Double Dutch

two carp swimming

When in Rome, listen before you let loose

Several decades ago and in a different universe, a university vice-chancellor visited China. He was a jovial, outgoing kind of fellow, very bright, who frankly fancied himself as a bit of a linguist. Spoke French, German and Italian with a high degree of competence and prided himself on his ability to deal with people from other cultures and backgrounds.

Vice-chancellors visiting China for the first time in those days, as the country was just beginning to open up after the years of Mao-dominated politics, were always justifiably impressed by the hospitality.

Banquets everywhere he went, accompanied by toasting rituals and speeches about cooperation between 'our two governments, our two peoples, and our two universities'. And such wonderful speeches too, appealing to the aid gene that lurks barely beneath the surface of all self-respecting vice-chancellors.

Thinking not so much to impress his hosts, but simply to respond in kind, the vice-chancellor was determined to say a few words in Chinese at the final university banquet of his visit. Stifling the objections of his China adviser, he pointed to the toilet doors at the end of the large hall in which the banquet was taking place. 'How,' he asked his interpreter, 'do you pronounce those words on the toilet doors?'

His Chinese audience were not so much delighted as bemused when he addressed them as 'piss' and 'shit' but nonetheless, in their usual way of politely dealing with foreign barbarians, applauded his use of Chinese.

Amusing as this tale may be, it also addresses the problem of cross-cultural interaction by illustrating the assumption that everyone shares, or would share if they could, a basic grammar of everyday life. There is of course considerable justification for that belief.

Anyone who has grown up in an English-speaking country knows two things about cross-cultural interaction. One is that if you meet someone who doesn't speak English, here or there, it is only necessary to go up to them and speak loudly and clearly directly into their ear to get them to understand. The other is that when travelling overseas, if you meet a little old lady who doesn't speak any English, she will come up to you, stand on tiptoe and shout loudly and clearly in your ear in German (or Mandarin or Italian or Spanish or whateverish) in order to help you understand what she is trying to say.

Of course, the desire to encourage cross-cultural interaction is not everyone's emotional or intellectual cup of tea, glass of wine, or stein of beer. When cultures and civilisations collide, there will always be those who prefer a lack of engagement and the preservation of cultural purity through separate development.

Equally, there are others who know about the superiority of a specific culture and insist on a high degree of assimilation to the dominant culture's mores and credenda. For the rest of us, though, there is the simple understanding that cross-cultural interaction is as inevitable as finding the mot juste to describe any Weltschmerz.

If cultures are not almost always in interaction and constant motion, then they are close to jeopardising their sustainability, not least because they lose touch with the rest of the world and become too brittle. Judaism, to provide a counter example, has survived in large measure by long institutionalising processes for determining religious observance, which recognise that the application of Jewish laws depends on the unique context to which they are applied.

The basic problem, though, is that the assumption of sameness causes difficulties. This is a fundamental flaw, as our visiting vice-chancellor would have found to his horror if anyone had told him what he had done. Unfortunately, the assumption of sameness and the principle of 'do as you would be done by' permeate too much of the way in which we approach cross-cultural interaction, and too many other aspects of everyday life, come to that, as well.

In some societies, it is unremarkable for boys and girls to mix freely, or unmarried men and women for that matter, but this is by no means the case everywhere. In some societies, a woman may touch a woman, a man may touch a man, but even a light touch on a woman's arm by a man may cause offence. Under such circumstances, the defence that 'in my country, men touch women on the arm all the time' sounds very lame.

Frankly, working across cultures is a minefield. But that can be its attraction too. There is an alternative strategy to the assumption of sameness. One can embrace the dynamics of cultural change and take the assumption that another culture is inherently different as the basic starting point. Then, the sounder tactic is to listen, watch and imitate.

Is this more time-consuming? Yes, of course, but it is also more educative and ultimately more worthwhile. Will it always work? No. And there will be additional difficulties in trying to negotiate the interactions and synergies that result.

But if there is one thing that open societies can and should pride themselves on, it is their desire and capacity to manage uncertainty.

David Goodman is professor of Chinese Politics and director of the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Sydney