Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I wrote the following in response to comments on this thread. Your thoughts/reaction?


Yesterday I had a really fascinating discussion with a fellow student in one of my psych classes, named John. We were doing an exercise related to motivational interviewing in which we were practicing “reflective listening”. So we each had 5 minutes to ask the other “Tell me something you like about yourself” and then develop that with reflective listening.

At first John and I thought we were kind of opposite. What he liked about himself was that he is very relational. He likes to meet and get to know people. What I liked about myself was that I’m pretty good at noticing discrepancy between projected image and actual image, especially as I begin to become part of the “us” in any group. Part of the result of this for me is that I tend to be complete shit at small talk–I hate it. All these niceties seem to me often to be part of a somewhat false projected image. So I don’t really like parties and that sort of thing. John, on the other hand, likes parties, and he likes to try to spend 10 minutes talking to each person and circulating through the room.

But upon further reflective listening, we found out we are actually really alike. John recently spent some time in Thailand and Cambodia. His experience there was that the people were just bottom-line better at being relational. They would just open up with a person right away. He found that enormously satisfying. One thing he *also* finds frustrating is that people hide themselves away and often there’s no chance in hell of getting at them in the first 10 minutes of conversation. This wasn’t the case, in his experience, to such a degree in Thailand and Cambodia.

Both John and I find it rather enormously satisfying when we can get at the underlying reality of people–at their stories, because these stories greatly enrich our own stories.

I said all that to say the following. I remember back in 1997, when I was preparing to go abroad for two years with a large, multinational NGO. One of the books I had to read was a very basic primer on cross-cultural communication. And one of the things in that book that just bugged the hell out of me, at the time, was this strange (what seemed to me to be) moral relativity about “honesty”. The authors were explaining that in some sense, in eastern and/or african cultures, Relationality, or “maintaining face”, was a very deeply held core value, whereas in the west, and perhaps especially in the U.S., “honesty” is a very deeply held core value. The authors told a story about a white American who had the extremely frustrating experience of being given “wrong directions” by a local in an African country. The point was that from an American perspective, the fact that the African person didn’t *know* the directions to the place the American was going, and yet still happily gave him directions, was massively dishonest. Whereas from the perspective of the African, it was far more important to be seen to be meeting the need for the requested information than it was to be “correct/honest”

Don’t know if I’m making any sense here. I guess what I’m getting at is that I guess I’m hoping to tweak my core values a bit, so that community/relationality are at least as core valueish for me as “honesty”. By which I mean to say that it’s seems reasonable to me that “dishonesty” in the service of kindness may be something that we americans need to take into consideration more as a good thing.

Perhaps this is a theorem, which we are attempting to prove, in the system in which the axiom is “It’s better to be kind than right.”

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