Listening (and Building Cross-Cultural Relationship Capital)

A good listener seeks to discover and understand the assumptions of a speaker. Cultural assumptions are particularly challenging to discover, because people are most often unaware of their cultural assumptions. This challenge has become more acute in a rapidly globalizing world economy, where cross-cultural collaborations and cross-cultural communications are multiplying all around us.

Some years back I met an American lady in a party. She had been stationed in the Philippines doing development work. She complained to me: “Filipinos sometimes say ‘yes’ just to be polite and then I later discover to my dismay that ‘yes’ actually meant ‘no.’ Why don’t they tell me the truth from the start?” She sounded perplexed and appeared irritated.

I paused for a while.

Then, instead of answering her directly I asked her a question: “Have you experienced being a guest with other Filipinos in a Filipino home where the host offered food?”

“Yes I did,” she answered.

“Did you notice how the host keep offering the food and how the Filipino visitor keep declining, but in the end relented and accepted the food?”

“Yes I did notice that,” she answered.

Then I explained, “Among Filipinos who are not acquaintances, visitors who accept food immediately after the first offer are viewed or interpreted as eager to get a free meal or quick to take advantage of the host, or as an uncouth ‘kalatog pinggan.'”

“Kalatog pinggan” (literally “clanking of dishes”) is a derogatory term Filipinos use to describe people who gate-crash parties or fiestas (town celebrations) or who constantly look for opportunities to get a free meal from anyone.

I continued to explain, “To avoid being viewed as taking any advantage, the visitor will say something like ‘Thank you but I am not hungry’ or ‘Thank you but I just ate something before coming here’ – statements which may in fact be untrue.

“Despite these answers from the visitor, a good host will repeat her offer because she understands that the visitor does not wish to impose any inconvenience on her, the host. If the host does not make a second offer, the common interpretation among Filipinos is that the host was never serious nor sincere in her offer in first place.”

“This cycle of offer and decline is often repeated a second time,” I continued to explain, “The repeated offer is a sign that the host really would like to play the role of a good host, and the repeated decline is a sign that the visitor really would not wish to impose or take advantage of the generosity of the host.”

“Finally, the visitor would accept and eat the food, and everyone is happy. This ritual is repeated almost every time a stranger visits a Filipino home. It shows that among many Filipinos not telling the truth is a lesser evil than not starting or not maintaining good interpersonal relationships.”

“Now I see,” said the American lady.

Preference for good interpersonal relationships and social harmony — which are common across Asian cultures — can become anti-learning if a person will choose not to speak, oppose someone, or voice out his truth for the sake of avoiding “rocking the boat” called “harmonious relationship.” “False harmony” is the first of William Isaac’s four stages towards generative dialogue. We will discuss this and other blocks to learning in the next blog post L13 and future posts in the L Series.

In a cross-cultural encounter, a person from another culture has at least two choices:

  • Judge a behavior of another as stupid, silly, perplexing or unproductive, or
  • Listen closely to understand (which is not the same as appreciate or agree) the cultural meanings behind the behavior.

The first choice is often not a conscious choice but an automatic judgmental reaction, often by people who have rigid beliefs about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” The second is often a conscious choice followed by a considered process of listening, asking, and attempting to understand or see the assumptions and meanings behind the perplexing behavior. This process requires 100% listening, awareness of one’s own mental models, assumptions and values, and temporary suspension of one’s judgment based on those values — skills that are integral in indigo learning practices and personal knowledge management, and in the broader capacities required in a learning organization.

Rigid beliefs and automatic judgmental reactions (or being unaware victims of our own childhood and cultural programmings) are becoming counterproductive in a world where cross-cultural encounters are multiplying exponentially. Indigo learning practices and related skills are needed more and more if people of different cultures are to live together peacefully or to work together productively in an ever more crowded and more interconnected world. New capacities are needed for all of us to build cross-cultural relationship capital together.

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