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.