Monday, February 15, 2010

Words, words, words: In Defense of IC

As in any graduate program, there are some friendly rivalries and vicious smack talk exchanges between the different concentrations at American's School of International Service, so I wasn't too offended when a fellow student made some disparaging remarks about International Communications at a party this past weekend.

The skeptic shall remain anonymous because a) the critique was mostly facetious, and b) it's not really fair to hold anyone accountable for comments made under the influence of jungle juice, and besides, he was kind of cute. But the exchange made me realize that I've defended public diplomacy in this space before, so today I'd like to focus on IC.

It's easy enough to dismiss IC as little more than fancy talk, an expendable addition, like cilantro, to the main course -- presumably foreign policy or international development or one of the "weightier" areas of concentration. But I object to that characterization, and not simply because cilantro is a vile spice that tastes like Palm Olive.

Communication, according to the formidable Christine Chin, professor of Cross-Cultural Communication, is about nothing less than the construction, maintenance and transformation of reality. It's a process. It's constant. And it matters.

I was an English major, so I know how to vivisect a statement, isolate the words and reshape it with my own emphasis, but international communication involves so much more than just words. There are words, of course -- both the words that are spoken and the words left unsaid. But there's also physical proximity, relationships with time, nonverbal communication, overt and covert expectations and, most important of all, context.

And that context is where the game gets interesting. Because now you've got an enormous threatening mass (an iceberg, to use a popular IC analogy) of unconscious processes just below your range of visibility, and any one of them could sink your foreign policy or development or other IR efforts before either party can articulate the danger.

Successful international communication requires humility, recognition of one's own ignorance, observation without judgment, empathy, awareness, and a constant desire to listen, to understand and to adapt.

International communication is the foundation on which IR must rest, because without the ability to understand and express our expectations, desires and beliefs, it is impossible for any international initiative to succeed.

1 comment:

  1. Finally got to read this awesome post! I SO AGREE WITH YOU! Especially when it comes to the perceptions the 'outsiders' have about our program. Unfortunately, however, I'm afraid it's our own doing, since IC has failed to conduct its own Public Diplomacy... so yes, it's time for IC-ers to engage in a better citizen diplomacy - to use our own analogies - and make sure that we communicate our "essence" to those ignorant others.
    Kudos for putting it out here! :)