The Effective Communicator
The Music and the Message
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
I was reading a novel set in Buenos Aires. Two of the characters in were in a club, listening to the music. The author describes the scene this way:
They drank cane brandy while a black saxophonist made noises in concert with a West Indian snare drummer and a blond, slick-fingered bassist. It didn't sound much like music, but everyone seemed content to listen to it.
[Eric Van Lustbader, Angel Eyes, London: Grafton Books, 1991, p.27.]
This made me think of my own musical experiences, across cultures. I have played in music groups all my life. Various kinds of music. I was a co-leader of a jazz band in Nairobi. We were Danish, American and Canadian. Some of us had background in folk and rock, some in jazz. We were learning together, exploring together, creating together, each contributing to the other as we grow in the communication medium of music.
The two characters in that novel could not understand the small-group jazz they were hearing. But regulars at the club were seemingly enjoying it, at least tolerating it. It takes a while to understand and appreciate new kinds of music. Remember your "Music Appreciation" class in college? Some kinds never seem to make sense.
I'm that way with opera. I can't listen to it more than 15 seconds at a time! I never could understand why someone would want to distort a beautiful human voice beyond all recognition. Yet there are people who revel in opera. To me the words should be heard and understood in music, unless it is all instrumental.
A Cultural Medium
Each culture group has its own musical styles. Like Bebop, a stylized, aharmonic form. Or modern "African jazz," developed in Congo and Zaire out of African blues reimported from America and reincorporated into traditional African styles. Boring to some, thrilling to others.
Yet beyond the music itself, this pattern applies to new cultural motifs. The communication styles of a new people, country or continent seem strange, unmeaningful, confusing. Each cultures mosaic of relationships, roles, obligations and expectations are unique. It takes a while to figure out what is happening in that reality.
But the locals seem to like it. It seems natural to them. It works for them. It seems right. But the newcomer has to work to "hear" the cultural music that seems so natural to the locals.
The newcomer has to spend some time listening to that cultural "music." She needs to spend time in the local haunts, hearing what the locals hear, where they hear it; observing how the locals do what the locals do where they do it. This means sharing some basic experiences with the locals.
Music of Language
Language is an important part of this cultural music. The message carried in the language conforms to requirements of the local cultural style of communication. The new language follows different rules, meets different expectations. Not just the sounds but the ways of thinking about something, the ways of expressing those different cultural thoughts.
Learning the language teaches a lot of the "musical theory" of the communication style of the local culture. This provides both the music and the message – in the language.
The local cultural "music" may sound funny. But it has meaning for those who grew up with it. It carries meaning. It is meaning. The Communicator who really wishes to be effective will "suffer" through the meaningless stage, to learn and appreciate the local cultural "music."
The foreign communicator may never really come to like the local cultural music. But it is possible to accept this cultural format and to use that format. This is the foundation of effective communication.
Originally published in the series “The Effective Communicator” in the cross-cultural communication newsletter Focus on Communication Effectiveness, May 1993
This version written and first posted on OJTR 14 October 2008
Last edited 18 June 2013
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1993, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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