Culture Clash


Sunday, June 2, 2002

‘Let’s Talk Story’ can be
an invitation to collaborate

Given his deep interest in public policy, Jim Rogers wanted to become involved in legislative issues after his move to Hawaii from Hartford, Conn.

In college, he had majored in sociology and took as many courses in gerontology as he could. He visited the Hawaii Capitol and spoke with various lobbyists. He was especially intrigued after discussions with Karen Nagato, who represented a group of people interested in insurance programs focusing on long term care for the elderly. This group was giving special attention to programs for the frail elderly who needed around-the-clock nursing home care.

Jim had been an effective lobbyist back in Connecticut but he was not pleased with his ability to communicate with legislators in Hawaii. One day, he overheard Karen talking with a state senator in the hallway, and the senator ended the conversation with the suggestion, "Let's get together again and talk story!" Karen seemed very pleased with this invitation but Jim was clueless about what the senator meant.

"Talk story" is a style of communication in Hawaii that emphasizes shared meanings and experiences among people who have or want to develop a strong relationship. Conversations among people resemble a story, with characters, a plot line, details on what happened to people and an ending. Participants in talk story focus on experiences that are familiar and that will elicit signs of recognition from people listening to the story. The goal is to develop or to reinforce a sense of "we" rather than "I" during conversations.

When talking story with a legislator, for example, Karen would try to find shared experiences and concerns. She might mention how her family had to dip into college savings accounts for her younger brothers so that they could pay the costs of nursing home care for her grandmother. The legislator might reply that her family was frustrated since insurance was so expensive to the point of unaffordable, even though her mother was currently a healthy 60-year-old. The important point is that they are sharing stories about concerns and experiences, not on details such as "co-payments" and "time limits."

Efforts to address these necessary details will be made easier after talk story sessions that assist in relationship development.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Sharon Miyashiro with the University of Hawaii department of urban and regional planning. She adds that listening carefully is an important part of talk story. Sometimes, stories are indirect and elliptical and so people have to listen carefully to discover the speaker's concerns and priorities.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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