Following the US presidential election primary campaigns from afar, I have been struck, as have many people, by the great oratory of Senator Barack Obama. For those of us with experience in non-governmental sectors or in foreign-aid circles, his style of speaking is very familiar — it is the voice of a community organizer, creating self-awareness and encouraging group action, and doing so superbly! (As an aside, since the nuclear briefcase and the bully pulpit are pretty much the only real powers of a US President, character, judgment and oratory would seem to me far more important as criteria for assessment of presidential candidates than the details of their proposed legislative programs.)
In reading some of the commentary on Senator Obama’s important speech this week in Philadelphia on race, I came across this post by psychologist Drew Westen. In speaking about race relations and a US national conversation on race, Westen says:
“We can’t solve problems we can’t talk about . . .”
It is hard to emphasize just how deeply and profoundly American this view is. There are many cultures in which the majority of the population would take the precisely-opposite view — that we cannot solve problems we DO talk about, that solutions to difficult social or even personal problems can only be found by working in the background, behind the scenes, in the corridors of power rather than in public forums, where it is possible for solutions to be found and agreements reached without any loss of face. England, despite sharing a common language and a common political history with the USA, is one such culture, as are those of North and East Asia. Even when people suspect that open discussion may be needed to solve a difficult problem, they may still prefer to keep shtum, since the pain of enduring the problem may be far less than the pain of admitting its existence or of discussing it openly.
What is the relevance of this to business, I hear you cry out (or not, depending on your culture)? I have worked on multi-national business ventures where this particular cultural difference threatened to overwhelm any other profession-disciplinary, corporate or personal differences. In one case, a consortium of companies from the USA, Britain and Korea worked together on a joint venture where the Americans always tried to surface any problem and discuss it openly in the weekly project meetings. Both the Brits and the Koreans recoiled from this approach, and the two would often caucus together before project meetings to try to pre-empt any difficult discussions. I don’t know if the Americans on the project ever knew of the corridor-caucusing of their two partners, or why so many difficult matters were sent for “off-line” resolution, only to disappear or else be magically resolved, apparently without any discussion.
There are many wonderful qualities of American culture, and, in my opinion, openness and transparency are among these. But not everyone thinks so, and it would behoove us all in an age of global interactions and inter-dependence to recognize this.
POSTSCRIPT (Added 2008-03-21): It is also worth noting that some cultures may discuss problems publicly but only in elliptical or indirect terms. Shona culture (found in Zimbabwe and Mozambique), for example, has a highly-sophisticated use of metaphors, parables, multiple-meaning-layers, and even songs, as a means of somewhat open discussion of sensitive topics. The use of such sophisticated linguistic devices means that a speaker can intend that an utterance be understood differently by different audiences. Not an insignificant reason for his political success is that Robert Mugabe is a grand master of these multiple simultaneous registers, of being heard to say different things to different audiences at the very same time, and of clearly being heard to say without actually having said.