Cross-Cultural Conversational Convergence

I’ve long been interested in the process whereby people communicate. Indeed, that was a part of my college education in journalism. We studied matters like non-verbal communication and how to craft arguments to win a debate. Much of the particulars of the course work has evaporated from the synaptic cobwebs of my mind, but a few lessons remain securely in place.
I remember that the order of arguments in a speech is something like 24531, where “2” is the second most powerful, and “1” is the most powerful.  You begin with a zinger, bury the weaker arguments in the middle, and end with the convincing final thrust.
We learned that the power position in a lengthy conference room is one of the end chairs, or immediately to the right of the most important person in the room. The end chair captures the attention of the whole room easily. The position next to the important person captures his power as your own. Of course a high straight-backed chair is a better position than sunk into the sofa.
This comes to mind because I frequently see Filipinos using a debate style in blog arguments that I suppose is intended to strengthen their argument. But it weakens them, at least in a westerner’s eyes. It is a black and white statement of cultural convergence that often leads to a clash rather than clarity.
Take this case of two different ways of responding to someone who appears not to grasp the point you have made:
  • Response A: “You don’t understand what I am saying.”
  • Response B: ” Perhaps I’ve explained this poorly.”
Which is the most powerful response? In the Philippines you almost ALWAYS get Response A. The objective, of course, is to take a whack at the other person to suggest he is not bright enough to grasp what you are saying. This moves him down a peg, which is like moving you up a peg.
Yet, it is the weaker of the two responses.
The person who uses Response B “owns” the confusion. He takes responsibility for the misunderstanding and thereby holds onto the driver’s stick. Or wheel. Or the control button.  He projects authority, while the Case A respondent projects whine. At least to an educated westerner.
Most people probably don’t even think about it.
Another variation of the “put down” is to pick on the nits, and from that extend that the bigger picture is too flawed for acceptance.
  • Observation A: “President Aquino made a poor decision on ‘X’ and therefore he is a bad president..”
  • Observation  B: “President Aquino made a poor decision on X. Here are the reasons.”
Observation A is the traditional Filipino method. All acts reflect the person, not the person’s decision. Find the flaw and point it out as a flaw in character. Control the argument and you control the person.
The claim to power, or the need to claim it, is very pronounced in the Philippines.
I’ve argued that almost every interpersonal engagement here is a battle for dominance. Even the most trivial, the gossip, the teasings, the constant shadings that correct what a person says.
But it doesn’t really succeed, this need to claim and project power. It too often creates animus. That means bitter anger. So you can connect a lot of dots and understand why politics is such a murderous business in the Philippines.
Of course, personal insult is a part of this dynamic, the posturing for power. Destroy the argument by destroying the person making it. I don’t need to provide a case for that. Just go to your nearest anti-blog thread, or Rapplerdiscussion thread, and you’ll likely come across that particular “technique”.  The need to diminish others is so prominent that, after awhile, it becomes a joke.
How do we get past this? We are all emotional people, of course. But can’t we do better?
There are many formal ways to dissect a debate as to good argument or bad, fallacious or logical. To me that academic formality it is a bit of overkill, as we are mostly casual observers reaching for understanding or trying to convince others to see things as we do.
And of course, you find the same flaws in blog arguments ANYWHERE. Not just the Philippines. But the incidence of an outright push for personal power, versus dissection of issues, is very pronounced in the Philippines.
To the latter point, I have characterized many (most?) Filipinos as 100 percenters. They enter the  argument to prove they are right rather than to learn or be flexible. I’d say that in 5 years of pounding the blogs, I’ve seen someone change their opinion maybe once or twice.
That to me is unnatural. Think about it. With all the knowledge out there, the greatest share held by others rather than us, it is peculiar to believe that the correct conclusion rests in our brain and nowhere else.
Yet we too often insist on placing winning above being candid and sincere and precise and honest.
There is a surreal quality to a culture that engages in dialogue for reasons other than discovery. It is crazy-making sometimes. It is impossible to carry on a simple, frank discussion. Everything is wrapped in emotional competitiveness, like banana leaves defining the bibinka.
I’d argue that discovery is a higher ground than winning, and the Philippines would be a better, more productive place if people did not invest so much energy tearing others down.
Here are a few of rules I try to follow, succeeding precisely 83.6 percent of the time to employ them:
  • Be a student first and then a teacher. Put learning on a higher plane than winning. It is amazing how that focuses on the issue rather than the person.  It also grants others the honor of being helpful. Or do you have something against making others feel happy or satisfied?
  • Recognize that ignorance is not a fault.  Wiki any subject. What percent of the information is new to you? If you did not know 100%, you are in some capacity ignorant. Perhaps the other person is coming at you from the part you don’t know. Like, where he has lived or worked or studied, a place that you cannot possibly know. And to pretend you DO know is a very gross ignorance indeed. So let the other person work earnestly to remove your ignorance a little. Grant him that honor.
  • Have the strength to be flawed.That’s very difficult in the Philippines because the culture is so absolutely unforgiving. But there is a certain disarming quality to someone who has the strength and candor to laugh at his own flaws. It takes away the critic’s ammunition. That is why it is called “disarming”.
Perhaps you have techniques that work for you, too. Don’t hesitate to share them.
Our goals, of course:
  • More knowledge.
  • Walking the high road.
  • Greater satisfaction.
6 Responses to “Cross-Cultural Conversational Convergence”
  1. andrew lim says:

    Great analysis. Separating the argument from the person is still a difficult task for many.And I still cant understand why disagreement on one issue with one person extends into all the other issues. Which means that it's about the person, not the issue.Maybe grasping and discussing ideas are too difficult for many, and arguing with a person is very much easier?

  2. Thanks. Most simply do what is natural. What is natural for many, as, say, the 6th of 8 kids, is to try to carve out a bigger piece of attention than those other 7 people are getting. Putting them down becomes a way of behaving. That's my guess, anyway.But I also see efforts being made to distinguish between issue and person in the blog threads. So perhaps there is an awareness building, and we who introspect can keep pushing forward. You are very good at sticking with the issue, so set a good example in your commentary.Me, I tend to be one step back, seven forward. It used to be one back, three forward, so I'm improving.

  3. Edgar Lores says:

    1. Oh. My. Goodness.2. The state of cyber-discourse is pathetic. But it is not only Filipino, I assure you. It can be found everywhere, on CNN and Huffpost and every news and social medium.2.1 If the main thread is about religion, the crazies come out of the woodwork like Usain Bolt on steroids. How the foam and the spittle fly!2.2 If the main thread is about politics, and most of the times it is, the partisan propagandists insert their too obvious agendas with the delicacy of unskilled proctologists.3. I hate to confess it but even moi descends into the gutter now and then. I tend to project this supercilious attitude wrapped around diplomatic cant with nonchalant grace. And I can do this very well with my armoury of (a) a vast reservoir of multisyllabic words; (b) a wide grasp and familiarity with many things under the sun from years of reading; and (c) an overview of the latest discoveries in quantum mechanics. 3.1 I hate to admit it but winning can be very satisfying.4. But… but I only assume my Edward Hyde personality with crazies and propagandists. The fact is that you cannot overcome the excreta of these cyberpests with logic and reason. You have to use something stronger. Sometimes an overwhelming list of facts works. Sometimes satire works.4.1 But my favourite weapon is courtesy. Extend it and expect it. It completely disarms them.4.2 The art of the insult and the repartee can also be learned and employed. 5. Of course, the whole point of discourse is discovery as you point out. For you and for each participant, whether active contributor or lurker.5.1 And it is satisfying if consensus is reached – but it is not necessary. The analysis, the presentation of different perspectives on an issue is sufficient justification. Sometimes a totally unexpected perspective, heretofore ignored, will shed light on a particular subject, such that it will shatter all previous assumptions and conclusions. 5.2 And the whole discourse should be conducted with mutual respect. (Incidentally, I do not find this word in the essay.)

  4. "I tend to project this supercilious attitude wrapped around diplomatic cant with nonchalant grace."I rolled on the floor at the imagining of that. What a beautiful stance, I must admit. And I agree with your 3.1, the delivery of a particularly devastating, intellectually crafted argument is a lot like the glee I feel when I splash my young son in the face with a huge squirt from the pressurized squirt gun in our morning exercise of watery warmongering. And about the same age level, now that I think about it.Discussions are best when mutual respect is both the starting and finishing point. Thanks for plugging that inadvertent hole in the wordcraft.

  5. JosephIvo says:

    100%-ers in a WIN-WIN situation is not a problem. The issue is are we always looking for win-win’s? What’s in for you when you accept my argument? When that’s clear, you’ll have to find a way to make your argument stick. Very good advise can be found in the book “Made to Stick" by Chip Heath (a organizational behavior professor) & Dan Heath (cofounder of a new media textbook company): Success = Simplicity + Unexpectedness + Concreteness + Credibility + Emotional + Stories. This means that thing are forgotten because they are too complex, boring and too close to what you already know, too vague, too farfetched, only rational or without a story line. You open up for successful arguments and you will remember them if they have all (or most of) the above elements. Whether you are a parent, a CEO or a politician, when it is better for you and better for the others, you want your arguments to stick. In the Philippines the check if your argument betters the others is simple: when it is better for me it is better for the others, I’m in a leading position and my “subordinates” are better of when I’m strong and happy, so good for me is good for all. If you are not in a leading position you better shut up until your opinion is asked for and then you guess what makes your boss stronger or happy, belonging to the clan of a strong and happy dattu provides security and safety. If you are equal, bad luck, I’ll proof that I’m stronger. Hierarchy is natural. The French Revolution or the Bill of Rights?… never heard of.

  6. Sounds like a helpful book. Unexptectedness was unexpected though. Stories are like parables, or little devices to help remember the lessons.Indeed, the Philippines is an authoritarian nation, which one can recognize wherever someone has obvious power (the cash register clerk, the person at the ATM, the bus driver). It is not a service nation. Blog discussions are for the most part an exercise in claiming authority. Thanks for helping me realize that.

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