starbuckslogo.jpgAs I was reading Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension I began to realize how staggeringly differently each of us perceives the world. Hall speaks mostly about differences in perception between six different human ‘cultures’ — the Germans, French, British, Americans, Japanese and Arabs. But his ideas find echo in Jeff Masson’s books about the huge variability of animal intelligence and emotion due to differences in sense acuity, evolutionary needs and environment,  and made me realize just how intelligent animals that are able to learn our languages must be — their entire sensory mechanism, the way they perceive everything, the way the neurons of their brains are commensurately ordered, is utterly, perhaps unimaginably different from ours.

These ideas also resonate with some of the findings of leading educators and linguists that we learn in completely different ways, and that communication is a maddeningly imprecise and largely futile process, a never-ending ‘raid on the inarticulate’ as TS Eliot put it.

I’ve concluded that if we ever develop the technology to be able to put ourselves in another’s brain, and tap in directly to what they are thinking, perceiving and feeling, we will likely be astonished at how alien the experience will be.

Aside from explaining how easy it is to misunderstand each other, and just how ‘alone’ we really are, what does all this mean? I think it has six very important implications:

  • Stories are the essence of all communication: They are effective as a means of conveying information and persuading, because they allow each of us to internalize and enrich what the story-teller is relating from our own perspective, and hence fill in some of the space in the vast chasm of perception and understanding between each of us. Such communication is fraudulent, even subversive. But it works. Throw out your Powerpoint slides and your slick, rigorous analyses, and just tell stories. Induction trumps deduction.
  • We need to reclaim the arts for the people: Art, which Hall tells us has been around as a means of communication and “making sense” of the world three times longer than language, has a depth and texture much richer than written languages, and is far more important as a means of conveying ideas and emotion, and of changing minds, than we recognize. Not surprisingly, much ‘primitive’ art told a story, rather than depicting things scientifically. Except for music and film and musical theatre, which have been stolen from the people, dumbed down, robbed of their creative variety and coopted and perverted for commercial purposes, the arts — visual arts and architecture and sculpture and theatre and dance and even photography — have become elitist, ‘unpopular’ activities. Their very recent inaccessibility represents, if we can recover from it,  a huge opportunity for us to better connect with and understand each other, learn and become richer as human beings.
  • Our art can tell us how we differ, and therefore who we are: There are huge clues in art to our differences of perception, and hence huge possibilities for understanding, in studying the differences in all our creative processes and productions. Example: Much Inuit art, Hall says, shows Picasso-like depictions of what cannot be seen from one place, or one time, or even in some cases seen at all, because the visual homogeneity of their environment has led them to promote other compensatory sense perceptions and to ‘paint them in’ to their visual representation, which is not, as in our culture, a purely reflective, raster-like representation. As another example, Hall points out that perspective and proportion are relatively new innovations in visual art, suggesting that ‘modern’ man parses what he sees far more literally and contextually and ‘scientifically’ than even Renaissance man did.
  • Western society is returning to its natural, oral tradition: The popularity of cellular phones, and instant messaging that ‘mimics’ oral language in style and tempo, among those in their teens and twenties, signals a rejection of the recent cultural dominance of stultifying, unnatural written language, in favour of oral language. Watch a teenager use either of these media and you’ll see how quickly, by a whole series of successive approximations, clarifications and restatements they achieve a rich, powerful emotional communication. This generation doesn’t read the newspaper, and doesn’t care that much about the communication of intellectual concepts. That may be because oral language is more right-brained, and more concerned with sensation and emotion, where written language is more left-brained, more precise and considered, concerned with logic and concept. The most important cultural evolution in the next generation will therefore probably be a huge increase in oral fluency and sensitivity (practice makes perfect). If we’re going to save, or even change, the world, we’ll do it by telling great, infectious stories, orally. Bloggers and print journalists: our time has past — We’re condemned to the margins of the future world.
  • Knowledge is viral and has negligible ‘stored’ value: When I predicted that Knowledge Management would evolve into Social Networking and that centralized repositories would give way to Personal Content Management systems, I may not have been radical enough in my thinking. About a decade ago, some brilliant soul (can’t remember who, and Google doesn’t help, but just to prove my point I bet one of my readers reminds me who it was) said “I keep my knowledge in my network”. In other words, forget about storing stuff anywhere. If it has value, it will be floating around on the tip of someone’s lips right now. No one needs to write it down, no one needs to put it in a database or on a website or in a book. It will always be out there, in the air, spreading like a virus and, if it’s good, returning often to visit, without ownership, without ‘copyright’, being enriched as it’s re-told. The core competency for the next generation will be a great memory. Librarians will be out. Actors will be in.
  • Design that is counter-cultural creates anxiety: There is an enormous tension as the new designs of our culture — in the West, skyscrapers, SUVs, privatized public spaces, ‘family’ rooms, ‘portable entertainment’ devices — begin to change how we behave, and who we are, while at the same time we push back against these same designs because they offend our culture — at once separating and crowding us in unnatural ways, putting ‘road-blocks’ that fragment our communities, isolating us from nature and from each other, forcing us to adapt to awkward and unintuitive tools.  This tension between ‘efficient’ design and ‘natural’ culture is perhaps the most important front in the ever-enlarging and now global war between corporations (and their artefacts) and people.And this tension is even greater where Western design confronts other cultures’ norms, layering cultural dissonance on top of resentment of Western economic and political imperialism.

Hall also presents some interesting, if over-generalized, observations about differences between the people of the six countries he studies. They explain why a closed door or a private office has a completely different meaning in Germany, the UK and the US, why the French would never tolerate the sell-off of public space that is occurring in the US, why the Japanese find Western room layout (and the Arabs find Western ceiling heights) claustrophobic, and how the difference in these six peoples’ ‘intimate’ (0-18″), ‘personal’ (18-48″), ‘social’ (4-12′) and ‘public’ (>12′) distances cause so many misunderstandings and conflicts. Tellingly, Hall’s generalizations are often debatable, but his anecdotes, being stories, are entertaining and compelling.

The Starbucks logo, shown above, is highly offensive to people in many Arab countries, where the depiction of the human form (and not merely the naked female form) is considered sacrilegious and profane. Starbucks’ insistence on displaying it in its stores in those countries has been a major bone of contention, and is a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment.

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  1. Philip says:

    While Muslims do not use iconography in Mosques the mere human image depicted as art is not necessarily banned. It might be convenient to blame the logo for Starbucks problems in the Arab world but it is more tied to the activism of Starbucks charmain Howard Shultz who is percieved as a zionist supporting the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Technically the Starbucks logo is that of a mermaid and is no “living thing” but an imaginary creature not covered by the fatwah on images.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Phil: You may be right, but the New Yorker said that, in some Islamic countries (and this they say has more to do with national culture than religion) any depiction of any ‘creature’ is forbidden. In Saudi Arabia for example only abstract art is shown in the museums, and Starbucks’ signs have been repeatedly taken down and then put back up.

  3. Dirtgrain says:

    I used to have a friend from Iran with whom I would have discussions while we waited for the city bus to go to Eastern Michigan University. He would often step up close to me when we were talking, and I would step back. . . he would step forward again, and I would step back. Then I would turn sideways to avert the awkwardness (my perceived awkwardness) of the situation. Later I read that there was a traditional Middle Eastern belief that one’s breath contains a trace of one’s soul. To breathe in each other’s breath is to share each other’s souls–thus Persians (and others?) stand close to each other in conversation.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    DG: Hall has some anecdotes about this which are quite funny. Two people really pissing each other off unintentionally without saying a word.

  5. Ed Bilodeau says:

    I agree in the value of storytelling. But note that rather then tell a story to convey the idea to us, you itemized the key ideas in a bullet list. I would do the same. If I was talking to a group, I’d probably have a PowerPoint slide listing the points. So rather then a case of “throwing out” traditional means of communicating ideas, I think we should be looking at bringing storytelling back to bag of tricks.

  6. Life Tenant says:

    Dave, as usual your comments are rich in insights and ideas but sidetracked by a nostalgia for a natural humanity that never was. Even chimpanzees have learned to dose themselves with medicinal leaves that they “naturally” avoid because they taste bad. The story of our own primate species has been one in which our ancestors have “artificially” shaped and reshaped our cultures for many millenia, to a great extent through the use of new and evolving technologies. Thr is nthg ntrl abt inst msgg. Nor is it more natural to say “I’m like, whoa, you’re like, wow! ” in place of Johnson’s “madam, I am surprised; you are amazed.” The shrugs, grimaces and interjections that lace teenage conversations are just as “artificial,” shaped by technology, as the elaborate verbal lexicons employed by the literate, but the informing technologies are popular music and video as purveyed via television and other electronic media by commercial vendors, in place of various older rhetorics of written and oral communication. Nor is it fair to characterize oral communication as emotional and written communication as logical. It is true that writing is a technology that facilitates more elaborate and extended logical reasoning, but it also facilitates a kind of introspective intensity of emotion that fueled the romantic development of individual character and romantic love. Oral traditions in turn had technologies such as rhyme and meter, often employed by experts (bards), to maintain cultural databases. We seek to express and communicate reason, sensation and feeling through a constantly changing mix of technologies that we ourselves, as individuals, as communities, as polities, as societies, create and choose. We may judge some choices to be better than others, but no choice that any human has made for tens or hundreds of thousands of years has been purely natural.

  7. kara says:

    The original Starbuck’s cup displayed the full fin – that was spread open in front. They (Starbucks USA) modified the design showing less of the tail – as it offended some folks here in – North America!

  8. shari says:

    As always, enjoyed your discussion on culture. Part of my clinical training that I cherished emphasized how each personal encounter is in fact a cross-cultural interaction, no matter what the background of each individual. Problems arise when each assumes the other to have the very same point of view. This is even more poignant where the two have a similar background: eg ethnicity, religion, SES, so on. Hence, things such as marital difficulties, problems within an office, neighbor problems can be seen within this prism of explanation.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Ed: Touche. Old habits die hard, I guess. My first impression was also that stories were an addition to the toolkit, not a replacement for it. But the more I see well-told stories move mountains, and even the most effective Powerpoint presentation elicit a few soon-forgotten notes and a yawn, the more I’m inclined to believe we’re fooling ourselves thinking slides do any more than preach to the choir.Subdude: Glad to hear from you! But you’re getting grouchy since you stopped blogging. I’m not at all romantic about things that are ‘natural’ — they are not better or more sensible, merely more in tune with what we (still) are than artificial tools and constructs. When I listen to my grand-daughter talking with her friends I am stunned at the frankness and precision with which she communicates what she feels (and she keeps getting better at it, perhaps because English is not her first language), and I am equally stunned at her inability to articulate intellectual concepts and abstract ideas. Oral language is, I believe, just ‘naturally’ more suited to the former than the latter.Kara: I thought I remembered a more risque logo, but I couldn’t find it in Google images. Now I’m going to take a second look.Shari: Yes, though I’m convinced our perceptions are radically different even of there are no environmental differences. I believe, for example, that men and women perceive the world very differently. I also think siblings perceive the world very differently, which is why in their close physical proximity there is often so much tension between them.

  10. Jon Husband says:

    Stories … art … returning to oral tradition … viral *knowledge* …IMO this leads to a clear reinforcement of why music, esp. downloadable *pop* culture music (I generalize here) has become so important. The generations that are *using* it as their medium for connection are also, unfortunately, subject to its use as the medium for being commercialized, and marketed-to.It will be interesting to see just to what degree music, musicians and the business of music become even more politicized in the medium-term future.I think that this (downloadable music) will be the main carrier for stories and viral knowledge that is anything more meaningful than a TV advert or the TV news.

  11. Philip says:

    <br/> Best I could come up with.

  12. Philip says:

    Appears to be taken from an engraving, "Entry of the Sirens" from Le Balet Comique de la Reyne by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, 1581There was another intermediate logo between the first and current logo. All three are found here

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Jon: Absolutely. There is a site I’ve seen (can’t find it now offhand) that actually shows the number of commercial references in the ‘top 40’ week to week and it’s an accelerating upward curve. There’s a long global history of music as a political medium. Maybe someone should tell John Kerry.Philip: Thanks — interesting that they went back to such an archaic mermaid representation. I’m surprised they didn’t use the ’80s movie Splash as a more contemporary starting point. Then they could have used this as the logo:

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