About twelve years ago, a friend yelled at me for what he saw as constant interruptions. “You never let me finish talking,” he said.
I was confused. When had I ever interrupted him?
After much discussion, I finally figured it out. What he considered an interruption — saying “right” or “yes” while he was talking — was the only way I knew to listen politely. In my experience, remaining completely silent while someone else was speaking meant you were checked out.
On Sept. 21, 1987, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave an address to the United Nations General Assembly. In an often-quoted section of his speech, Reagan asked rhetorical questions and commented about the nations and cultures of the world uniting in common efforts to live in peace and avoid wars and bloodshed.
“Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity,” Reagan said.
The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, traces its roots to the secret World War II U.S. Army intelligence unit comprised of Japanese-Americans – the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).
Then, as now, we needed to succeed militarily and also communicate with other cultures and nations.
The MIS was started in late 1941 as a unit to train Japanese-Americans (Nisei) to conduct translation and interrogation activities. MIS men came mostly from Hawaii and the West Coast.
If you ever have to work with people who don’t speak any of the same languages as you, you will probably have to use an interpreter to make yourself understood. Interpreters are a highly valuable resource for cross-cultural communication -- but when things go wrong, they can go very wrong.
Back in 2009, news reports explained that a U.S. intelligence operative in Afghanistan had provided Viagra to an older tribal and community leader who had several younger wives. The story triggered humor, concern and insight about working closely with indigenous populations in Afghanistan elsewhere.
This case shows us that interacting with indigenous people – so that they may consider being friends of Americans instead of enemies – can be approached in various ways, conventional and unconventional.