By Marielle Petranof, Office of Protocol Intern
With the 2012 Summer Olympic Games currently underway, it occurs to me that the world seems to be getting a whole lot smaller. When the Games are going on, it’s easy to think of ourselves as part of a global culture. In a way, everyone speaks the same language: sport.
However, as is my experience with The Center, language barriers are not often so easily broken. Very recently I had the privilege to accompany a delegation around Indiana as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program. Of the group, only a few spoke English, and thus were accompanied by two interpreters. As a student of languages myself, I found this fascinating. The interpreters had provided ear pieces, and while the professional resources spoke, the interpreter would do a simultaneous translation into the microphone. Even though I’ve been privy to a number of translated conversations through my work at The Center, this was my first experience with simultaneous translation, and it was captivating.
Even so, as is the case with most of our IVLP groups, as much was said through smiles and gestures as through translated communications. It seems that there really are some things that can cross cultures without explanation, the most prominent of which being good will. The visitors were polite and engaged in interesting debate with their professional resources, and took lots and lots of pictures. This was my first time working with our IVLP department, and it was obvious to see how much work had been put into this program, and how flawlessly it was pulled off.
Now, recognizing that some things seem to be universal, I had another experience this week that proved otherwise. One of my assignments was to make a briefing book for an organization that intended to welcome many African visitors. This meant that I was to compile protocol and cultural guides for the entire continent of Africa. In addition to that, I compiled a brief overview page of each of the countries represented—with much additional help from IVLP intern, Ellie. What struck me the most while trying to compile this data was firstly, that there were frightfully few resources on African protocol, and secondly, how vastly different African culture is, not only from nation to nation, but within each country. After many conversations with Ansuyah, head of Global Competency Training, who is herself South African, I came to the conclusion that the only way that I would be able to complete this project would be to read every resource on Africa available and pull from all of them.
So, that’s what I did, and the more I read, the more I realized that there were very few things that truly crossed all cultures. Certainly there were some things that seemed to pervade most cultures (like placing your left hand on your right forearm while shaking hands or pointing with your hand) but inevitably there would be one nation whose culture dictated the opposite. Additionally, all of the resources I found came with a myriad of disclaimers about city versus rural culture, tribal versus colonial culture, and countless others. So, my ultimate resource came with just as many warnings. And I suppose that that’s really the bottom line when it comes to culture: No matter how much we study or are influenced by the society around us, culture is ultimately an individual choice. What is offensive to one person may not matter to another, but as global citizens, it is our duty to learn as much as possible. More than ever I fall back on the idea that “when in doubt, watch your international counterparts and do as they do.”
Oh, and read up on international culture as much as possible. And if you have the resources, perhaps have one of our team train you a little!
With all of these cultural gaps that make protocol and etiquette so difficult to standardize, events like the Olympics become more important in my eyes. When you achieve unity of purpose (everyone is there to compete and everyone knows the rules) some of the barriers fall away. No doubt there will be many an etiquette faux pas during the two-week Games, but with each international intercultural event, the world becomes a more knowledgeable place. So, if you’re anticipating the Games for the American swimmers or the female Saudi Arabian athletes (the first women to represent their country in the Olympics) take a moment to notice our varied world.
As this week ends my internship with The Center, I can’t help but look back on all I’ve learned… and just how diverse we humans are. I thank The International Center for all that it has given me and the incredible experiences I’ve been able to have.