Getting a clear message across at the appropriate time
"We need to tell our stories to each other better for a more stabe world"
FINANCIAL crisis is basically a story of failure, but the failure is due to lack of understanding of how to prevent or solve the crisis.
Hence, it is also the failure of narrative, or how to tell the story to each other so that people communicate and understand what to do.
Linguistic professor Robert Kaplan first introduced the notion that different ethnic groups tell narratives very differently.
It is not just the story, but the sequence of how the story is told.
For example, he drew diagrams of how Anglo-Saxons would tell a story in a straight line, from beginning to end.
A Chinese story-teller would go in circles before coming to the conclusion. A Jewish story-teller would zig-zag from one view to another before coming to the conclusion.
Kaplan’s theory of narrative shed new light to understanding how different groups think and communicate with each other and immediately sparked off controversy.
Do Anglo-Saxons really behave that way or is the truth much more gray?
An Australian is likely to be “in the face”, telling you to your face that you are wrong.
An American will do the same, but slightly more politely. I learnt from my years in England that when an Englishman praises you, it could sometimes be a criticism.
On the other hand, if he insults you, he is treating you as a friend. It depends on the context of the communication whether he is being friendly or insulting.
Misunderstandings happen because different people communicate differently.
Most of us know that selling a message depends on how the message is delivered.
Delivering bad news is the most difficult part of communications.
Most bosses shoot the messenger, which is why no one likes to be the first bearer of bad news to the boss. But he or she needs to hear the bad news, if they are good leaders. Those who listen to only good news will sooner or later live in a dream world.
But how to deliver bad news is itself an art.
My favourite legalist philosopher, Han Feizu (3rd century BC), was probably the best story teller philosopher in Chinese history.
Many popular folk stories actually came from his writings.
He wrote well to compensate for the fact that he stuttered so he could never win verbal debates against his opponents in court.
But his stories and parables cut to the bone on what he had to say.
The First Emperor was so impressed by Han Feizu that he schemed to bring him to Qin to be an adviser, only to kill him because his other advisers feared Han Feizu’s ability.
Two of the most insightful articles by Han Feizu are on the difficulties of speaking.
In them, Han Feizu demonstrates his mastery of inter-personal psychology – what to say, how to say and when not to say.
The difficulty of speaking to a leader is not what you want to say, but whether he is willing to listen.
It also depends on how you package your message. If you put it too generally and dressed up in good news, he will accept it as flattery.
If you put it too bluntly and full of facts, he may suspect that you have your own agenda.
Han Feizu knew that it was very important to understand what the ruler or the listener really wants to hear.
Hence, if you present a message that no one wants to hear, your message will not be heard and your own position may be in peril.
This is exactly the problem of economists who warned about the current crisis.
Most of the established economists who missed reading the warning signs claim that no one else saw the crisis coming either.
This is clearly not true. Rather, the truth is that the bulk of the economics profession ignored the warning signs. Then, they rationalised it by claiming that something happened that caused them to misread it.
The expert consensus can never be wrong, otherwise they are not experts.
Modern psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance”.
There was a famous case studied by a psychologist of a cult group who claimed that the world was coming to an end on a certain date and that they all had to go up a mountain where a space ship would come and save them all.
Of course, on the due date, the world did not end and the space ship did not come, but the leaders claimed that it was because God heard their prayers that caused the postponement of the world’s end.
The world is now so complex and we are so bombarded with too much information that we do not know easily what to do.
So we are likely to listen to those people who are acknowledged as wise.
Hence, we are more likely to believe a Nobel Laureate in economics than our local economics professor, even though the local may know much more about local conditions than the foreign Nobel Laureate.
The more the world is inter-dependent, the more important that the East and the West should understand each other.
In an age of instant solutions, the West is more likely to be fixated by simple solutions to complex issues, such as whether the exchange rate can solve global imbalances.
Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman is influential because he writes a New York Times column and he thinks that China manipulates the currency just to export. He is being emotional and not rational in his analysis.
The Japanese yen revalued substantially without diminishing Japanese exports abroad.
Most of the exports of China are by multinational companies who happen to manufacture in China for Western markets.
There are no simple answers to complex questions. This is the failure of narrative between major trading partners.
We need to tell our stories to each other better for a more stable world.
·Tan Sri Andrew Sheng is adjunct professor at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, and Tsinghua University, Beijing. He has served in key positions at Bank Negara, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and is currently a member of Malaysia’s National Economic Advisory Council. He is the author of the book “From Asian to Global Financial Crisis”.