Friday, April 20, 2012

Communication, Culture, the Peace Corps

By Michael Kalter 

Some years ago I had the occasion to join the Peace Corps and was directed to serve in the North African country of Tunisia. I was young and really believed I was a clever and intellectual guy and would create a major transformation. I had never really given much thought to the importance of culture and communication until I landed in this country so much more diverse than my own. 

My assignment was to instruct young men ages 16-24 the concept of electricity as the country was conveying electricity to the rural villages. I was an oddity being six foot tall with long straight hair; I stood much taller than most people in that country so I really looked, dressed, and spoke much differently than the folks dwelling in this arid nation. I supposed this would not be a very difficult assignment; Wow, was I ever in for a shock. (No pun intended.) I took away much more personally than I ever gave in my time in Tunisia. 

In order to achieve my mission I had to acquire an entire technical vocabulary in an African style of French. French is their second language and the business language of Tunisia. Arabic is their native tongue. So, there I am, trying to communicate the concept of electrical energy in a language I was not very resilient in to an assemblage of students who had diminutive fluency with electricity and certainly had little to no awareness how it functioned. For the most part, they had not seen many electrical devices previous to their training with me.

 What an astonishing challenge this was in communication and cultural understanding to explain a theory as foreign as electricity to these young men; reaching for the accurate wording in a foreign tongue to realize this undertaking. I frequently ruminate on the communication dilemma we face in our individual organizations.

I was educated in lean thinking and taught there are seven forms of waste but I contend there is hitherto another, much grander form of waste-and that is a dearth of clear communication. I have discovered countless problems encountered in my life both personally and professionally have been the consequence of communication issues. Communication issues both to and from me. Perhaps you can relate to this in your own organization or life experience?

I often recall my Peace Corps experience and the struggle I had communicating and the problems it caused myself and others in so many ways. (I just hope none of those young men were subsequently electrocuted due to my poor communication!) As I moved through my life in many manufacturing roles I have never forgot the hard but interesting lessons I learned about clear communication.

Funny to me now but I think of how I often struggled because I could not communicate as well as I needed to and did not really fully understand the culture when I first started as a Peace Corps volunteer; I wonder if I am doing any better now? As I work with different organizations I often recall my Peace Corps days and some of the things I learned the hard way: The importance of understanding the culture and being able to speak the language before you can even think about making a change. 

Sometimes in our own organizations we decide to initiate change regardless of our understanding of the culture or being clear in our communication of vision. I wonder if any of you have ever experienced someone making a change without understanding the culture or lacked clear communication skills. Please share your story where you have witnessed this phenomenon.

1 comment:

  1. Michael;
    Excellent post!
    (And thanks for including the picture of Eric Clapton)