Wanted: Communication Superheroes In Times Of Social Distancing

Why is social distancing so hard for some? And why can showing solidarity negate social distancing? crossculture2go Coach Kalaivani Mattern explores what individuals can do to help during this time of global crisis.

It is tiring to read the news and social media on any given day but nowadays we are being bombarded with so much information, numbers and scenarios that it is hard for any single person to make sense of it all. Frustration, judgement and negativity seems to be everywhere we turn. And I am not exempt either, I have been short-tempered and uncharitable to my fellow humans. Hence I would like to propose a more gentle style of communication — be factual but do not dramatise, be firm but not harsh, be honest but not hurtful.

What I would like to address is why social distancing is so hard for some, and why showing solidarity seems to negate social distancing and what individuals can do to help during this time of global crisis. I have chosen an example from India as that is my heritage, one of my intercultural training foci and the collectivistic culture I know the best.

In social media messages coming out of India today, there were many pictures of people coming together in large groups to show support for healthcare workers. This is a classic case of misunderstood message coupled with misplaced enthusiasm and to some extent, I assume, ignorance.

Indians were told by their venerable leader to show their support and they did it in the best way they knew— by gathering in large numbers. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what was asked of them — instead of social distancing, they assembled in public and negated the message completely.

There are probably a myriad of reasons for why this happened, I would like to assume, that most that gathered thought they were doing the right thing by standing together to show solidarity.

Solidarity In Reality

Solidarity is defined as “mutual support within a group” and most cultures show such support by being physically present for each other — be it a devastating event like a death in the family or a joyful occasion like a birth or even a little league game. In a relationship based culture like Indian culture, visiting people physically, is the best way to show you care.

Even in today’s Bengaluru and Mumbai with all its high tech infrastructure, glitz and glamour, neighbours gather in the evening in their courtyards to chat, exercise, watch their kids play together and trade stories. Even the smallest wedding in India has at least 100 guests — that is just the ceremony, the other 100 are invited the next day to the after-wedding party, just so that nobody’s feelings get hurt.

In years before the scary reality of Covid-19, my friend in India and I used to laugh about how “Doomsday Preppers” (an American reality TV show) could never happen in India because we could never live in a bunker alone — if forced to, perhaps, maybe with our 300 closest relatives. Because living on your own and not meeting others, is a terrifying prospective for any Indian. Even the most introverted among us cannot imagine a life without extended family and friends.

Now Indians are suddenly being asked to show support by staying away from each other. This is a paradigm shift that is not easy to understand for most, let alone a country like India, where being physically present and connected, is everything.

Considering the political, geographical and lingual diversity of India, making an announcement on TV might be the only way to reach everyone but unfortunately, this is a one-way channel.

Clarifications have to be done at the ground level, and that takes time and is labour intensive. My hope is that, both official and private channels are being mobilised in aid of this and that information will be dispersed in a way that is understood by the majority. How can individuals help?

Communication In Reality

I have seen some derogatory comments made about this “behaviour” of Indians on social media. I would not want to go into details about that. Instead, I would like to encourage clear and respectful communication to spread awareness, to emphasise the necessity of social distancing in a way others would understand. According to Prof. Schulz von Thun’s Four-sides model of communication, every message has four facets or “sides” to it.

Factual layer contains the statement of fact. In the self-revealing layer, the speaker — intentionally or unintentionally — tells something about her motives, values, emotions etc. The Relationshiplayer indicates how well the sender gets along with the receiver and what she thinks of her. The Appeal contains the desire, advice, instruction and effects that the speaker is looking for. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-sides_model)

The “sender” and “receiver” might place the emphasis on different facets of the same message, which in turn could lead to the message being misunderstood at every layer, separately or as a whole.

How To Avoid This?

I firmly believe that communicating from a place of kindness helps avoid misunderstandings

  • Write/speak from a place of calm, choosing your words carefully, respectfully and culturally appropriate. However much we try to suppress the self-revelation side, the message will carry within itself a nugget of that. We humans have a very fine antenna for such cues. •
  • Check in with the recipient to see if the information was received as it was meant to be.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says “Gentleness is powerful. When we use gentle and loving speech, we are able to transform all the anger, fear, resentment, and suspicion in our communication. The whole intention of loving speech is to understand the other person and to be understood.”

Each and every one of us can help bring about the change we wish to see. We have the power to move a person from anger and fear (or ignorance) to a place of reason. This global pandemic has shown that only clear communication helps build trust, and this trust in turn helps people willingly follow guidelines set out by their respective Governments.

My request to you, dear reader, is to reach out to your circle of influence and explain the extreme danger of Covid-19 using gentle speech and kindness. And I will do the same. This is an opportunity for you and me to be a strong link in the chain and to be communication superheroes

Kalaivani Mattern

Picture of Kalaivani Mattern

Kalaivani Mattern

I am Vani, an intercultural trainer and coach. As an optimist, I strongly believe in cultures being complementary and my wish is to promote dialog, appreciation and productivity. The core of my intercultural philosophy is, that diversity with all its multitude of challenges, is our ultimate strength. I invite you to explore and leverage this unique capability of humanity - to cooperate and work across such vast distances in time, space, experiences and lifestyles.

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