Communicating the Pivot

A few weeks back I had occasion to have a cup of tea with a high-ranking local official in the hope that we could work out a solution to a mutual problem.  Individuals in our respective organizations had stumbled into a bit of a row, feathers had been ruffled, face lost, threats had been made.

For this meeting it was just the two of us.  No agenda.  No audience.  Just two older men who wanted to defuse a situation before it took on a life of its own.

We exchanged pleasantries while he prepared the tea (Fresh Longjing, for those who know their teas.) and after sufficient time to make it clear that this was a meeting intended to resolve differences, not inflate them, the official began the business part of the meeting by noting the obvious –  “You are a foreigner.”  While many Westerners might be inclined to bristle at the directness of the comment, believing it to be somehow discriminatory or derogatory, I knew then and there that things were going to work out.  My instinct told me that in acknowledging our differences he was setting the stage to bridge them.

He then went on to note that in deference to our differences he would attempt to adopt my native – Western – communication style.  And, by implication, knowing that he was willing to communicate on my terms, he was obviously hoping that I would likewise accommodate our differences and do him the courtesy of listening with a Chinese ear, as it were.

Fair enough.

At about that same time, President Barack Obama was beginning to make his way through Asia, tiptoeing, both literally and figuratively, around China, with stops in Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

As a simple glassmaker I offer no special insight into the politics of it all.  From what I’ve read it was an attempt to strengthen the U.S. ‘pivot to Asia’ by reassuring allies in the region of the country’s sincerity and commitment.  But what that means, exactly, I cannot say and dare not conjecture.

As I read and listened to accounts of the trip, however, my mind kept harking back to my own meeting with the Chinese official just days before.  And I was forced to wonder if President Obama’s political advisors gave the same consideration to differences in communication styles that the Chinese official had given to me.

As noted in many prior posts, Americans, who tend to be transmitter-oriented in their communication style (i.e. The responsibility for effective communication resides with the transmitter.) and the Chinese, who tend to be receiver-oriented in their communication style (i.e. The responsibility for effective communication resides with the receiver.) naturally communicate in diametrically opposed fashion; to say nothing of the fact that we speak different languages with no shared alphabet or common etymology (No opportunity, in other words, for literal translation between the two languages.  All translation between Chinese and English is subject to interpretation.)

To paraphrase a former U.S. president, 'You're either with us or against us.'  Treaties aside, what is the actual U.S. position?
To paraphrase a former U.S. president, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ Treaties aside, what is the actual U.S. position?

At a news conference in Japan, for example, President Obama was inevitably asked about the U.S. position on the red hot topic of the uninhabited chain of islands which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands and both lay adamant claim to.  Surely not surprised by the question President Obama gave a very precisely worded answer relating to the U.S.’ treaty obligations with Japan.  To the Western ear it was a masterful political parsing of words that both distanced the President from the issue (He himself pointed out that the treaty in question pre-dated his own birth.) and made it, or at least attempted to make it, a technical issue of legal obligation rather than political choice.

I immediately thought back to my own meeting and recalled the intensity with which the official had assessed my face and body language whenever I was speaking.  When the interpreter subsequently attempted to translate my comments the official listened politely but was clearly processing sensory inputs beyond those provided by his ears.

And it occurred to me that one of the fundamental ways in which the difference between transmitter-oriented communicators and receiver-oriented communicators manifests itself is in the importance the former attaches to language and the latter attaches to behavior, be it the visible reality of action or the inference of simple body language.

To the receiver-oriented Chinese, I knew, President Obama’s parsing of words, as unassailable as they might be on any technical basis, would be nonetheless lost.  In a culture that turns on personal relationships, in which the world is divided into two groups – those you have obligation to and those you don’t – President Obama was clearly putting the U.S. in the “don’t” category.  (To paraphrase another American president, ‘you’re either with us or against us.’)

And, as it turns out, I believe I was right.  China Daily, whose staff is fluent in both English and politics, began its reporting of the comment with the line, “U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise of military cover for Japan’s claim on the Diaoyu Islands…”

What the Chinese heard, in other words, is that whatever they say with their lips, the U.S. is emboldening Japan to assert its claim knowing that it’s ally – the strongest military power in the world – has its back and will stand behind it.  You say, ‘Maybe this, maybe that; in this case tomaito, in that case tomaato.’  I hear, ‘Us and you.’

tomas del amo / Shutterstock.com Not about China?  Really?
tomas del amo / Shutterstock.com
Not about China? Really?

Later in the trip, at a news conference in the Philippines following the announcement of an enhanced U.S. military presence in the archipelago country, President Obama was quoted to say, “Our goal is not to counter China.  Our goal is not to contain China…”

What China Daily reported, however, was, “Washington secured a key part of its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region with a decade-long defense pact with Manilla on Monday, as observers said the militarization of the region is playing with fire and makes a diplomatic settlement much harder.”  Re:  You say, ‘Listen to my carefully crafted words before judging my actions.’  I hear, ‘It is all about China.’

It is undoubtedly true that President Obama’s advisors are cleverer than me by a factor of X and they probably anticipatorily interpreted the Chinese interpretation in a way that allowed the President to ultimately deliver the exact message he wished to.

I do have to wonder, however.  An April 29 article by Reuters summarized the trip by noting, “Analysts mostly agreed that Obama got the balance right by assuring America’s friends of U.S. security assistance while insisting that Washington was not trying to contain China.”

Really?  As but one humble citizen of the world I have to disagree.  That may be the message delivered.  It was not, I believe, the messaged received.

Time will tell.

In the meantime, I only hope that as the U.S. pursues its pivot it gives sufficient consideration to the difference in communication styles employed here in Asia.  Language is only a medium for communication.  To achieve understanding – the ultimate goal of communication – we must first recognize our differences and adapt our communication accordingly.

A Chinese government official taught me that.  And it worked.  Our own meeting, by all appearances, has proven to be a success for both of us.

In the end, communication isn't about transmitting or receiving.  It's about understanding.  To achieve that we must first understand and acknowledge our differences.
In the end, communication isn’t about transmitting or receiving. It’s about understanding. To achieve that we must first understand and acknowledge our differences.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.