Barack Obama’s Cultural Competency

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The success of Barack Obama’s campaign is, needless to say, due to a variety of factors. One of these factors is his intercultural competence by which I mean here: Keep it simple, stay on message, keep your message open. “Yes we can” is appealing because it purposefully does not address what we can.

That is too general, that is a cliché people often say when they want to dismiss a certain point of view. To label something a cliché is a killer-argument. Like saying an argument is illogical or empty rhetoric.

Truth is that we need clichés and that we cannot do without generalisations. The trick is to employ them intelligently. We use for instance “the Japanese” or “the Americans” despite our knowing that it would be rather doubtful if this typical Japanese or American really exists. Yet even if the clichés we entertain in regard to national characteristics might not withstand further scrutiny, it is a social fact that we constantly, be it in speech, be it in writing, refer to them. As Timothy Garton Ash some time ago reported in The Guardian:

“Madam Secretary, this will work in practice but will it work in theory?” The reported remark of a senior French official to the then American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, sums what both the Americans and the British like to think of as a profound difference between French and Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking. But here’s a curious role-reversal to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale between France and Britain: on the Iraq war, Blair was right in theory but Chirac was right in practice.

The question whether Garton Ash’s assessment regarding Iraq is correct or not is not my concern here. I do however feel that his playful handling of cliché is done in a way that we would be well advised to pursue.

To effectively communicate in a nation as culturally diverse as the United States of America one needs intercultural competence. By this I do not mean that you conduct a poll to figure out what the Texans like to hear, by this I mean that you bring your message down to the lowest common denominator.

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