Crosscultural “telephone”

You know that old party game where you pass a phrase around a circle in whispers? It always morphs into something totally ridiculous. We called that game “telephone.”

This happens all the time when you are trying to communicate with multiple people, mostly by email, across cultural and national boundaries. I’ve been involved in one of those snafus today.

Saturday evening at a concert intermission a friend I’ll call Pete, who goes to my church and makes frequent trips to Congo, told me he’d just gotten an email from a mutual friend I’ll call Pierre in Kinshasa, asking for an invitation to come to the US around the end of June to mid-July. (To get a US visa, Congolese visitors need a letter of invitation that states the purpose of the visit and itinerary and basically guarantees the traveler will go back home instead of trying to stay—God forbid—in our wonderful, exclusive country.)

Pete said he didn’t know why Pierre was asking him for this invitation and, besides, he wouldn’t be around at that time to put up any visitors. He said Pierre was planning to come with someone else. Did I know what this was about?

It so happens that weeks ago I told Pierre I couldn’t give him an invitation for a trip. The dates were approximately the same. The purpose of that trip was partly to visit our church and it simply didn’t work for the church, for me, or for others concerned. It also would have entailed some financial support. I said we would work it out for a later date.

This request looked like he wanted to come anyhow, didn’t need the financial assistance he said he needed, and was doing an endrun around my refusal.

Meanwhile, I’d scheduled both travel and other guests for that period. Not being able to host him at all would be a big faux pas, considering how Congolese bend over backward to show hospitality.

I was absolutely ready to believe the story in my mind. I silently fumed for a while about Congolese deviousness and manipulations and pushiness before composing what I believe was a polite letter this morning telling Pierre what Pete had told me and asking about his plans for this trip.

I soon had an answer back from Pierre.

It turns out that this trip wasn’t his idea; that one of his business friends wanted to come shopping for a Mack truck and would pay Pierre’s way to accompany him, because the friend has never been to the US and Pierre knows his way around.

It turns out that Pierre had talked to Pete about this when Pete was in Kinshasa six weeks ago. Apparently Pete forgot that conversation. I don’t know what Pierre said in the email but perhaps the essential details were there. Even I don’t always read email carefully, and I live by email.

It turns out Pierre and friend wouldn’t even come to this area and he might not come at all.

Well, another potential international disaster evaporates. Another reminder of how hard it is to build crosscultural trust because we jump to conclusions, misread, misspeak, misunderstand.

Is it worth the effort? Absolutely.



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