Little Big Communication



Some people have their own little, but important, part of the world completely sussed. And that very complete understanding of their molecular sized piece of the wide world we all inhabit has important implications for all of us in development communication.


This obvious, but all too easily ignored and forgotten, observation was recently thrust into the forefront of my thinking by Jose, my taxi driver to a Washington DC airport. After giving him my destination on entering his cab, we exchanged no words at all - far too early in the morning for me and he looked drained after what I assumed was a long night shift to earn a few dollars. As we approached the terminal, he half-turned in his drivers seat and said to me, "You would be a Democrat," referring to the American political party. I was a little taken aback, responding as quickly as I could at that dawn hour, that I was not an American citizen and did not live in the USA, let alone a member of or identify with one of its political parties. With the superlative communication skill learned and practiced by all taxi drivers when it suits them, he just ignored me.


But now my synapses were beginning to fire: "Why did you assume I was a Democrat?" He replied something along these lines - "I take customers to this airport about 5 or 6 times a day and one of the ways I keep myself entertained is to try and guess the political affiliation of each customer, based on the name they give the airport. At the end of the journey I test myself to see if I get it right." Then the penny dropped. My only 3 words to Jose on entering his cab had been "National Airport, please". (I hope I added the "please".) This airport used to be called National Airport, but then a Republican Administration changed its name to Ronald Reagan National airport after the Republican President. Few Democrats can bring themselves to call it by its new and official name. By still calling it just "National" they communicate their political identification. Jose says it is a 99% predictor.


I am sure that almost everyone in Washington DC understands this communication code, uses it consciously, and makes the necessary and correct inference from that code. But, as an ignorant and un-attuned outsider, by using 3 words instead of 5 when I got into that early morning cab, I had unwittingly communicated something which Jose interpreted according to his frame of reference. By then informing him I was not American, I became useless to his reference point and his informal poll.


It is not unreasonable to assume that every community in every country in every region of the globe has numerous and similar communication codes. Such codes might not only help identify people's political persuasions and affiliations but also where they come from, the work they do, the nature of their family, their aspirations, their history, their sexuality, and who knows what else. In some cases communities will invent new communication codes in order to neutralise the possibility of identification. The city of Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland provides such an example. Derry: Catholic; Londonderry: Protestant. So, a group of people began calling it Stroke City! Humour and wit overcome divisive identification.


This notion of communication codes - verbal and visual - is of course Sociology and Anthropology 101. It is basic - we all know it. But do we forget it when we engage in large scale communication work?


Development communication expends considerable resources on national and international campaigns. Most often these are broad scale, seeking to reach many communities and some times a range of countries and cultural/ethnic groups at one time, through one process. Is it inevitable that the message generalisations that are necessary in order to make some sense to all the variations across the range of so called "target" populations end up weakening the power and resonance of those communication efforts? After all, the really powerful visual and verbal communication codes and meanings will be the ones that have emerged indigenous to each local community - the ones that are theirs. Should we not be finding more effective ways to tap into the really powerful and resonant, already existing, local communication codes rather than trying to get people to "buy" into the general phrases, slogans and messages that are (often) invented for national, large-scale communication campaigns on development priorities?


This assumes an understanding of these local and powerful communication codes. I have been in a wide range of geographic, cultural and religious contexts and am absolutely certain that I understood very little of what was going on around me. I may have thought I understood. But my point of reference - as Jose the DC taxi driver discovered - was foreign to the context that I was in. So, how do I know if I understood or not? And, if I do not understand the local communication codes, then how can I possibly be involved in making decisions related to the core and often sensitive issues that those communities and countries were facing?


The practice of saying "no" provides a good example. Negotiation, including the ability of local communities and countries to say "no" to the suggestions and proposals of international agencies, proposals that are often accompanied by financing, is a vital component of effective development communication action. In my home New Zealand context we tend to just say "no". But other cultures are much more sensitive to the feelings of the person on the receiving end of the "no". So, various communication codes emerge to say "no" in ways that do not offend, disrespect or undervalue the people involved in the negotiation process. If outsiders do not understand those communication codes for "no" then they will misunderstand what is being communicated. In a worst-case scenario, they may even misinterpret the coded "no" as a "yes".


Maybe, if I was involved in such negotiation and decision making, I could make things worse. By raising a delicate and sensitive issue - perhaps around family, poverty, sexuality or gender - in a way that does not reflect and build on the local, well honed communication codes for opening up such concerns for dialogue, debate and action, then, I could set back the possibility of progress instead of help to move it forward. There are a myriad of considerations - many of them apparently little, but all of them with possibly big implications for the advancement of effective development communication action. Is it appropriate (as I would normally do) to ask the people with whom I am working how many brothers and sisters they have? How long do you have to wait before raising the central issues that are at the heart of the negotiation? Is eye-to-eye contact good or not good? When the discussion seems to be going in circles, is that a lack of understanding or are you receiving a coded message? And so on...


This is a real conundrum. It is important that we all work across cultures, sharing knowledge, information, insights and ideas. Such sharing can only strengthen efforts on the very difficult development issues that this globe faces. But we can only do so if, in the communication work that is developed and the international and cross-cultural assistance that takes place, we accept that the local perspective on the most powerful and resonant communication codes should significantly guide development communication decision making. To not do so would be like being in the back seat of a Washington DC taxi cab having no idea what you just communicated to whom about who you are in three words or less at 6am in the morning.


Warren Feek