goes, “It’s about a chicken.” And then Mosese goes, “No, it’s not. It’s about a lighthouse.” And then [Siliana] goes, “It’s about when you are in love with someone but you have to let go.” And I said, “Wait a second, what’s the song about?” And they all just burst out laughing.
And I said, “Well, what’s this? Let me learn the words. What does this word mean?” And so there’s a silence as everybody looked at the word. And I was like, “You can’t tell me what the word means like what, just translate the word to English. What does this word mean?” And they started talking in rapid Fijian amongst themselves. And then Mosese looks at me and goes, “Sarah, in English you have a lot of words. In Fijian, we don’t have so many words. So every word has to do a lot of work. And it means a lot of things.” And that was his explanation.
So, that became interesting to me and then I started paying further attention because he said we have fewer words, what I started to realize is that quite a bit of the Fijian language has nothing to do with words spoken. It has to do with body language, with eye contact, with very nuanced gestures and this explains so much to me that my experience in Fiji changed, it was like night and day. All of a sudden, I was actually having like three or four times as much communication with people than I had been having before.
And that’s why they think white people are anxious and sad is because they’re not making eye contact as you walk down the street. They’re like, we’re shut down. We don’t look at each other. They’re looking at each other from far away because they need to know who it is, is it a relative, is it somebody they need to relate to in a certain way. And so the communication starts from the first minute you see them coming from a far distance and a lot of the interchange happens nonverbally.
Because relationships matter a great deal to Fijians, they use face-saving behavior in order to avoid conflict. Sarah explains.
The Fijians have a reputation for being lazy and not showing up when they’re supposed to. It hurts my heart because it’s actually their sense of time and obligation is really different than Westerner’s sense of time and obligation. And this language thing comes into play because people really will not be able to say no, I can’t come. No, I can’t show up for you. So that becomes a cultural issue in which people are saying disparaging things about each other because their understanding of the world is just plain different.
So a really good example is in Fijian culture saying “no” is really not okay. It’s almost like slapping somebody in the face. Okay, it really … you just don’t tell somebody “no”, okay it’s not a good thing.
But you have to communicate if someone asks you a question like, “Can you come on Wednesday and help me move the woodpile?” And you can’t come on Wednesday; you can’t just say “No, I can’t come on Wednesday.” And so you say, “Oh, yeah, I think that would be okay.” That means no. And if you don’t know that that means no which most expats and people who are living there from overseas, they don’t know that means no. That doesn’t mean no, it means I’m going to try and be there. But then he doesn’t show up. You call his house and his sister says, “Oh, no, he always takes his daughter to Suva on Wednesdays. He’s never available on Wednesdays.”
But to tell you that would have been extremely rude because you were asking him for a favor in the first place, right. So there’s a lot of understanding what’s going on that only happens in and around the words rather than using the words. So, that just made my experience with them- I became more of an insider than then I was before. And I was able to communicate appropriately with people in right relationship which to them really really matters. And so they didn’t just dismiss me anymore, they actually included me in a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been included with otherwise.
We asked Sarah if there was ever a time when her cultural competence was really put to the test. There was, and it included kava, a plant-based drink popular in the South Pacific.
So I went to a place called Taveuni as part of the Sea Shepherd Campaign to stop shark finning and to raise awareness in the South Pacific of the importance of sharks and to stop this, you know, the Chinese from killing all the sharks. In Fiji, in ancient Fiji culture before the Christians came, which is still quite operative today there’s different groups of people have different relationships to different animals. And there’s a group in Taveuni, the whole island of Taveuni as a matter of fact, that whole group of people have a very close relationship to the shark. In fact, their leader is descended from a shark who came upon the land and became a human in order to protect this group of humans. It’s a long story. It’s a well-known story.
And the descendants of that shark who became a person are the leaders that’s the chiefly clan of this group. And the person who holds the role is called “TuiThakau”, okay, the “TuiThakau”. So we want to go see the “TuiThakau” and we want to talk to him about how we can support him and his people to protect sharks that are being killed for their fins and sold to the Chinese. So there’s two parts of the story.
The first part of the story is that in order to get to see him we need to have a spokesperson who will speak for us because that’s the tradition in Fiji. And our spokesperson calls his spokesperson, they have a conversation and they sort it out and then we can go.
So that took a while and everything is very formal and when you get … once that happens, the first thing that’s going to happen before you have any kind of substantive conversation is that you have a Kava ceremony, and you bring Kava. And they are very grateful for the Kava. And there’s a ceremony giving them the Kava in which our spokesperson says, “We hope we do things the right way. We don’t want to insult you. We want to make sure that we’re honoring you properly.” And he says all these things. And then they respond by saying, “Don’t worry, you’re welcome here” and everything. And then they take their Kava, mix it and then we all drink their Kava. And they took our Kava and everything’s good.
But the “TuiThakau” is rightfully suspicious of this group of Westerners coming in saying we want to help you save the shark when he is in fact the shark, right. And so we all come in and the woman who’s leading us is like, I don’t know, 26 and very beautiful and she’s like the spokesperson of this campaign. But she’s not very experienced doing any of this stuff. She’s mostly good at taking selfies with little children and handing out stuffed sharks, you know, like teddy bear sharks. So, and there’s a guy who’s filming and then there’s the rest of us and there’s a spokesperson. So we come into this giant mahogany hall with open windows, South Pacific, and there’s this guy comes in and sits down and the spokesperson introduces him.
And he’s immediately suspicious and he starts talking about how he’s the leader, that his community is deeply Christian. And because he knows, he can tell that we want to hear the story about how that, you know, he’s really a shark, right and how we got anointed to be this “shark god”, right. “Takuanga” is the name of the “shark god” and this guy is “Takuanga”, right. And so he doesn’t want to talk about that. And that’s, of course, what we wanted him to talk about and then talk about the politics of saving sharks and everything.
So he’s talking about being Christian and being loyal to how important it is for him to lead his people in the modern world and everything. And our beautiful blonde leader is not handling this very well because she doesn’t really know why he’s not talking about what she wants him to talk about. And so there comes this moment where there’s this pause and you can tell his jaw is rather tense, right. And he’s like, what am I going to do, you know, like these people are chumps, right.
So I took a big risk. And I said, I want to tell you that I’ve been in Fiji for a few years now and one of the things I’ve noticed is how strong the Christian faith is here and it’s a very special Christian faith. It’s a very Fijian Christian faith. And that this is what keeps the community strong together, I can really understand how you’re a man who must have to, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you might be a man who has to live in two worlds. Because at the same time that you need to lead the modern Christianity to keep the community together, you’re also the one who is preserving the traditional history of the spiritual Fijian way from before Christianity. I said this seems like something for you to carry both these things must be both a great weight and responsibility but also a great honor and I’m very pleased to meet you.
We asked if the risk paid off? Was Sarah able to make a connection with the elder?
That was the first time I’d spoken, right and like, you know. He and his spokesperson were like “ah” and he looks at the spokesperson and he nods his head and the spokesperson starts serving us the Kava and everything is okay. So I mean, I really felt like I don’t want to toot my own horn, but it was like a moment where I needed to see, because my spokesperson couldn’t do anything because he couldn’t speak against what the “TuiThakau” was saying about the modern world and having to hold Christianity and he was basically saying, “I’m not going to talk about being “Takuanga” with you because you don’t get it, that that’s old and this is new.” And when I say both are true and it must be something for you to carry it, and then we went there.
We talked about things we could do in his community to protect sharks and it went well. I mean, you know, for what it was it went well.
Sarah focused on the unspoken values and messages in the elder’s and the spokesperson’s behavior. Sarah shared one final experience in which staying broadly attentive to the situation was critical.
I’ve been in a family home where I was being given food and I was so hungry. There were two of us and we’ve been traveling and this family basically took us in by the side of the road and we were a little bit lost and frightened and not sure where we were going to go next.
And they had some kids and they said, “Oh, you look so tired here, you know, have some soup” and they brought us the soup. And the kids were staring at us and I suddenly realized we were eating their soup.
And if I hadn’t picked that up, so what I did is I offered … I say “Come. Come. Come sit with me. You have some I’ll have some. You have some I’ll have some.” And like the mother’s face like was … she was so relieved, because she was busy being hospitable which was her cultural way. I mean, she could not offer us the food but it was the only food they had. And so then I was like, oh my god, we’re eating their food. And I was like we are eating their food. And we couldn’t say no, because it was rude.
So I just took the youngest kid on my lap and then the other ones came over and the three kids and the two outsiders ate the food together, you know, and there wasn’t a lot but we all had something in our bellies. And so again, it’s like, what did I do? I paid attention and looked for things like the great thing about traveling and the great thing about doing cross-cultural stuff is that it takes you out of your own little box and you go, “What’s going on here?” And you get to learn from that and you get to see the world in a new way and that, you know, causes new brain cells to happen. It causes your heart to open. It causes your life to explode in good ways, most of the time good ways, not always. So, the way to do that, the way to be ready to do that is get over yourself and be really curious and humble and fascinated by what you’re seeing and wondering what it is. I mean that emotional intelligence really comes into play, I think.
Adapting your communication style, as Sarah did, is essential to working effectively across cultures. Active listening and attention to non-verbal communication can help avoid misperceptions and move the dialogue forward. Keep an open mind and heart, Sarah advises, and always maintain a spirit of humility, curiosity, empathy and situational awareness.
What is the dominant communication style in your culture? Do people rely mainly on words, descriptions and facts, or do they share information through inferences and connections? How often are you aware of body language? How does that affect your understanding of a situation and what is being communicated?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned, produced by Dominic Kiraly at the United States Institute of Peace, and in collaboration with our partner, Burning Man Project. I’m Dominic Kiraly. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Produced, engineered and narrated: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook