Community, Culture, Understanding & Respecting Cultures Quite Different Than Our Own, Pith Helmets & the Bean

“The Whole Bean” will be a dedicated series of posts from Metropolis co-owner Jeff Dreyfuss dealing with the esoteric and intellectual side of coffee. With a Ph.D. in linguistics, Jeff takes the discussion of hot beverages to strange–and strangely logical–places.

A lot of coffee companies and organizations like Coffee Kids, Transfair… speak about sustainability and helping people in coffee communities, whether it be by paying more for coffee, helping contribute to local projects such as health clinics, teaching locals how to better evaluate their own coffee, etc.

However good and noble these and other goals are, I think there’s been very little discussion in the coffee communities in the U.S., Europe and Japan about how better language and listening skills (on the buyers’ part particularly) might make all the difference in establishing goals and true bilateral relationships that are more the product of BOTH the coffee growers’ and the coffee buyers’ needs, wants, long-range goals, etc.

My observation is that all too often it is the buyer who sets goals, even in situations where the buyer thinks the seller is deeply involved in the process. To the extent that my observation correctly describes many relationship coffee situations, I think we buyers should question our assumptions regarding the “two-way-ness” of relationships we are establishing; whether we are getting honest feedback and original input from growers and their communities; or whether we as buyers are in fact setting the agenda of the relationship mistakingly thinking that we are only carrying out sellers’ wishes. In other words, are we hearing and suggesting relationship types that are really our own ideas of helping others, a kind of unconscious colonial/pith helmet model of nobliesse oblige that, over time, apart from being rather one-sided, may not have real staying power.  After all, we buyers have the power to navigate and initiate relationship models and particulars. Sellers are almost always relatively powerless.

I’d like to suggest that a deep and intimate knowledge of the seller’s language, as it’s used appropriately, is much more important than we think when it comes to building relationships that both buyers and sellers create together. This understanding must be based on domain-by-domain knowledge of the culturally detailed landscapes, focusing on how culture informs particular interactions, including culturally specific conversational/communication rules. Most buyers use translators or some non-fluent bits and pieces of the seller’s language when establishing relationships.

The following is a case in point from East Java, Indonesia–a situation where the buyer completely misunderstood the seller’s (and his community’s) wishes in establishing a long-term buyer-seller relationship.

The misunderstanding was deep, profound and confounding to both the buyer and the seller as conversational rules specific to different cultures are almost never really articulated, much less, understood.

Okay, here’s the simple version of an Indonesian buyer and seller believing that they have put together a relationship-coffee deal: (1.) Buyer, through an interpreter, contracts to buy a container of great coffee specified by lots at a price with a premium for quality. (2.) Seller smiles with excitement and happily laughing everywhere, agrees. (3.) Coffee arrives: it’s not from the lots specified and there are more than the usual defects. (4.) Buyer refuses to pay and is angry. (5.) Seller is confused, thinking he had done what was asked of him. End of this year’s transaction!

Here’s what actually went on in the buyer’s and seller’s heads and mouths (seller’s Indonesian is translated):

BUYER: Great coffee! And I see that the green is all from lots A and B.
SELLER: Right! Everyone is very happy you are here.
BUYER: Do you have 300 bags from A and B?
SELLER: Of course we do! No problem! How do you like it here?
BUYER: I love Indonesia! I’ll be back tomorrow with a contract.
SELLER: Great, what time?
BUYER: Is 9:00 a.m. ok?
SELLER: Sure! See you ‘tomorrow.’

The seller is not there tomorrow, nor can he be found; the buyer has no idea what’s going on. The buyer finds out the seller went to Jakarta the evening before, after saying that ‘tomorrow’ was fine to meet. The buyer is really angry, speaks in loud, abrasive tones to local pickers and others from the coop, then leaves, never to return.

Consistent with U.S., European and Japanese business cultures, the buyer assumes “content/the message” is the point of any business talking; relationship stuff is for after the deal is done. Sure, being nice is smart, but sometimes you have to “stick to your [content/price, time, place] guns”! Indonesian seller, as is normal in most of Southeast Asia, assumes that business content is very, very important, but even more important is the relationship frame around any content. In other words, relationship/harmony frames and therefore defines intention/meaning of the ”content.”

Simplistically (but importantly), opposite communication rules are in effect for the buyer and the seller above:


The content is the priority.
Unlike Indonesian/Southeast Asian conversational rules, for the buyer in this situation, the content or message is the most important factor; the relationship is secondary.
The relationship is the priority.
Content without a healthy, well-understood relationship and the choreography of both spoken and nonverbal language is simply incomprehensible.

Following is a rough guide to how people understand the intent and content of talk in two very different parts of the world, beginning with some Western conversational rules, followed by some Indonesian/Southeast Asian conversational rules (Java-biased):

Tell the truth: Look someone in the eyes.
Be relevant: Stick to ‘the subject.’
Be brief: Don’t prattle on and on–get to the point.
Be direct: Don’t hedge around and around–say what you want to say.
Business is business: “This is business, do you mind?!”
Say whatever you need to say to not shock or control the ‘thou.’ Seamless harmony is the goal.
Be happy. Laugh at the drop of the smallest pin (never to be asked: “What’s so funny?”).
Staying on topic (relevancy) is aggressive behavior. When someone uses a topic sentence or controls what’s allowable and not allowable in conversation (staying on topic), that someone is in control. This is not harmony! Directness is controlling behavior and , thus, should be avoided. “Truth” is found out using perantara(s) /go-betweens.
Take however much time you need while talking.
The goal is foremost to create and foster an ambiance of harmony and happiness. (Don’t be brief–being brief is like shooting a gun at someone.)
Always be indirect.
Allow the listener to come to his or her own understanding by himself; if you direct the listener to understand something in a particular and direct way, once again you are being controlling and therefore aggressive. ‘Perantara’ in Indonesian is anyone who is a ‘go-between,’ used in almost any situation where business is conducted, whether it be personal or otherwise.
The more the better.
The more topics and changes in direction of topic, the better. Anything to keep the happiness quotient/amusement level up. A public (non-perantara) business moment is a non-focused 7-ring circus a lot of the time. Ramai, a word from Sanskrit used in situations to mean something like: “Beautiful, textured, busy, sweaty, noisy, lots of people strewn over each other (14 people) in a mini-bus meant to hold 6,” is something most Indonesians want more of, not less.  Saying something like, “I need some down-time, or privacy, or ‘some quiet’” is something we, in the West, understand, but is very, very foreign to Indonesians.

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