Afghanistan, bazaar, cleverness, communication, communication skills, confrontation, corruption, counterinsurgency, cross-cultural communication, culture, daily life, government effectiveness, international relations, politics, services, subtlety
My apologies, dear readers, for being out of the writing loop for a while. It’s no excuse, but communicating effectively can be tough sometimes.
Ha, now imagine trying to communicate with someone from another culture. Language difficulties aside (and there are plenty of those), there are all sorts of cultural subtleties and nuances, pecking orders and social statuses, communications styles, stereotypes, and plain ole personality quirks to consider. Sometimes you find yourself totally floundering in a conversation and have no idea why.
Exhibit A: Summer, Paktika Province
We were walking through the city’s main bazaar. Not the nice, shiny side that sold mobile phones and motorcycles out of shops with glass windows, but the dingier side that sold foodstuffs out of hastily erected wooden shacks. Flies buzzed everywhere, landing happily on meat hanging in the open and then on stacks of apples and zucchini. It was hot. I had only been in country a few weeks and so was not yet used to the altitude (almost 7000 feet) or walking miles on end while wearing body armor. I was, perhaps, maybe, just a touch grumpy.
I started talking to a shopowner who also seemed a bit grouchy. He started to grumble at me as to how all of this was America’s fault, that the American government was paying the Taliban to buy and make bombs and other such conspiracy theories. When you work in the Middle East, conspiracy theories become par for the course and I know how to play the game around them (that’s another conversation), but that day I was just too hot and tired to care. So I basically told him that what he was saying was nonsense, that it was Americans dying because of those bombs and as corrupt as any government might be, the US would never kill its own like that.
He started to rant and rave at me about how naive I was for a minute, then got utterly dismissive and walked off. End of conversation. He was mad, I was mad, it was a great success all around.
(This scene actually happened around the same time as the one in this post. It may not look good, but I swear I really didn’t botch every attempt in the beginning!)
Exhibit B: Fall, Paktiya Province
A couple months later, I moved to a base up in the mountains (so closer to 10-12,000 feet). One morning, we went on a walking patrol to a nearby(ish) village. It wasn’t nearly so hot and I was a bit more used to the body armor, but the altitude change still smoked me. By the time we got to the village and located some elders to talk to, I was pretty hot and sweaty and worn out. And hungry. And therefore slightly grumpy. Again.
We eventually drew the attention of a whole slew of elders and before we knew it, we were sitting in the guest room of a house surrounded by a dozen or so old men. We talked about all sorts of things until one of them, not the main elder, but an important man, started to rant at me essentially saying how useless the Americans had been in Afghanistan.
“You’ve been here for ten years!” he railed as his finale. “How many factories have you built in ten years?!?!”
My temper got the best of me. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I snapped back, “How old are you??”
There was a moment of stunned silence as all eyes turned to us.
“…What?” he finally replied.
“How old are you?” I asked again.
He grew a little less certain of himself. “Umm, maybe 50.”
“Well,” I said dryly, “how many factories have you built in 50 years?”
You could have heard a pin drop. I had one of those forehead-slapping, “did I really just say that out loud?” moments. Mouth, meet Foot. Then, without warning, the main elder and all the others threw back their heads and cackled. I think some literally rolled on the floor laughing. The man I had been speaking to gave me a long, estimating stare that slowly, slowly turned into a small smile of acknowledgement. Then he, too, began to laugh and nodded at me. After that, those guys were willing to listen to anything I had to say.
1. Afghans be crazy? Eh, who isn’t?
2. Country folk are more easy-going than city folk? Well, that’s probably true everywhere.
3. Afghans don’t like uppity women? No, I earned the respect of that whole room of old guys.
4. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it? Ah, now we’re onto something. American culture places a lot of value on clear, direct, no-nonsense communication. Being polite is important, sure, but being “brutally honest” is something we hold pretty dear. We also value confrontation: “Speak up for yourself,” “never back down,” etc.
Afghans also respect confrontation, but only when done the right way. Being direct and straight-to-the-point is just gauche. A sign of lesser intellect. When I called the first guy out, I did so with no subtlety or grace. I came across as someone who was not worthy of debating. If I wasn’t clever enough to engage correctly, how could I possibly be smart enough to have worthwhile opinions? Might as well talk politics with a child.
But, though somewhat unintentionally, cleverness was exactly what I displayed in the second conversation. I also called him out, but not directly. He asked a question that merely implied Americans were useless. I responded by making a sharp turn that momentarily confused everyone, and then tossing his question back at him. I never denied his point about the Americans, but I also implied that Afghans haven’t done anything to help themselves either. I didn’t say it outright. I was subtle. I was clever. I proved that I was someone who could engage in witty repartee and so was a worthy and equal opponent. That meant I could be a trusted friend.