Monday, April 14, 2008

The White People's Guide to Development (TWPGtD) #5

Part 5 from guest blogger Victoria. Again, to jog your memory, here are the first four TWPGtDs:

Remember that old saying, "If you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"?: Practice tact in your speech.

Discern what [behaviors, superstitions, objects] hold special significance and is sacred to the locals, and act accordingly. Discriminate more, be discerning. Practice tact in your behavior.

Learn the pace of time in that culture. Quit being so up-tight. Take a chill pill.

Socialism and Sharing. Your kindergarten lessons will come in handy...SHARE everything!

And now...

#5 The Rigidity of Truth; The Role of Exaggeration and Story-Telling.

Take a lesson from the Pope! :-) (source:

The white liberals who jump into development and NGO work tend to be terrible at the cadence of poetry, arts and story telling, which is so integral to traditional cultures and the feeling of belonging to a closer more intimate unit. Maybe it comes from the practice of sitting around a bonfire and listening to revered grandparents, but it's something lost in modernity these days. Sometimes details will be exaggerated for comedic effect, or at least to keep the audience rapt attentively. Most of the time, it doesn't do any harm, but puritanical and record-keeping whites always tend to spoil the fun by fact-checking and causing the story-teller considerable humiliation by holding him/her accountable to his/her version of the event.

If you are serious about going into the field, you should try to tell something about your family without jumping on the "lies" of the stories of locals. Practice discretion and know when to keep your mouth shut. This isn't a Western courtroom, and exaggerations and inconsistencies are to be expected. And in certain cultures it's actually self-absorbed to not add in a light-hearted personal anecdote of your own. It isn't that you're incompetent, it's just that you tend to see revelations as inappropriate intimacy, you tend to jump into debates and cross examinations, which isn't what conversation is about. Flawless logic has its role sometimes, but for so many cultures it must be tempered with parables from the holy script, or passages from respected fables. Oh, and if they make a joke at your expense, learn to take a joke...

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