Imagine you’re an American diplomat, and sitting across the table from you are delegates from several Asian countries. Trying your best to be precise and logical, you jump right into your argument in an effort to get these negotiations done as quickly as possible (as your boss instructed). As you are pitching your facts, you notice that the delegates across from you are staring at you intently, and you don’t quite know how to interpret their behavior or body language. Is it going well? Will they see your side of the argument and agree to sign the treaty? Perhaps if you had more adequately prepared for such a cross-cultural exchange, you would know how to answer these questions and how to engage these diplomats in a more knowledgeable fashion.
This is just one such scenario described in Glen Fisher’s book Mindsets: The Role of Culture and Perception in International Relations. As an experienced Foreign Service Officer who has represented the US in many different countries, Fisher makes the argument that it is imperative to acknowledge that people from different cultures, countries, and regions have inherently different cognitive processes. Simply put, different people, given the same evidence, will not always reach the same conclusion. He thus defines a mindset as a fixed mental attitude formed by experience, education, prejudice, etc.
Fisher goes on to argue that those who work in any international or cross-cultural field would do well to study up on mindsets. Being cognizant of different mindsets will better aid one in anticipating reactions, diagnosing meaning, discerning motives, and cutting down on misperceptions. One way Fisher says to go about studying different mindsets is asking the right questions. What are the standard ways of thinking? How does the environment or culture affect mindset? How does one’s collective past survive in the culture? How much of a role does the media play?
According to Fisher, it is because of our failure to ask these basic questions that the US has suffered foreign policy blunders in the past. In Vietnam we were so focused on our strategy that we neglected to take seriously the tenacity and fighting spirit of the Viet Cong. In hindsight, what’s even worse is that we simply could’ve asked the French about the Viet Cong’s endurance, as they suffered a similar defeat only years before.
Moreover, mindsets can help explain why the Iranian people are increasingly dissatisfied with the actions of the US government. It is common knowledge that the US likes to support foreign leaders who are sympathetic to our interests. However, sometimes this runs counter to popular sentiment. This was the case when the US supported a coup against a democratically-elected leader and instilled a US-friendly dictatorial monarch. This monarch was later overthrown in 1979 with a large anti-American sentiment. Fisher believes that these memories are still fresh in the minds of Iranians, and affect the cognitive processes of Iranian officials. Furthermore, a general distrust in American foreign policy isn’t localized in just Iran, but also in many parts of Latin America, where similar situations occurred under Operation Condor.
These are only two of the many examples Fisher gives for understanding the importance of studying different mindsets. Thinking back to the opening scenario, if the American diplomat had done his research, he would’ve known that Asian diplomats typically have a very distinct way of going about negotiation, both with their style of presentation and the importance of their body language. These subtle factors are crucial in cross-cultural exchanges, and they could make or break an international negotiation. It is therefore imperative that those who work internationally pay more mind to the different ways in which people’s cognitive processes differ.