There is nothing more pathetic than the sight of me wandering around my bookshelves muttering “I have nothing to read!” There are about three thousand books jammed in the shelves, piled on the floor, spilling over coffee tables and getting under foot!

What I mean of course, is that I have either nothing to read that I have not already read; or there is nothing that I really want to re-read. Being mindful of my reading habits I am always delighted when someone hands me a book I have not read and especially if it deals with the subject I am passionate about – communication.

So with a joyful heart I sat down over the weekend to devour a book that discusses how our personal, social and ethnic culture affects the way in which we communicate. I have now finished it, and I am mightily dissatisfied.

While it does indeed highlight the problems associated with effective communication it – in my opinion – actually falls into all the traps that it highlights in others. It makes assumptions of a mutual agreement between them (the writers) and me (the reader) on a number of issues that I actually violently disagree with.

The writers do not set out their cultural background, or their political motif, or their ideological thinking or lay out their personal baggage for us so that we can understand how all this influences what they believe, what they say and what they use as examples.

I shall do so straight away. I am an ex-servicewomen and I bring that experience and attitude to my reading. I have, on a number of occasions made that quite clear, and I do so again.

I do so because my attitude to this book and to the position that its writers took was formed in the early part. The example that they used to highlight the fact that communication must address the issues in the terms of its listeners was the attempt of engineers to warn NASA about their concerns with the ‘O’ Rings prior to the launch of the ill-fated Challenger in 1986.

The authors highlighted that the launch had assumed a huge importance in the minds of the management; there had been other delays and other problems that had impacted on the organisation’s reputation – the management were not open to being convinced of the necessity of another postponement by mere technical information.

To be effective the communication should have addressed the issues in the terms of the managers’ thinking. Rather than be an exercise in technical jargon the communication should have focused on the impending PR disaster should things go awry – as they did.

I totally agree with all of that – it is a basic principle of communication; phrase your information in terms of the interest of the listeners.

But what caught my eye and influenced the way in which I viewed the rest of the book was this sentence “The explosion of the US space shuttle Challenger in 1986 … and the death of the seven astronauts, including a number of civilians, on board.”

If we identify who we are by highlighting who we are not – then what does this say about the attitudes of the writers? Are civilians more important to them than the other crew members? Does the highlighting of the civilian crew members indicate that they believe their deaths were more tragic? Are they going to justify such discrimination by dismissing the deaths of the military members as being ‘part of the job’ and therefore less tragic?

Was the lack of reference to the fact the other crew members were military due to a natural distaste of the military itself? This did not sit well with me.

If I was to put these questions to either of the authors I bet they would be appalled at my interpretation of their words; because at the base of their work they are right; our cultural attitudes, our experiences and our background will have an important effect on how we interpret not just the message, but the credibility of the speaker – or in this case the writers.

By seemingly elevating the importance of the civilians, they were (in my personal perspective) downplaying the importance of the non-civilians. A more neutral communication of the facts would have been to refer merely to the ‘death of the seven crew members’.

I judged the perspective of the writers badly because of my emotional reaction to that perceived assumption. And therefore in my opinion it was obvious that these writers would address the topic from their own narrow perspective; and I believed I knew exactly where they came from, what their cultural background was and what their unstated assumptions were. If I disagree vehemently on even one of these it is going to colour the way I approach all of them – and being affronted I was not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

That is my cultural baggage.

It was a brilliant lesson in not only how our listeners react to what we say; but also how our own prejudices, biases and assumptions colour the way we address a topic, the interpretations we place on other’s behaviour (historically as well as currently); even to the examples we use to highlight our opinions.

So I did not enjoy the book, although I read it all the way through (and what is it about academics and Marx? I believe Lenin had much more relevant things to say about ideology) – but as it set out to highlight just how intertwined communication and culture is, it succeeded brilliantly – but perhaps not quite they way they intended.

And now, I have nothing else to read.

Michele @ Trischel

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