This morning, I was talking about the current situation in Spain with some of my students of Spanish. We were discussing what I had been tweeting on Twitter the night before with a dear follower from Spain, Monica Lalanda. Monica was feeling sad about her country, arguing that it felt as if it were a country of losers. I suggested that history had shown the Spanish (all its nationalities) were much more a country of survivors than losers.
As I related the exchange to my students this morning, I realised exactly how much emotion I have invested in Spain. For a touch-and-go moment, I had to fight back the tears.
I also told my students my experience as a language-training provider for the car components industry in Spain. This was when I discovered how clever, creative and competent the Spanish at their best really are. They characterise themselves often as brilliant improvisers and whilst to a certain degree this is true, they are also undeniably brilliant implementers. You can’t be otherwise in such a competitive and continuously improving sector.
And then one of my students described an experience she’d had as a project manager, working simultaneously with both Swiss and Spanish workforces. Here, she compared the straightforward Swiss to the brilliantly enthusiastic and colourful Spanish: the documentation produced by each group of workers reflected these differing national characteristics. She also described how the Spanish wouldn’t stop nattering whilst they worked. It was clear that the Spanish weren’t only good at continuous improvement, they were also sharp and ingenious at what we could term continuous communication.
Which is when I realised this is indeed what distinguishes the Spanish from other workforces I’ve come up against. For example, the English will shut down as the 5 o’clock deadline approaches; maintaining a relationship with one’s fellow men and women becomes far less important than finishing the job on time. Yet communication is the glue of everything business, politics and society does well. No wonder the Spanish have achieved so many great things in their history: they understand, they fully comprehend, the significance of “wasting” time on relating to each other.
At least in the sector under discussion, and I’m sure in many other areas of endeavour, they won’t sacrifice their right and obligation to speak amongst themselves, simply in order that they might get home on time.
The Spanish are survivors – not losers at all – precisely because they reserve the right to question each other; even at work. Even amongst hierarchy, they maintain their creative habits of grumbling: this “rechistar” they convincingly sustain which often leads to pragmatic solution. And competent hierarchy knows all too well they will inevitably be like this – and so competent hierarchy, at least that competent hierarchy you find in certain big businesses, knows you have to take them along with you.
You can’t pull the wool over Spanish eyes, that’s for sure. You have to convince them up as close as it gets: you have to convince them face-to-face.
So we come finally to the point of this post. Here we have a New York Times article from last year as one piece of evidence:
[...] We typically feel that we understand how complex systems work even when our true understanding is superficial. And it is not until we are asked to explain how such a system works — whether it’s what’s involved in a trade deal with China or how a toilet flushes — that we realize how little we actually know.
The interesting bit comes, however, when detailed explanations are finally made:
[...] The real surprise is what happens after these same individuals are asked to explain how these policy ideas work: they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them. In fact, not only do their attitudes change, but so does their behavior. In one of our experiments, for example, after attempting to explain how various policy ideas would actually work, people became less likely to donate to organizations that supported the positions they had initially favored.
With the Spanish experience in mind – that is to say, with their ability to continuously communicate and thus moderate their actions (the only explanation I can encounter as they proceed to put up with soaring unemployment rates of 27 percent) – I am minded to remember my own experience whilst I was a co-opted parish councillor in the place in which I still find myself living. I had by then set up what I intended to be a local blogsite which would combine photos of the area with pithy comment. But, in the event, I found it extraordinarily difficult to say any productive or useful word about my experiences. Simply knowing the potential audience was people I lived cheek-and-jowl next to terrified me into a counter-productive silence.
Or perhaps the silence was not as counter-productive as I thought. It seems to me, in the light of the findings recounted in the New York Times, that what I was experiencing was actually a virtual equivalent of that highly constructive and continuous communication of the Spanish: I was being forced to explain myself to people I knew I’d bump into – and thus was having to question far more fiercely my own neat and perfectly-formed prejudices.
In truth, it seems to me that if we are to survive the next decade or so with any degree of kindness, humility or accuracy – if England, the UK and a wider Western democracy is to perpetuate its better aspects in any convincing way – we will need to recover a face-to-face society which broadcast politics, social media, online communication and other latterday technologies have almost battered into non-existence.
It might yet be possible too. This statistic could be telling:
The poll also asked respondents: “Thinking about any local newspapers published in your home town or county, do you think they are on balance a positive or a negative force in your local community?” The majority, 53.3 per cent, said they were positive, 8.3 per cent said they were negative and 32.7 per cent said they were neutral.
I don’t have the data to hand, of course, but I would be happy to assume that local radio, TV and newspapers are generally less aggressively overbearing in their behaviours than the more cocooned and distant national media. More middle-of-the-road, less extreme in their posturing. Inevitably so, when your neighbours get to know who you are and where you live.
Hardly counter-intuitive, anyhow.
It may of course be that the distancing effect of social media and networks is something we in Anglo-Saxon countries are actively pursuing. Who’s to say, after all, that we would like to continuously communicate like the Spanish seem to want to? But I bet my very last peseta that if you ever properly got the opportunity to find out what it was like, then to live and work in an environment of friendly and intelligent “relationship professionals” would be far more finally fun and productive than in a landscape of pesky “time-keeping trolls”.
As well as leading to a far less destructively cruel, inefficient and partisan politics.