Context as Lens — [Republica Repost]

 To communicate effectively in an increasingly globalized world, we must understand others through the lens of “context” rather than “culture.”

“I am a Chinese citizen but I don’t have very high expectation of this place,” said a young man, as I joined a line outside the Chinese Consulate in New York City last Friday. Many people in line—most of whom were there to apply for a visa, like me—seemed tense, with some vocally complaining. “I hate this,” said another, without specifying what it was that he hated. The line was moving forward fairly quickly and the weather was pleasant.

I remembered the many, many negative reviews of the service online, where I had been to learn from experiences of others. In contrast, I didn’t find the instructions “confusing,” the process “complicated,” the people having a “big attitude,” and the place “overall, horrible.” I reached the front of the line in about ten minutes, a woman near the door previewed my materials and gave me a number in two minutes, and then after waiting in a comfortable lounge for about ten more minutes, my turn arrived and was over in two final minutes. The gentleman at the window checked and signed my documents, gave me a receipt, and asked me to return in a week to pick up my visa.

One week later, earlier today, it took me a total of two plus two minutes to get a number and then pay for and pick up my visa.

Why, then, did so many people online and onsite not only criticize the service but also go there expecting bad experience?

A German-American gentleman whom I met inside shared some observations that help explain the negative narrative about how staff members at the Chinese consulate communicate with and treat their customers. This gentleman said that he had been to consulates of many countries and that the offices were “interestingly similar”; he had found similarities in issues ranging from the application process and communication with customers to even types of furniture. “It’s the same way back in Germany,” he noted, “People don’t bother to ask how you are, or have patience when you ask them unnecessary questions.” The time spent on “being nice” with one customer lengthens, he added, the wait time of many others behind that customer.

So, the customers online and onsite were not viewing a different communicative context and practice in its own terms. They judged the consulate’s service like they do restaurants where “customer service” (especially in the United States) is described in terms of attention, hospitality, politeness, and so on. Government offices are different from private businesses where the service providers need to worry about losing revenue to competitors if they don’t treat customers with utmost courtesy and care.

Now, one may say that people should be polite even when there is no pragmatic reason for it; however, there is also the flip side where private businesses have to pander to customers out of fear of losing business, even when the latter are jerks. Similarly, if we could say that the consular officers are rude by some universal standard, then we could also say that they are not hosts who are there to welcome and treat us with hospitality. Also, we cannot expect consulates of all countries in New York City to meet New York expectations, the same way that we cannot ask US consulate in Beijing to follow Chinese standard, if there is one. In fact, the binary idea of local versus global is problematic in today’s globalized world because it is based on generalization and deduction, not analysis of contextual factors to understand and facilitate communication.

Culture is a problematic lens because what people experience at the Chinese consulate in New York could be far less Chinese “culture” than it is a particular communicative approach used in that kind of context or system. Of course, broader cultural/national patterns matter, but communicative practices are best understood in terms of the profession, practical situations, mediation by technology, and so on.

The two people in my first visit didn’t take the time to greet me because there were too many people behind me. The gentleman asked for what he needed: “Passport and ID,” he said through his speaker because I was still holding them. He didn’t say, “thank you” when I pushed them through the aperture beneath the glass pane. The device installed between us wasn’t ideal for communication anyway, with him having to stretch his neck sideways and me awkwardly trying to locate the microphone on the outside.

Before I left, I asked that gentleman what documents I needed when picking up my visa. “This,” he said, pointing to the ticket he was giving me. I was starting to ask if I have to come in person when I noticed him pressing the button to call the next client. To consider his speed “rude” would be self-centered on my part. The “customer-is-king” attitude seemed out of place in that office, which was clearly a powerful efficiency machine. I found the answer online.

When I went to pick up the visa, a lady at window 9 greeted me: “Good morning. Receipt, please.” Instead of starting with the typical American “May I help you?” – which I remember being confused by when I first came to the US, because asking for permission seemed absurdly too polite – she used her politeness to move business forward. That greeting might have to do with the absence of a queue behind me (there was time), or could just be a personal style. Indeed, even though context is a better lens for understanding communicative practice, collective habits (called culture) as well as individual styles can override the demands and limitations of context.

In any case, across cultures and other borders, communicative burden must be shared by both sides. This mutual sharing of the burden is extremely important in contexts like the consulate office because the stakes are high: time is limited, queues often get very long, and there are barriers of language and understanding (which both sides must address).

Customers’ high expectations for the other side to be explicit, slow, clear, polite, and so on are all understandable. But work gets done best when both sides pay their best attention, minimize time use, and are sensitive to the realities. When a customer finds something unclear, thinks that the person at the window is “rude,” or believes that he or she is giving insufficient attention, the customer may be bringing a set of criteria from outside that context. How those criteria are created, by whom, and where is a far more complex issue than simply asking whether one side is rude or unprofessional. Rude or unprofessional by whose standards, based on what “normal” conditions, and judged in what kinds of contexts?

The problematic mindset that produced negative reactions online and onsite stemmed from assuming that “Chinese are…” rather than “At the (Chinese) consular office…” When people use “culture” as the lens, they start their assessment of a situation with “because…” while assuming the premise, instead of asking why first. They fail to ask how and what because they ignore the contingencies of context. And they don’t infer and guess because they don’t tolerate complexity and ambiguity.

Expecting the same treatment in all places and times is rather childish. Unless an imperialist world order of a homogeneous communicative culture is imposed upon every society and culture, we will be narrow-minded usually unhappy citizens of the world.

We must instead learn to be global citizens who are able to understand and navigate and cherish different ways in which we too can communicate and get work done.

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