Between a rock and a hard place – the challenges of cross-cultural communication
There’s a huge rock near my house in Christchurch. It’s a famous landmark, one that stands at the entrance to the beach community of Sumner, beside the channel that links the ocean to the estuary. It used to be known as Shag Rock. After the February 2011 earthquakes it got switched up to Shagged Rock. As it crumbled with every big shake, it finally ended up with a new name – Shag Pile.
It’s a good example of our infamous kiwi resilience, of how we face down adversity with humour. It’s also a good example of how a good joke is only good if you get it – and not everyone will know what ‘shagged’ means. Or understand the shag pile reference. It’s an example of how culture applies a filter to our communication that affects your understanding. That affects whether you think the word ‘shagged’ is even funny.
But this rock has an even older name – Rapanui (“the great sternpost”). And it was while talking about Shag Rock with some Sumner locals that I realised that interpretation had missed the mark when it comes to sharing the cultural stories behind this particular rock. My friend (who had emigrated as a child from England and had spent his whole life in Sumner) revealed his ignorance about Rapanui by saying “Bloody Māoris, they want to claim everything as theirs.”
I was shocked; how can someone live their whole life in Sumner and not know that it was special to Tangata Whenua? How could they not realise that such a significant landmark that means so much to locals, also meant something to the first people to have seen it? Had he not seen the interpretation sign that tells all about it?
Interpretation in this instance had failed to educate, inform and connect with locals. An article in the newspaper had made them aware – but not in a positive way that connected or shared understanding of its value.
It also made me realise that while our kiwi culture has evolved, some things have stayed tragically the same. That antiquated way of thinking, inferring that treaty claims and expressions of cultural value are about ownership; it’s such a Euro-centric way of looking at things.
Aotearoa has become a rich and diverse multi-cultural society. What it means to be a “kiwi” or New Zealander is not as straight forward as it might once have been. Te Reo is now a common element in our everyday language. We have our ‘she’ll be right” attitudes, our”no.8 wire” ingenuity and our “good keen man” backbone.
But we also have a strong Pacifica culture in the North, long history of Chinese settlement and more recent immigrants from all corners of the globe, bringing with them a diverse range of behaviours, foods, costumes, songs and stories, words and wisdom.
Visitors to New Zealand– tourists – also are drawn to our shores from all over the world, all wishing to experience our culture. And how do we give them that experience, stay authentic, be ourselves and instill understanding – especially when they may not “get” our dry sense of humour!
In this 21st Century Aotearoa, good cross-cultural communication is a must. Culture can influence the way people talk, learn, think, gain knowledge, and view images. It’s not as simple speaking a different language. Local colloquiums mean that, even between two people that speak the same language, confusion can occur. Case in point – what does ‘shagged’ mean to you?
It means plenty of challenges for those working in interpretation. Here are just a few examples that have made it into our news ….
It’s these sorts of challenges that inspired INNZ to organise a workshop. Cultural storyteller Joe Harawira of DOC will co-present with Gail Richard – an experienced trainer from our sister organisation in the US – the National Association of Interpretation (NAI). It’s the best of both home and overseas and the perfect mix for a workshop focusing on cross-cultural communication.
The North Island workshop at Auckland Zoo is already full, but the Christchurch workshop still has spaces. We will be staying at Te Wheke – Rāpaki Marae – a total immersion opportunity – and it will include a half-day field trip to Ōtamahua/Quail Island.
Make sure you include a stop at Rapanui while you are in town.
Do you have any experiences of cross-cultural communication to share?