I had dinner the other night with old pal and IABC stalwart Wilma Mathews. She told me she's helping the association celebrate the 40th anniversary of its emergence out of the International Council of Industrial Editors.
Not to be outdone in the Department of Musty Ledgers, I told her I'd read most of the back issues of ICIE's Reporting magazine, from the 1960s. As we talked, I remembered that amid its wonderful photos of communication conferences where people sat around tables full of employee publications smoking cigarettes and pipes, the magazine contained a regular "international" column in those pages. It was a dry snoozer, written by some token Brit.
And I thought, isn't that still the case? Isn't it still true that whenever you see the world "global" or "international" next to any piece of communication, your eyes glaze over in a desperate attempt not to roll back into your head?
Why is that? Why are we instinctively repelled by all things global? Why does our bullshit detector go off whenever someone mentions the word? Or is it just me?
A couple of years ago when I still worked for Ragan Communiations (and when Tom Friedman's book was still newish) I wrote this column, titled, "The world is flat—but still quite large." I reproduce it here, with the permission of Mark Ragan, in hopes that Wilma Mathews or someone else will tell me why it is wrong.
The single most commonly asked question in the world may be, “Did you read Tom Friedman’s book, The World is Flat?” Actually, no. They don’t ask that question much in China or India, the countries the book is mostly about. In those developing nations, people are too busy developing their nations to ask questions, let alone to pretend they read 600-page books.
That’s only the very first lesson Ragan Communications editors learned beginning a little over a year ago when we set out to bring together Friedman’s flat world—at least the communication corner of it—into one happy, international Web site, Ragan.com.
Make no mistake, the communication business is increasingly global. But it’s got a long, long, long way to go before Ragan readers are sharing ideas as easily with Denmark as we are with Delaware. For a bunch of reasons, most of them lost on us a year ago, all of them instructive to all of us who (still) hope to communicate globally:
1. Far-flung communicators are somewhat interested in Ragan’s site, and Ragan editors are interested in them—but they are not interested in each other! We just requested, received and then rudely rejected a piece written by a very smart communicator in a developing country in Eastern Europe. Why? The piece was a survey of what’s happening in the communication business in that country. Interesting to us? Yes. Useful to our main audience of communicators who don’t work in developing nations? No.
To show us he wasn’t angry at our rejection slip, the communicator insisted in an e-mail that our editor was “a kind of person that makes at least one person on the ‘periphery’ [his term] feel his ideas are welcome.” Then he went on to explain the situation better than we could have, and to nearly make us cry:
“It is good to have someone like you at this position so from time to time we at the ‘periphery’ are able to present something for the ‘center.’ But it is good to remember that the relationship center-periphery will always be asymmetrical. In other words: Assuming that the center is (or should be) interested in the periphery as much as the periphery [is interested] in the center is a big mistake leading to lower self esteem. I used to make this mistake quite often several years ago. Today, I treat every my exposure at the ‘center’ as rather unusual and I appreciate it very much.”
Take that, Tom Friedman.
2. Communicators in only a handful of countries—U.S., U.K., maybe Canada—have any plans to do business internationally. So when you try to motivate them to contribute to an international Web site for the exposure it will give them—and, if they’re consultants, perhaps the business it will bring—they look at you like you’re nuts. And you are nuts, to think that someone in Omaha is going to read an article on face-to-face communication from a consultant in Johannesburg and say: Dag nab it, expenses be damned, we’ve just got to get Stephanie over here to work her South African magic on our managers!
So while ambitious U.S. consultants are glad to appear in U.K. communication trade publications—because they want to do business in the U.K.—U.K. communicators are less motivated to appear in ours, especially at the rates we pay. How many euros is zero dollars?
And communicators from non-English speaking nations? As they (don’t) say in Italy, fugghetaboutit.
3. More than a half-century since IABC made a big deal out of the word “International”—the association used to be called the International Council of Industrial Editors way back into the 1940s—it still has only one member in Japan, president Julie Freeman told us the other day in an interview. Why? Well we don’t know what Japan’s problem is, but we’ve found that most communicators in places like China and India are working 134 hours a week, obsessed with switching jobs and getting raises every month to fiddlefart around attending chapter luncheons and making videos of them for Ragan.com. Generally, they’re too busy to e-mail us back and explain that our requests are preposterous.
And communicators in developed communication markets like Australia and South Africa and U.K.? They’ve got their own publishers inviting them to speak at conferences and contribute to trade publications they’ve actually heard of!
4. Foreigners can’t write worth a durn! Australian writing is okay when it’s comprehensible, South African writing would be okay if it were ever comprehensible and Chinese writers demonstrate mastery by doing the exact opposite of what U.S. writing teachers recommend: stacking clichés onto idioms (and so on! until the fat lady sings!).
You’d think British writing would be palatable, but no!
We once confronted a Brit contributor about why it takes Brits so long to get to the point, hundreds and hundreds of paragraphs to merely tell us what the article is about or what the author’s point of view is.
About 45 minutes later he said the European style is to “let the reader come to the conclusion on his own.” Or some such nonsense!
Please understand: We do not believe there is a right or wrong in these matters. (We’ve been told that to the European eye, for instance, Ragan’s Web site design is garish, our consultants are noisy and our writing style is vulgar; well, we’ve heard that last bit from sensitive Americans, too.) It’s just that, on a Web site primarily read by Westerners, we can’t publish cliché-ridden Chinese stuff. On a site primarily read by English-speakers, we can’t publish Australian. And on a site primarily read by North Americans, we can’t run articles with their leads stuck up their conclusions.
5. Each national or regional communication community is its own unfathomably complex world. It takes a rookie Ragan editor about five years to fully understand all the specialities, the social and political dynamics of the North American communication market. What makes us think we can have a good phone call with the right person in Bangalore—or 10 good phone calls with the 10 best communicators in Bangalore—and figure out how to serve that market intelligently?
Along our globe-hopping way over the last year, we’ve learned that if you try to market a $300 communication manual in China, within a week someone will photocopy it and sell the damned thing on the black market for a quarter. You can
’t quote a communication guru in Australia because the Aussies think gurus are a farce. It’s hard to get good communication case studies out of India, because it’s culturally untoward to brag about one’s work. And we could be wrong about any of those statements, because they’re merely the threadbare theories we’ve been able to accidentally ascertain.
A truly deep analysis requires: 1. Multiple visits to the region and the meeting, in various contexts, of dozens of communicators. 2. A deep, trusting relationship with a well-connected, super-sensitive, entrepreneurial-minded local communicator.
All of which does make the notion of a truly “global communication community,” if not silly, at least very difficult, even in the age of social media, even with a Web site we can share. (Things were really tough when the only way to get the word to Spain was to set a crate full of Ragan Reports on a steamship in Boston.) This does not mean we should not frequently reach out to the contacts we’ve made around the world. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t surf the Web and the blogosphere looking for interesting perspectives from around the world. Hell, we should favor the publishing of good pieces from afar just for the symbolic value of it. And make no mistake: We accept pretty much every speaking invitation we get to appear at the “periphery,” no matter how far that periphery may be. Ragan editors have been welcomed warmly around the world, and have learned a great deal everywhere we’ve gone.
But the notion that Ragan Communications, IABC, or any other single organization will become a “center” of a global communication community—this strikes us now as naïve, maybe even grossly so.
No, for the record, we haven’t read Friedman’s book. Perhaps we should.