Thursday, October 29, 2009

What did she say?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was interviewed recently on CNBC. The exchange went like this:

Reporter: "But, on the tax issue, allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would essentially be a tax increase."

Pelosi: "It isn't a tax increase; it is, it is a..a..ah..eliminating a tax decrease that was there."

(You can watch the exchange at this site:

So, it isn't a tax increase, it is "eliminating a tax decrease that was there"!

Can language confuse and conceal, or what? Are politicians expert at double talk?

Language that uses negatives can work wonders at concealment. Perhaps if we ask Nancy about inflation she will say, "It is not possible to reduce inflationary pressures when the federal government does not reduce its spending." Got that?

Perhaps if asked about government spending she will add, "So long as taxpayers do not refuse to pay their taxes, the government will have no difficulty in paying its debts."

Maybe if she's pressed on a policy issue she will declare, "The lack of disconfirming evidence suggests that the results are not open to dispute, unless the absence of data from other investigations is taken as a negative factor."

These beautifully confusing gems were collected by Joseph Williams, professor emeritus at Chicago University and author of a book that changed my thinking about writing, "Style." This dense little book will help anyone become a better writer who can stay with it.

Some of the sentences come from the wonderful world of academia where communication is meant to impress, not express. If you remember your college days, you'll remember a sentence like this one, "Scientists have not agreed on the question of whether the universe is open or closed, a dispute that will not be resolved until the total mass of the universe has been computed with an error of no more than 5%."

Or, this one, "Sufficient research has not been directed to the problems of individuals who cannot see when there are not normal levels of light."

These sentences all suffer from too many negatives. And, I doubt if their authors consciously knew how to craft them. They likely have an innate sense of how to obfuscate, like Nancy.

So, don't be surprised if in the near future you watch Nancy Pelosi say something like this on You Tube, "Elections in which there is no attempt at dealing with those issues which do not receive adequate attention during the time when no election campaigns are underway cannot serve the functions for which they were intended."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

How do you respond?

I spoke with a former student last week on Craig Street in Oakland. He looked great, black suit and white shirt, opened at the collar. He sounded great, too, with his charming, South of the Border accent. A very charming and soft-spoken guy, he said he had come from a job interview.

As we chatted, he told me the interviewer had been "hostile." Then he asked me what to do when an interviewer is hostile. I had to think a little about that one!

I have never been interviewed by a hostile person. And, I suppose one's definition of "hostile" differs from another's. For instance, I had an interview once where the interviewer was called out of the room to be told that he had just been named a vice president of the firm. Everyone gathered around him just at the edge of my view, hugging, back-slapping and congratulating him. He lost track of me for 20 minutes as he drank wine and celebrated with his colleagues, returning and thanking me, telling me that our time had expired and that he had another candidate to interview. I considered that hostile. (BTW, I didn't get the job and likely would not have taken it anyway.)

But, my student friend meant verbal hostility, purposefully intimidating, challenging, rude, and aggressive. The interviewer asked my friend some ugly questions and, of course, my friend was perplexed. Among other things, the interviewer pressed my friend over his commitment, asking, "Are you willing to work ten hours a day, staying late, and working over 60 hours a week, including weekends?" My friend repeated the words in the nasty way the interviewer had.

I suggested that my friend answer any hostile question with another (non-hostile)question. "Why do employees need to work 60 hours? How is this compensated? How are employees evaluated?"

To my way of thinking, those are legitimate questions and should be part of a series of questions candidates must ask anyway. (I may have said in a previous post that I wrote a book, "Ask the right questions; Get the right job," which I intend to give away on my website soon - When you ask questions, you create a conversation, you appear engaging and interested, and you assume a posture that says, "I'm interviewing you, too." For my money, anyone looking for a job needs to vet the company that he is visiting, as much as they are vetting you.

Anyway, I know many of you have had many interviews. And, I know that some of you (are you listening, Nancy) are professionals when it comes to head hunting and interviewing. So, please take a moment and weigh in on this. Help me give the right advice to my friend. How should he respond to a hostile interviewer?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Welcome to the New Frontier.

What is the New Frontier? "Intercultural Communication." Why? Think about it. Advances in technology, advances in telecommunication, migration of populations (diaspora), off-shore and on-shore work relationships, self-directed and culturally-mixed work teams, and flattened organizations have brought a new workplace...and a need to communicate better. That has created a New Frontier.

I don't know about you but over the last few week I tried to communicate with rooms full of Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Taiwanese, a couple of Russians, a handful of Japanese and some Turks - with an American or two thrown into the mix. In the process I understood what Edward T. Hall said: "Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants."

In my classrooms all of us politely interacted on a surface level, human being to human being, while our thoughts, emotions, actions and feelings were being influenced by the cultures we had grown up in. And, those influences were mostly invisible.

How will we ever communicate if we don't know each other more deeply, more visibly? We won't. We first must understand as much about the "other" as we can. But, we Americans typically don't do this. We expect everyone from India to get excited about Christmas and Easter and Hanukkah, but we know little, if anything, about Diwali, unless we have befriended an Indian or have been fortunate enough to have traveled to the subcontinent (a wake-up call and wonderful experience, believe me).

The New Frontier will require that we learn many details about the "other." It will take effort and desire. For years we've been bumping up against the differences between "Individualistic" and "Collectivistic" cultures. Even if we're not thinking about it, many of us are daily confronting our American "Idiocentrism" and weighing it against the many people who live an "Allocentric" life. We will need to learn about "High Context" and "Low Context" cultures, examine our values and the values of others, paying particular attention to the ways we define our selves, the ways we value (or de-value) age, family, human nature, activity, and power.

As I said in the first paragraph, technology, telecommunication and diaspora, along with globalization, are dumping us in the same boat. If we are to row in one direction, we will need to communicate well. We won't do that unless we understand each other's cultures better. If you want to know how Muslims think, learn about Muhammad; read the Qur'an. If you want to know what motivates Afghans, study the history and culture of Afghanistan. Don't like the Taliban? What do you know about them? Does Pakistan frightened you? Intercultural communication - it's the New Frontier.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pass it on!

Ordinarily I don't write about politics. But, my good friend, Sofyan Yusufi, a former student from Pakistan and bright young father who works in DC for Deloitte, asked me to.

Sofyan pointed me in the direction of a Washington Post article written by Dr. Nasim Ashraf, executive director of the Center for Pakistan Studies, Middle East Institute, and former minister in the Musharraf administration in Pakistan. You can access the article here:

Essentially in his article Dr. Ashraf says:

1. The U.S. must adopt a clear strategy in Afghanistan.
2. The U.S. military can not remain engaged in Afghanistan perpetually.
3. A stable Afghanistan means a stable Pakistan.
4. Regional Muslim countries must contribute to the peacekeeping efforts.
5. Ethnic groups within Afghanistan must 'own up to the fight' and be part of the government's local security infrastructure.

I don't know the intricacies of the argument but find Dr. Ashraf's points incontestable. We must have a clear strategy or risk a Russian experience (or a Viet Nam one) in Afghanistan. We can't stay in the country forever. We don't have the means, the will, or the defined purpose. We need to help neighboring Pakistan, a country struggling to a democratic way of life (imagine our problems in Pennsylvania if trouble was brewing in neighboring Ohio). We will never have peace without a deep understanding of (and, therefore, ability to communicate with) Muslims, the only group who can truly help us understand the problems in that part of the world. And, Afghanistan, and its microcultures, must want to solve these problems.

Dr Asraf knows the Middle East. He knows the US. He knows how the two can collaborate to begin to resolve the issues facing Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need to listen to him. Pass it on!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Check out my new website!

I gave myself a birthday present this weekend, a new website!

Of course, I had the help of two very able people, Ellen Park, a former student and designer who recently returned to her home in South Korea, and Bob Taylor, a talented young man who works at Heinz College. The photos were taken by Ken Andreyo, a CMU photographer, and Andy Wasser of CMU made that possible.

So, what will I do with my new website? I was hoping you could tell me! I will be doing one thing for sure - placing some of my writing on the site. I have written several novels, a memoir, a book of short stories, and at least two books about job hunting and using marketing techniques to find a job.

I will be giving my books away! They been sitting in Word documents for too long and I'm not interested in fame or fortune. I hope that I can entertain someone or help another person become more successful at finding a job. And, hey, now I can say I'm published. I'll use that for my next CMU faculty re-appointment proposal.

In any event, this website and this blog and my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts have taught me a great lesson over the last few years. I have learned that everything I knew about marketing promotion could change right underneath my feet. Nearly all the techniques I learned in the practice of marketing and PR over a 25 year career have given way to this new form, empowered by this machine I now type on. I certainly can't say that I have mastered it...yet. But, it has challenged me at very turn and I have enjoyed the challenge and been thankful for it.

Imagine a work life where everything stays the same! I can't. I didn't imagine this computer driven life and have certainly been slower than most to adopt it but here I am; I have my own website! I hope you like it and connect your friends to it, if only to read the free books to be published thereon. And, I will appreciate any suggestions you have to improve the site! Thank you!