THIS blessed planet of ours continues to be in a state of sixes and sevens. As one looks at images of the devastated landscape of the once hustling, bustling lands that are flashed across the TV screens, the one thought that comes readily to mind is that the United Nations has not exactly covered itself with glory, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding. Given the mayhem let loose by the War on Terror, one hardly ever hears mention of the World Body in the discussions of the sages. Lest the aforesaid lead the reader to the conclusion that this is another one of those self-righteous pieces, one would hasten to clarify that this is not so and that one’s intentions are strictly honourable.
To be fair – with all its faults – the United Nations is not entirely devoid of good points. Let us take one aspect. Those of us who have had the privilege of sitting through one of those tense confrontations, that erupt every now and then in the United Nation’s ancillary bodies, cannot but have come away with anything but praise for the dedicated band of interpreters that service the World Body. The best of these interpreters will not only translate the text of the speech but also faithfully convey the mood and intonation of the delegate taking the floor. This ensures that the atmospherics are not lost in translation.
The year was 1977 and the occasion the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. (As Pakistan’s alternate delegate, I had been elected the Rapporteur of that session). The United States’ representative had managed to ruffle the feathers of the Soviet delegate by playing up the sensitive issue of the detention of some dissidents in the USSR. The Soviet Union’s representative happened to be one of the last of the great breed of diplomats of the era, Valerian Zorin. Mr. Zorin took the floor and in a classical display of fiery oratory carried all before him. He spoke in Russian, of course, but the interpreter matched his oratory – not just the language but also the flair, the flow of rhetoric and the atmospherics. One was left with the eerie feeling that one was listening to his intervention in original. Such is the power of a good interpreter.
But to revert to the theme at hand, it is an accepted fact that some individuals like to talk more than others. The same is true of communities; some are talkative by nature, others are not. Even among the talkative ones, there exist distinct sub-categories. Some talk sparingly; others talk at leisure; still others talk only with a purpose. Call it what you will, it is the urge to talk – or the absence thereof – that sets communities apart.
A former Japanese Ambassador to Pakistan (a close friend) disclosed once that two or more Japanese could spend hours together without uttering a word, unless there was something worthwhile to talk about. Idle gossip, it would appear, is not the forte of the Japanese. It is also a fact that some of Japan’s neighboring nations have no such qualms about small talk. So, one can hardly pin it down on regional or climatic culture.
In the good old days, to take another instance, the English race had a reputation for aloofness. So much so that it was reputed that two Englishmen (or women) would not exchange a word unless and until they had first been properly introduced. In other words, presence of a Third Party was a prerequisite to getting a conversation going. Not any third party, mind you, but one well acquainted with both the parties of the first order. Across the channel, though, there were no such inhibitions!
There are several countries in South and West Asia, the inhabitants of which enjoy long sessions of small talk. Such occasions are relished not for any serious purpose but merely because they afford opportunities to get things off one’s chest. The ‘qat’ sessions in Yemen are a case in point. People in these regions would be horrified if it were expected of them to spend extended periods without exchanging a word simply because there was nothing ‘worthwhile’ to talk about!
A cursory glance at the idiosyncrasies peculiar to different nations may be relevant at this stage. Some peoples are mild and soft-spoken; others are rough and gruff. Still others (like the French) convey as much through their hand gestures as their tongues. Different peoples express the same things in entirely different fashions. Then there are those – particularly in the Far East for instance – who would go to ridiculous lengths to avoid having to saying ‘no’; even when they mean it. This leads to embarrassing and, at times, to amusing situations.
Here follows the true story relating to a Pakistani officials’ delegation’s visit to Japan in the 1950s to negotiate an economic accord. The delegation would call at the concerned Japanese office day after day, each time returning with the impression that the matter was under sympathetic consideration. After five days of this charade, Pakistan’s Ambassador in Tokyo was urgently summoned to the Japanese Foreign Office. The Japanese wished to be informed as to why the Pakistani delegation insisted on calling again and again when the Japanese side had made it clear in the second session that no progress was possible.
It turned out that the Japanese side (true to their national characteristic) had not found it expedient to say ‘no’ directly, since ‘they did not wish to hurt the sensitivities of their guests’. What they did instead was to drop broad polite hints to this effect. The guest delegates simply failed to decipher the message. The rest is history. The aforementioned all goes to prove that international communication is not as simple as one would be led to believe. The mere services of an interpreter, however efficient, still may not suffice. Several other variables enter the fray before one in a position to form a definitive opinion, if at all. Gives one food for thought that; does it not?
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.