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Culture Posts: Developing Cultural In-Awareness in Public Diplomacy

Dec 28, 2011


One of the goals of this blog series is to develop greater awareness and knowledge of how culture intervenes in public diplomacy. In public diplomacy, culture’s web of influence spans across policy, practice, and research, and encompasses both sponsor and intended public.

The problem is that much of culture’s influence lays “out-of-awareness” for both the sponsor and the intended public in public diplomacy. As further irony, the sponsor and the public may have some awareness of the other’s cultural features, but are often unable to see culture’s influence on themselves. These hidden aspects tend to be the source of cultural misunderstandings and tensions.

One of the keys to effective public diplomacy is developing an “in-awareness” cultural approach to public diplomacy.

Origins of Intercultural Communication in Traditional Diplomacy

The idea of “in-awareness” comes from American anthropologist, Edward T. Hall. Some may recognize Hall as one of the founders of the field of intercultural communication. However, Hall’s work began not in communication, but in diplomacy at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the U.S. State Department.

Following World War II, the State Department found that the effectiveness of its diplomats was hampered by lack of language and cultural knowledge. In 1949, the U.S. FSI was established to better train diplomats. Hall was one of several anthropologists and linguists who joined the FSI.

Originally, Hall and the other anthropologists lectured on the broad, macro-level aspects of culture such as politics, economy, or religion. The diplomats, however, were concerned about what happens when two people from different cultures interact.

Hall shifted his focus to applied culture. He developed experiential techniques such as role-playing and situational exercises for the diplomats.

After writing a few popular pieces, Hall published The Silent Language (1959). The book was the first in a series that shared his ideas about culture and communication. His book enjoyed wide popularity selling over 500,000 copies in the early 1960s.

The Silent Language

In The Silent Language, Hall showed how we can communicate volumes without saying a word. The problem is that most of what and how we communicate escapes our awareness, or is “out-of-awareness.”

Not only do we learn most of our behaviors “out-of-awareness,” but we tend to perform them “out-of-awareness” as well.

One of the great “out-of-awareness” examples is the subtle “dance” between two diplomats conversing at a reception.

One diplomat is comfortable standing and conversing with others at a distance of about three feet. Her conversation partner, however, prefers a closer distance of about two feet. So as one diplomat steps closer to narrow the space between them, the other diplomat steps back to increase the distance. He steps forward, she steps back. And, thus they dance as they converse. In the end, she walks away thinking of her counterpart as 'pushy and somewhat aggressive.' Little does she realize that he thinks she is 'distant and aloof.'


Bringing communication and culture “in-awareness” does not only apply to how one views others from different cultures. Gaining self-awareness about culture’s influence on one’s own behavior can often be as insightful and constructive as learning about others.

Without a conscious awareness of how another culture differs from one's own, there is a tendency to see the differences of another through the prism of one's culture. Ethnocentricity occurs when one uses their own cultural standards as a yardstick for measuring other cultures; inevitably the other culture comes up lacking.

Often, awareness and knowledge go hand-in-hand. Greater cultural awareness is key to building and refining one’s trove of cultural knowledge. And, with greater knowledge comes an awareness of the nuances that expose cultural variations.

Awareness is also critical when one considers the dynamic nature of culture. Culture is a human-created and human-perpetuated organic phenomenon. In future “Culture Posts”, I hope to talk about the provocative idea of “culture as a verb.”

Public Diplomacy Cultural In-Awareness

Hall’s work on cultural in-awareness for traditional diplomacy helps provide inspiration for the work that lies ahead for public diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy may often enjoy the luxury of private settings. Public diplomacy often does not.

Hall focused primarily on nonverbal behaviors and communication between individuals. In public diplomacy, practitioners are challenged to consider how their actions and communication may be perceived. Their actions may be magnified under public scrutiny and then amplified by media exposure.

The example of the dance of misunderstanding between two diplomats involved behavioral differences in perceptions of space. The list of potential cultural variations between a public diplomat and the publics she seeks to communication is long.

As we begin this trek of cultural in-awareness, we may begin by looking our environment and actions anew, and asking: What areas and aspects might we be taking for granted or holding out-of-awareness in how we practice and assess public diplomacy? What can we shine a spotlight on and bring it in-awareness for public diplomacy?



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Have been reading Glen Fisher

Have been reading Glen Fisher's 1997 book, "Mindsets: The Role of Culture and Perception in International Relations." Fisher, an anthropologist and former foreign service officer, begins with a summary of basic psychology and what it says about cross-cultural interaction.

For example, he points out that it is adaptive for humans to filter what we see and hear through an established cognitive framework, so that we don't have to pay attention to, and mull over the meaning of, literally everything. And that it's very difficult for us not to filter input, even when we try; instead, we consistently project our own framework onto others. Fisher notes that a key element of such projection is "attribution of motive" - that is, applying a rationale to someone else's speech or behavior. Furthermore, he says, cognitive frameworks share fewer universal commonalities - i.e. across cultures - than we think, and false attributions of motive are very common.

On top of all this, he introduces the problem of language, where simple misperceptions arising from the choice of words or phrases in translation are compounded by the fact that "the basic grammar and fundamental structure of a language presents a model or master framework for channeling cognitive processes, for conceptualizing the environment and the manner in which its elements interrelate, and for choosing the way that one idea leads to the next."

These challenges are a reminder that international experience is vitally necessary in public diplomacy, not just media and messaging skills (and that the study of social sciences may also yield important insights).

Fisher's points raise other key questions. For example, is it even possible for a president or other top official to sway both a domestic and a foreign audience with the same speech - and if not, what are the implications in this era of instant global communication? What happens when different statements are crafted for different audiences, but everyone hears all of them?

Through exchanges, cultural diplomacy offers the opportunity for people to learn about each other's cognitive frameworks, and interpret cross-culturally with more accuracy. And arts performances and workshops encourage exceptionally creative individuals to explore the cognitive space between two groups, and even bridge it. At a more basic level, cultural diplomacy can simply serve as a reminder that any culture is multidimensional, and its people and their ideas merit consideration.

The big question, though, is how such "retail" approaches can influence the general public, who continue to receive most of their information "wholesale" from global news networks and mass popular culture. Can social media help, and if so, how?

As a career PD practitioner, I've seen cultural diplomacy have a powerful impact, and I've also seen it backfire. Most often, however, what happens is that it is effective but just too localized. We joke about needing 35 million exchange visitor grants in a country of 35 million people in order to be effective, but we're half serious.

I would love to see a wide-open discussion of such questions!

Thank you, Mary Jeffers. Your

Thank you, Mary Jeffers. Your comments really highlight the importance of “perception” and the pictures in our heads. Hall spoke about being “culture bound,” and the difficulty of moving “beyond culture,” in perceptions. Attribution theory is also about perceptions; we tend to attribute the actions of others to personality traits while our own behaviors are based on the particular circumstance. Finally, one of the reasons why exchange programs may be so effective is that they offer the opportunity for “perception checking.” People feel comfortable to ask questions and check their perceptions about others. PD initiative that are tightly structured may reduce the opportunity for such “perception checking.”


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