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Culture, Space and Time – Problems in Intercultural Communication

8 November 2012

Culture, Space and Time – Problems in Intercultural Communication

Portrait of Hans J Roth
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Dr Hans J Roth

Despite growing global interconnectedness, the gap between cultural understanding and misunderstanding remains. To explain why this problem persists, Dr Hans J Roth discusses his new book, "Kultur, Raum und Zeit" (Culture, Space and Time) and the challenge of bridging cultural divides.

By Hans J Roth for ISN

Why did you feel compelled to write Culture, Space and Time? What is the message you hope to share?

The message I wanted to give was that it is not sufficient to discuss daily intercultural problems we have, for example with an immigrant community, without understanding its – and our – cultural background. Most books and solutions deal with a day-to-day phenomenological level, they do not look at the meta level. But only the meta level can give an indication as to whether a behavior pattern and a solution to an intercultural problem is right or wrong in a given context. The book provides a comparative theory of culture and provides a framework for the challenges to which we try to find solutions.

Our perceptions of the concepts of culture, space and time seem to have dramatically changed over the past 100 years, especially because of advances in information and communications technologies. But why are these core factors so important for understanding international relations?

Our perception has not really changed. What has changed is the pace of society due to technical innovation. This explains the tension between our static perception of reality and the very rapid changes with which we have a lot of problems. We would like to develop the perception of processes. This is not possible out of a Western pattern of perception. We are too far from the objects perceived – that is the reason for our static way of perception. Non-Western civilizations have never developed this subject-object differentiation of the West, they live their reality, they do not analyze it. For them, reality is in constant flow. They are much better in assessing a rapidly changing environment – but only for the actual moment. The density of information in an actual moment cannot be projected into the future. So the West's desire for process thinking start with a wrong idea. Process thinking is only possible in an actual moment, it can never be extrapolated into the future. Here we clearly see the strength and weakness of different patterns of cultural perception. An Arab society is very strong in assessing the smallest details in a flowing reality – but it cannot take the assessment into a planning process. Westerners are strong in planning – but have a very bad idea of an actual moment. They see it only in a static way and lose most of the background information.

These different views of reality have decided influences on operative or strategic strengths and weaknesses! An Asian society is very strong in applied research, and weak in basic research, a Western society is strong in basic research but rather weak in transforming research into the real world of consumer products.

Should we consider culture, space and time as standalone concepts within international relations discourse? Are they not intimately linked to the overarching concept of power?

They are, but as the above answer shows, the balance is quite equal. The West is strong in some fields, non-Western societies are strong in others. Basically, the strengths are complementary and a combination of the two would be ideal. Unfortunately they are strongly contradictory, so not easy to combine. Think, for example, of the perception of reality. One civilization perceives it as flowing, the other as stable. How can you combine the two views? It is basically only possible through a socialization in the other pattern of perception, i.e. in another society. And that process is in itself a problem. But it is the only possible way of combining the two contradictory modes. But to do that you would have to be a strong person. To combine these two completely contradictory patterns would otherwise create considerable psychic problems.

As a career diplomat you must have participated in many important and delicate diplomatic discussions over the years. Do you believe that states are "getting it right" or at least "getting better" with regard to our understanding of how important these factors are in other cultures?

Unfortunately, I am rather pessimistic in this respect. This is due to the fact that the moment you start to really combine the two modes of thinking and use the corresponding behavior patterns, then you are detaching yourself to a very large extent from your own society. And to the other society you do not - and do not want to - belong. Your social position becomes quite difficult. It is easier to remain in our cultural mode – but then you will never understand the others. We lack persons who can build the bridges. And we put the ones we have into difficult positions – or we even kill them, as happened to the American Ambassador in Libya. A fluent Arab speaker, one who liked the Arab world like his own. He understood the Arab world. I am sure he had no easy stand at home – and was finally killed by the other side. This is a very tragic loss to both sides.

What contribution does international media make to diplomatic initiatives where having a full and frank understanding of another state's culture is imperative? Can they do more harm than good?

Here, too, I am very skeptical. The aggressive stance of modern Western media provides a very bad condition for understanding non-European societies. Of course you should question. But not before you have gained an understanding. Many a Western journalist never gets to that stage. And when you get to the stage of understanding, you have to manage it. These societies are so different that you are under constant stress as a Westerner, even if you understand the other side very well and are not getting excited at every strange move it makes. Still, the psychic pressure is heavy and you have to regularly get out to breathe fresh air, air to which you are culturally used to. Whenever you get into stressful situations, you tend to fall back into your own behavior patterns. And these are wrong in culturally different environments. When you are in Rome, do as the Romans do. Easy to say, but difficult to handle, because you are asked to act against some of your most fundamental value patterns. And if you do not do that then you are out, not taken seriously. After twenty professional years in Asia this is still a sour apple I have to bite into from time to time. It has never become sweet even after speaking fluent Chinese and having spent sixteen years in different places in China, starting as a student and ending as an official.

How much of a mismatch is there between the public's perceptions and expectations, politician's rhetoric, and the very practical world of diplomacy? Can we close this gap?

The gap is not between the public, the politician and the diplomat, unless the diplomat is really good. Usually the gap is between East and West. Remember Kipling's lines:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.

But most people only look at the beginning line, they never check the end of the poem where Kipling says:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

We can find each other on a human ground. But it is not an easy exercise. And, what is even more important, we will not find each other without realizing how different we are. We can understand each other only by understanding the differences between us. Then – and only then - we all of a sudden realize the common human background that we all share. That is why I wrote a book on culture, space and time. To try to show the common background of our being.

The views expressed in this interview represent Dr Hans Roth's personal ideas and do not represent the official views of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kultur, Raum und Zeit will be published in November 2012 by Nomos Verlag.


Dr Hans J Roth serves as Ambassador for Cross-Border Cooperation at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) in Bern. He has previously served as the Secretary of the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and Consul General in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Between 2010 and 2012, Dr Roth was an Advisor on Asian Affairs to the Swiss Secretary of State.

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