Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Do as I say...

Question: How do you make someone "like" you?
Answer: They really need to like you for who you are.

There is a very engaging discussion going on at two of my favorite blogs. Over at The Daily Demarche, Dr. Demarche posted a lengthy article concerning the current reputation of the United States among the other countries of the world. He specifically asks the question (I'm paraphrasing), "How can the united States government revamp our public diplomacy efforts to help change the current negative image?"

Then over at New Sisyphus, the speech that Secretary Rice gave at the Paris Insitut d'Etudes Politiques was bemoaned for its lack of content. The only thing that New Sisyphus found encouraging about the affair was the question and answer period afterward where Dr. Rice was able to speak unscripted and from the heart.

Both of these posts deserve your attention. And be sure to read all of the comments. These are as enlightening as the posts themselves. I also have several comments that I would like to make but what I want to say is too lengthy to include in the comment sections. Please indulge me while I enter my thoughts here.

I greatly admire these State Department officials as they carry out their duties in today’s world. A hat tip to each of you. I feel a kinship because I am a career regional planner. Our situations may seem vastly different but in many ways they are very similar (though the scale is obviously different!). These men arbitrate between countries. I get to arbitrate between developers and adjacent landowners. These officials get to wrestle with correctly conveying the intentions of our government to other countries. I get to wrestle with correctly conveying the intentions of my local government to our citizens. While I would never pretend to completely understand the jobs these men do, I would hope that my experience in similar situations might add to the discussion.

The nexus of both of these posts is the notion of misconceived perceptions between people and how to communicate in order to change that perception. First I would like to deal with the nature of the perception. In this case, I would like to consider the perceptions held by the world as misperceptions. Dr. Demarche links to a report titled "Global Opinion: The Spread of Anti-Americanism." In the report, you will find table after table devoted to showing how the rest of the world views the United States quite unfavorably. The report is well researched and well written. It uses valid techniques to gather information on international perceptions about the United States. Basically it is hard to disagree with what the report says. And yet I choose to question the findings. To illustrate my point, I would ask that you think about the conditions under which the information was gathered.

The key to my discussion is that these are self reported perceptions. I have found that people make statements that do not accurately indicate how they will act. Statements on a survey can be misleading because they are very colored by the persons mood during the questioning, the current environment surrounding the subject and how the question is worded. Jakob Nielson, noted computer interface researcher, feels so strongly about this fact that he does not use surveys. Instead, he simply watches how people use their computers. He watches their actions and does not worry about their statements. You see, using a computer is about using it, not talking about using it. A quick example to illustrate my point. An urban bus service surveyed a population in an inner city area that was not currently on the bus routes. The questions basically asked, "Would you use the bus service if it was provided?" The answer was a resounding yes! The bus service was started and ran for six months and only 2 people used the service. Just two people in six months! So what happened? The bus line was baffled.

If we look at the conditions surrounding the survey maybe the answers will present themselves. The bus line was trying to serve a group of Navy sailors that were housed in an inner city neighborhood. They offered the bus line as a transportation alternative to help them get to shopping and other services. The sailors did say that they would use the service. Many did not have cars and they said that buses could provide a low cost alternative. So why didn't the statements (I will ride the bus) translate into action (I did ride the bus).

Well, there are several reasons. First, even though all these sailors didn't have cars, they were a close knit group. One could fairly easily find a buddy to drive almost anywhere. Next, sailors often came home from places not served by buses (usually bars!) at times that the buses weren't running (like closing time!). Finally, even though the sailors had stated that the $.75 fare would not be an impediment, when it came to actually parting with the money... well sailors don't make very much anyway (roundtrip fare was about the price of a whole beer!).

To summarize my point, people often say one thing and do another. In the context of the Public Diplomacy discussion, though the expressed sentiment of the world is that the United States is pretty bad, how does that translate into action? People say they hate the United States but do they act like it?

With that, I am going to leave you to your own thoughts (consider this a commercial break and my question is simply the cliffhanger). I am still trying to get rid of this cold, so I am going to bed. Tomorrow I will deal with the nature of the actions and my suggestions for changing the perceptions.