Friday, March 09, 2012


I was at a meeting this morning, a meeting of folks from around the university, students, faculty, administrators, lots of different people. And we were there in part to hear about efforts to introduce a specific diversity program thing on campus. All of that is to say that there were people there who were very versed in the issue, but mostly there were people there who were committed to social justice but who weren't really in the know about this specific issue. One person (let's call this person X) is basically in charge of the next move, and had to leave early for another commitment, so the facilitator changed around the schedule slightly to ask X to talk about the next move.

But then someone else wondered if the whole group should get a quick background. And that made sense.

So another speaker started in on the background. Let's call this speaker Y.

This speaker comes from a culture known for being less direct about arguments, say, than US culture is. And so the speaker started in, and 20 minutes later, when the person facilitating the meeting (let's call this person Z) tried to interrupt the narrative to refocus on the issue at hand, Y got frustrated because zie hadn't had the chance to tell the full story. Y said zie wanted to make one point, and when Z acquiesced, went on for another five minutes not only about one point, but circling around serveral. To me, Y's communication feels like we're circling around, getting a long narrative about stuff that isn't the real point, and not really getting to the real point. (I've experienced Y's communication on many occasions.)

So here's the issue: We're all committed to social justice, and many of us have put in some time to learn about cultural issues of communication. So I know, for example, that the culture person Y comes from tends to be less direct than my own culture (white, US, middle/upper middle class). And I know that in order to work effectively towards social justice, I need to learn about, recognize, and value other styles of communication.

And that means that I (and other people at the meeting, at least some of whom are far more well-educated in understanding different cultures) need to respect non-dominant sorts of communication.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that Y's communication practices are cultural so much as unaware rhetorically. I don't know if Y's communication practices would be more acceptable in hir home culture than they are here.

And, by being rhetorically unaware, Y seems to undercut hir own stated goals, to alienate listeners, and thus to cause problems for the very cause we're working for.

Of course, these are issues some of our students run into a lot: to what extent should they be responsible for code-switching to meet the expectations of people who aren't going to care about cultural differences? And to what extent should dominant US culture learn to respect and deal with other communication practices? And even if we can assert that people from the dominant US culture SHOULD respect and deal with other communication practices, it's not going to happen quickly or easily, and our students are going to be out there working and being members of the community the whole time.

So there I was, wanting Y to get to the point so that X could give us the more important information, and wanting to be a good cultural communicator.

And looking around the room, I could see other people looking similarly frustrated and impatient. And I don't think frustrating these people helped Y's causes at all.


  1. This is where the five-minute rule helps. Nobody can speak at a meeting for more than five-minutes without it becoming a conference presentation. While Y may have valuable and worthy information to share, esp. as informed by cultural differences, 5 minutes is still sufficient.

    I would suggest that the facilitator consider adopting some form of this rule and use it in future with explanation: "If you have a comment to make, limit yourself to five minutes. I'll raise a finger at four minutes and at five, I'll ask you to wrap up. If you feel you need longer than five minutes, ask to be put on the agenda for our next meeting and circulate an information sheet beforehand through me."

  2. Oh, I hear you. I like Janice's idea of a 5 minute rule. The one that I've noticed is that there is a lot of faculty governance that relies on Anglo-American notions of procedure, and some of my non-Anglo colleagues have some difficulty with it. I find myself wanting someone who just knows how a committee works!

  3. you ideally do not want someone to decide in the middle of a planned meeting that the entire background of something needs to be reviewed. if that is needed, put it on the agenda.

    keeping to a time limit seems like a good idea, too.

    a slower and more circuitous kind of communication can be still be enormously useful in smaller conversations, or in a planned presentation. but it is kind of deadly in a committee, when it serves to hijack the agenda and mire a lot of people in something that might be handled otherwise. everyone there is interested, but everyone there has other things to do as well.

    maybe another idea for the committee context is to suggest that it sounds like the person has a lot of valuable information to share, and ask them to circulate a memo so it can be discussed next time?