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ON THE FIRST WEEKEND in May, 2001, I attended a seminar on Business Communication and Intercultural Communication presented by ISGS President Dr. Charles Russell in Walnut Creek, California. The International Society for General Semantics sponsored the event. Although the Society would no doubt have preferred more attendees at the seminar, I found that the small turnout resulted in an event more like a graduate colloquium, with lots of time to share ideas, experiences, and questions. Russell took the opportunity afforded by the group size to ask each of us about our familiarity with general semantics and to explore the business communications problems we each encountered in our work lives. Most attendees had several years of experience with general semantics concepts but our varied backgrounds resulted in a wide range of understandings, interests, and issues in communications.

Using Power Point slides displayed on a laptop computer and shared on a TV monitor for the rest of the group, Russell presented his ideas on the problems of communications in a multi-cultural business world as well as techniques for minimizing or countering their effects. Although many of the slides addressed "real" intercultural issues (amongst different countries, languages, or ethnic groups) he pointed out at the beginning of the seminar that "multi-cultural" could just as easily describe different corporate structures, work environments, or cultural influences within a single country. I found the use of Power Point slides particularly effective in this context, resulting in concise and focused descriptions and illustrations of relatively complex issues.

Russell has based much of his thinking on the various formulations of general semantics, but develops the ideas with simple, straightforward statements that carry few of the technical terms usually used for such formulations. As a result, the presentation should work equally well with a wide variety of audiences, including those with no training or even acquaintance with general semantics. I think he has come up with one of the best distillations of these potentially complex ideas I have encountered.

On the premise that not all attendees have studied general semantics, Russell starts with an introduction to the process of human perception as it relates to communication. On every slide, I saw familiar concepts presented in new forms and described in thought-provoking ways. For example, he states that we "communicate about the 'discovered' world rather than the 'real' world" -- an interesting and effective restatement of the silent and object levels. In a later slide, he discusses "direct perception" (through the senses) and "indirect perception" ("value-added" judgments), to describe how we move from the object level to higher levels of abstraction. Sometimes, in other contexts, such reworkings of the technical concepts of general semantics end up muffled, tangential, and more complex than the ideas they hope to explain. However, I feel that Russell has selected terms that definitely clarify and illuminate the underlying formulations.

One recurring theme throughout the presentation struck a distinct chord with me. As Russell showed us how to recognize and handle the possible pitfalls of intercultural communications, he often pointed out that we should remain aware of these problems for those with whom we communicate as well as for ourselves. While we usually seek ways to apply general semantics to improve our own interpersonal habits, Russell advises that we can achieve even better results by recognizing these issues at play in the communications of others as well. Factoring in the other person's perspective as you communicate increases acceptance of your ideas.

Russell points out that an awareness of the speech habits of others becomes especially important when the cultures involved differ greatly in such basics of communications as vocabulary and gesture. Some of the differences you encounter may stem not just from your own personal assumptions but may result from the society in which you learned to speak and communicate. For example, the dominant American culture expects a speaker in a conversation to look into the eyes of the listener, but in some other cultures, this behavior would constitute an insult or threat. The words you choose to express even an apparently simple request or innocent comment or idea could lead to a disconcerting misunderstanding unless you take idiomatic interpretations into account.

With the basics of perception and the cultural aspects of communications thus described, we moved on to methods of managing speech behavior to optimize interactions with others. Here we encountered a number of general semantics tools for developing consciousness of abstracting -- dating, indexing, non-allness, etc. -- sometimes expressed in the familiar terms of the discipline and sometimes in more "common" terms more likely to make sense to a wider audience. Russell presents these tools as they apply to business communications, of course, but the basics remain apt.

Besides the basic tools that general semantics supplies, Russell offers a number of succinct maxims, one or two per slide to maintain focus on each in turn, that speakers can use to gain better acceptance of their ideas or instructions in business settings. For example, "Request only one piece of information per question" helps to ensure that you solicit an answer you can use. He recommends wording a question in such a way that the respondent can admit without discomfort to not knowing the answer. Also, he advises phrasing questions in a way that does not suggest an answer but rather encourages accurate and factual replies.

I found one guiding principle for optimal communications underlying most of Russell's particular suggestions - your constant awareness of the facts of human perception and speech behavior in communications gives you powerful means to control and guide your interactions with others towards a better outcome.

(*) Nora Miller lives in Portland, Oregon, and works as information systems manager for a small government agency.
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Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Next Article:Philosophical Practitioner Will Present the 2001 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture.

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