I worry about our confidence, in the West. We have this sense that the East—India and China in particular—is going to eat our economic lunch some day, in one bite. I guess this is what we get for all those centuries of arrogance and ignorance. We summed up China's contribution as Chop Suey, and when we found native Americans where we thought India was, we just called 'em Indians anyway, because what the hell.
But even a properly humbled hemisphere needs some ways in which to feel legitimately superior. Like the rich white guys who still run Augusta National Golf Club like it is 1933, all Westerners need to have "our thing," that we're better at than everyone else, and that no one can take away from us.
Our thing, I propose, is public oratory.
As editor of Vital Speeches International magazine, I read dozens of speeches every month, delivered by speakers from around the world. And I can tell you: In the West, we're better at speechwriting than they are in the East. Not different. Better.
Obviously, there are good speeches in the West, and bad ones. In Africa there are good ones and bad ones. In the Middle East there are good ones and bad ones. But in the East, there are only bad ones. Nearly every speech I have ever read from the East is nothing more than a collection of verbal sky lanterns.
The Eastern speechwriting style is fairly represented by this excerpt from a speech, delivered to muckety-mucks in Mongolia last month, by India's prime minister, Narendra Modi:
Ours is a relationship that is not measured on the scale of commerce or driven by competition against others.
It is a relationship of immeasurable positive energy that comes from our spiritual links and shared ideals.
It is the energy that seeks the well being of our two nations and the common good of the world.
This is a form of energy that has enormous power to be the force of peace, progress and prosperity in the world.
It is a force that can unite the world and direct our thoughts and efforts to the well being of the weak and the poor.
It can help preserve our beautiful planet. …
This is a bond that will be the eternal flame of light and hope for our people and our world.
You'd need a heap of strong reefer just to write that gibberish—let alone stand in front of an audience and say it with a straight face.
I know I know I know I know—there are cultural factors at work here. On a trip to China I learned that while Western writers work to keep clichés and common idioms out of their work, Chinese writers prove their mastery by peppering their prose with as many familiar phrases as possible. Reading Chinese prose or listening to Chinese speakers, we are liable to hear an intractable problem stiffly compared to “a wet blanket on a long-suffering yak,” a worrier equated with “an ant on a hot stove” and a superfluous detail referred to as “drawing legs on a snake.”
The Chinese cling to their idioms like a drunk to a lamppost! And so do the Indians, by and large, though Indian and Japanese politicians do sometimes attempt to use words to persuade. But mostly, speeches in the East (including Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, whose speeches I have read extensively in English translation) are ceremonial and symbolic readings—kind of like commencement speeches in the U.S.!—rather than sincere attempts to communicate.
I offer all of the above from my limited perspective, hoping sincerely to be clarified, contradicted, amplified or enlightened by others with more and differing experience with oral communication in Asia.
But speak now, or forever hold your East.