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« Spatial Forces Index 2.2 Now Up | Main | Asia Rising: Kishore Mahbubani at IISS »

Cross-cultural (mis)communications and the Map-Territory paradox

There are times when I get totally frustrated with computers.  I had this post all ready to go with just some final edits to make on the 1st when my laptop died and I was stuck without a keyboard.

I have been thinking a lot, lately, about how the map-territory paradox applies to cross-cultural (mis)communications. And while I don’t yet have any model I am really happy with, I do have a couple of very tentative pieces of one that may stimulate some discussion.

A lot of my thinking in this area has been inspired by Gregory Bateson and, in particular, something he wrote in Sacred Unity:

It is only news of difference that can get from the territory to the map, and this fact is the basic epistemological statement about the relationship between all reality out there and all perception in here: that the bridge must always be in the form of difference. [emphasis in the original]

Bateson used this “a ha!” experience as the foundation for his definition of information as a “difference that makes a difference”, a definition I have been using for quite a while now. What always struck me about this statement, however, was his use of the phrase news of difference: a difference cannot be a difference for the individual (let alone make a difference to them) until it is communicated. Furthermore, even if it is communicated, what is it measured against and how are the results of that "measurement" acted upon?

For the past six months, I have been working with several colleagues,  Rob Thornon and John Fishel, on issues of US army "advising" and, for me at least, the deep structure problems of communications.  Last month, Rob and I were presenting on the Security Force Advising (SFA) case study on Mosul looking at the implications for advisor training at the Center for Army Analysis (CAA).  One of the key points that came up during the discussion was variant conceptualizations of time.  Being an Anthropologist, I have to tell a story...

Back a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away...) when I was doing my MA fieldwork, I lost all ability to perceive linear time and found that, instead, I was perceiving time cyclically; not as duration, but as repeating, relational, events. I was utterly fascinated with the experience, but I found it almost impossible to communicate with people who were perceiving time in a linear fashion (like my wife and my supervisor). Needless to say, this caused all sorts of problems!

A couple of years later, I was trying to explain what it is like to perceive time in a cyclical manner to some of my friends when I had an “a ha” experience of my own. Our individual experiences of time are a “mapping convention”; a way of abstracting, filtering and ordering our sensory input and what we communicate is all based on formalizations of those conventions. Not only were we not communication the experience of time, we were not even communicating the sensory data on which those experiences were based.

That particular insight (illusion?), in turn, focused my doctoral work on trying to answer the simple question of why patterns of sound that had no intrinsic meaning could cause massive neuro-physiological responses. No, I’m not talking about “spells”; I’m talking about “You’re fired”.

Now, here we have an arbitrary sequence of sounds that, in and of itself, has no meaning at all - in other words, an arbitrary convention. And yet, at the same time, that arbitrary convention can act as if it had the power to cause massive perceptual and neuro-psychological changes, but not all of the time. Indeed, it appears that it acted as such a cause in a decreasing frequency; roughly 60% of the time circa 1975 and roughly 20% circa 2000 (in Canada at least): same words, same general situations, wildly divergent reactions and decreased frequency. Obviously, the “meaning”, in the sense of internal sensory data and pattern recognition / response processing, was not being conveyed by the “words” but, rather, by how they acted to instigate the reconstruction of internal sensory data and selection of processing choices.

A similar type or form of communication, in the sense of instigating a reconstruction of internal sensory data, is also apparent in music (check out Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music) and, I suspect, in dance.  My interest in this type of communication goes back, as you can see, for quite a while.

End of tangential (?) story....

The discussions at the CAA meeting reignited my interest in communications that "bypasses" language (i.e. that bypasses the conscious minds' interpretation of language), and more fuel was added to that fire when my attention was pointed towards a YouTube with the title Lazy Iraqi Police get motivational speech (major hat tip to Granite State over at the Small Wars Council). In it, we can see a “motivational speech” that is certain to curdle the blood of anyone who thinks advising is about building self-esteem in a kind and gentle fashion.

As I watched the video, I found myself analyzing the reactions of the “audience” as well as the words and body language. What intrigued me was the pattern of the insults used – a pattern that played out in the body language of the audience. My suspicion is that this “speech” either served to motivate the audience, or the person giving it ended up dead. In other words, it was an exceptional example of cross-cultural communications in that it appeared, at least as witnessed by the audience’s body language, to invoke a very specific set of responses that, given how the speaker repeated certain key words and phrase, I suspect was carefully plotted out.

I mentioned at the start of this post that I had a couple of tentative pieces related to the map-territory paradox in terms of cross-cultural (mis)communication. Here is the first of those pieces: real communications, in the sense of an excellent transmission and decoding of intended meaning, can happen regardless of the cultures involved if the communication evokes internal sensory data in a pattern that is common (or at least comprehended) to both cultures. The two primary converses would also hold: 1) miscommunication increases as the shared experience decreases, and 2) miscommunication increases as the patterns diverge.

Now, there really isn't much that is brilliant, insightful or even new about this observation; after all, Carl Jung talks about pretty much the same thing in a number of works as do a whole host of other people.  What may be "new", however, is that we now have the beginings of a technology to map out how, and where, this type of communications happens in the brain along with other associated physiological effects (for example, see Chapados and Leviton, 2008).  If we could do this, I believe that it would mark the start of some truly ground breaking research.

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