As early as my teenage years, I claimed that every family is a kingdom with its own culture and language. It only took the annual debates over which grandmother’s stuffing recipe should be used for the Thanksgiving turkey to convince me. For this reason, I’ve always thought that intercultural relationships have one important, yet terribly underestimated, thing going for them. When two people from the “same” culture fall in love, they assume that the other person will understand much of what they say, feel and do. In an intercultural relationship, you tend to work on the opposite assmption and explain things much more explicitly.
But I think what we forget is that there are many cultural faultlines, not just those that correspond to the passport you carry (assuming you have one). Groups with distinct cultures include countries, regions, ethnic groups, age groups, organizations and even professions/job functions. In this multitude of “tribes” cultures may be a result of “what we do” and “why we do it”, but they may also result from an attempt to proclaim “who we are”.
One of the well-known dimensions of culture is whether it is explicit (what you see is what you get) or implicit (you need to be among the initiated to understand the layers and layers of meaning buried beneath the surface). When culture is used to create an identity, I think it often has implicit tendencies. And those implications are probably not fully appreciated for public relations.
To give a (not-so) clear example (as indeed, that’s rather oxymoronic in an implicit culture): the French culture, in which I have been steeped for nearly a decade is one of the most opaque around, with the education system as a flagrant example. Rather than just number the years you have to be in school, they break them down into a series of clumps (maternelle, CP1, CP2, CM1, CM2) and then count backwards from 6 to 1 before tacking on terminal and prépa. (I am sure that I have missed some and am not 100% sure about the meaning of CP and CM, because no one ever spells them out, but I think it’s classe petite and classe moyenne.) It only gets more complicated later when you have to keep track of which numbered subset of université is where and provides classes in what. (If you think all of the Université de Paris is in Paris, think again…). And of course, sometimes you need to know really obscure things, like the fact that the prestigious Polytechnique is simply called X because there are swords crossing on its logo! Of course, there is no guide to the codes because then it would be explicit and even outsiders could understand it.
Try reading a French newspaper and you’ll see the same tendency: acronyms are never explained, because it is expected that any halfway intelligent reader would already know what they are, so you actually have to do research to become an initiated reader. Contrast that with the Anglo-Saxon rule that every acronym should be written in full the first time it is used.
All of this means that communications and PR need to be designed across a matrix of cultural diversities (i.e. different types of culture), taking into account their implicit and explicit natures. I would argue that one role of public relations is to bring each group’s explicit assumptions to the surface in order to foster mutual understanding. But does trying to reach mutual understanding actually modify the culture/identity of at least one of the groups at the table by making it less implicit? Is this like the principle of quantum physics that you cannot observe an event without changing it? And if so, what are the ethical implications? Are we implying that the implicit culture is wrong? Dysfunctional? Outdated?
This may seem like a rhetorical question, but if you consider how we have moved from a knowledge-is-power paradigm to one where being a knowledge relay (a sneezer in Seth Godin’s terms) is power, I think the issue is very real. Whether talking about governments or multinationals, transparency is heralded as “good”. In a flattened organization, people need not only to know what the organizational strategy is, but to understand how to apply it in their corner of the world. And to do that, they need information, knowledge management tools, access to tools previously reserved for specialist colleagues and suppliers, etc.
I have to admit to feeling a bit troubled. I have always been a proponent of transparency and open communication, but I’ve also felt it is important to respect and work with people’s cultures. As I have written this, I have begun to wonder whether those two things are always compatible.