Voice Of The World

12 years, 11 months ago

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Robert Gray picks out some telling findings from a hugely ambitious global opinion research project, before ruminating on an IPRA e-group discussion on the meaning of coconuts. Yes really, coconuts!



What does the world think on today’s global issues? Superficially this is a question too broad and vague and multi-layered to be credible. After all, you cannot poll everyone on everything that matters. At face value, to ask what the world thinks is nonsensical.

Yet when a market research organisation is big enough to have global reach, it is in a position to conduct opinion polls in a multitude of markets – and deliver insights on what unites and divides people from nations of differing cultures, varying levels of political and social freedom and divergent standards of economic well-being. So it is with Gallup International, which has published Voice of the People 2006, subtitled What the World Thinks on Today’s Global Issues.

This volume is positioned as the largest poll around the world. Whether it truly is so I have not the capacity to judge, but it is undoubtedly an epic undertaking seldom if ever matched in scale. It includes the opinions of 53,749 citizens from 68 countries spread across five continents on important subjects such as hunger, economic security, democracy and the growing gap between religious and secular societies.

If you are interested in finding out more about the world’s opinions on these crucial issues, please visit eitherhttp://www.gallup-international.com/ or http://www.voice-of-the-people.net/ where you will assuredly discover findings that will illuminate, confound and perhaps even alarm. For example, people in developing countries in Latin America (70%) and Africa (62%) believe that threats to the environment are exaggerated, whereas 60% of the population of G8 member countries say the opposite. Individual circumstance, without question, shapes viewpoints. The ‘haves’ see things very differently from the ‘have-nots’.

A Breach Of Trust

In this piece, however, I am focusing on Chapter 7 of Voice of the People, which examines global attitudes towards leaders and, ominously for those with their hands on the levers of power, is headed A Breach of Trust. As this indicates, citizens of the world deliver a resounding vote of no confidence in their leaders. Many are plainly disillusioned with the titans of politics and commerce.

As with other issues, there is a wide variation of views based on geographic location. While 74% of those surveyed in Peru are critical of their political and business leaders, only 12% of Malaysians feel as negatively. Occasional national disparities aside, the overwhelming evidence is of widespread discontent.

Over half of the survey respondents around the world are critical of their political leaders. More than six out of 10 think their political leaders are dishonest and the majority feel they behave unethically.

"The findings of this comprehensive global survey send a strong message to the world’s leaders," says World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab. "People around the world expect and demand a lot more from leaders than they receive. They want leaders who are capable of courageous and long-term decisions, acting in the best interests of a global citizenry."

Although this is clearly a matter of substance and integrity rather than hollow spin, there is surely a role for communication to play in improving trust. Yet there is a growing backlash against communication designed mainly to elicit public approval. Over a third (35%) of those surveyed by Gallup felt that political leaders were too sensitive to public opinion.

Youth Anger

It is also interesting to note that younger survey respondents are more critical of leaders than older ones. Whether this is just the indignation and outspokenness of youth, whose extreme viewpoints will mellow over time, or whether this points up a trend that politicians and business leaders will have to work ever harder in the future to overcome cynicism and engender trust, is a fascinating question to ponder.

Citizens from countries with high levels of corruption coupled with higher indebtedness and lower levels of income tend to be the most critical of their leaders. Given the fact that the highest criticism of both political and business leaders was that they have too much power and respond to pressure from people more powerful than them, a perceptual link between political corruption and collusion with big business becomes apparent.

As Kevin Meyer of Opinion Research, Taiwan notes in the book: "Although citizens look to these figures for their economic well-being and political stability, unfortunately they may see them more as partners in crime, stealing from the public purse, than as benefactors or trusted servants of the nation’s welfare. It should come as no surprise that the two nations in Asia most critical of their leaders – Indonesia and the Philippines – also have histories of political leaders who have allegedly embezzled millions of dollars."

Integrity is an issue as much for business as for government. As IPRA FrontLine readers are well aware, multinational corporations are increasingly under pressure to effect positive change and behave in a socially responsible way. Paying lip service to good corporate citizenship policies or principles is totally inadequate. People across the planet are disillusioned. It is time for genuine change.

Can Coconuts Offend?

The furore surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s recent speech in Germany, in which his quoting of remarks made by a 14th century Christian emperor that were derogatory to the Islamic faith, causing widespread offence among Muslims, points up just how inflammatory ill-chosen words can be. Communicators should always be mindful of the damage that can be done with just a word or two. Even words that initially seem innocuous may be misconstrued or have multiple meanings in different parts of the world, or even among differing faiths, communities or social groupings within a single country.

The importance of appropriate word selection was underscored by a fascinating debate on IPRA’s e-group. IPRA 2006 Board member Richard Linning initiated the discussion on behalf of the Living Stone Center of Intercultural Entrepreneurship.

The Living Stone Centre was founded by the Catholic University of Louvain and Belgian sustainable tourism specialist, Joker Tourism. Its mission is to get entrepreneurs acquainted with cultural diversity, thereby enabling them to act in a better and more sustainable way in their local, as well as in the global, environment.

Linning revealed that the Living Stone Center had developed ‘The Coconut Model’ for grouping cultural differences into five layers, including those that are apparent, those that are unspoken and those that are unconscious. The Coconut Model is intended to help teams of travellers work together and encourage them to grasp the core values of a culture by looking at each situation from multiple perspectives.

• Layer 5 is the skin of the coconut. Cultural differences at this layer are readily apparent and easily researched.
• Layer 4 is thick peel of the coconut. This layer contains systems and institutions.
• Layer 3 is the coconut wood, the separation area between perceptible and hidden.
• Layer 2 is the soft seed of the coconut. This layer discloses the beliefs, the norms and values.
• Layer 1 is the liquid core of the coconut, the less tangible. 

The problem, as Linning explained to the e-group, was that the institute had been told that the word ‘coconut’ is a term of abuse to some in Africa and possibly elsewhere. "Is this true?" wondered Linning. "Should they abandon the use of this metaphor?"

Valuable Contributions

IPRA members from across the world participated in the debate, shedding light on the ambiguity of the word ‘coconut’ in different cultures. There was delicious irony that a metaphor picked to represent the multi-strata complexity of a culture should itself be so rich in diverse meaning – and potentially open to negative misinterpretation.

"I apologize for the colour terms below, but this is the only way I can describe the context," responded David Donohue, Managing Director, Queensland Corporate Communication Network and Deputy President, Public Relations Institute of Australia. "In some more tribal indigenous communities in Australia, the term ‘coconut’ is applied disparagingly by indigenous people to those indigenous people they consider to have crossed the cultural barrier into more mainstream ‘white’ society. People here are described as ‘coconuts’ because, while they are dark skinned on the outside, they are soft, white and hollow inside."

Pielle Consulting Group chairman and senior partner Peter Walker added: "Anything can be taken as a term of derision, as a Welshman I know only too well. But your friends at the Living Stone Centre stand to make themselves a laughing stock if they pursue the use of the coconut analogy. Botanically the coconut is really a ‘fibrous dupe’, and we all know what a dupe is. It has only three layers, not four as they suggest: the fibrous husk or coir; the shell – endo carp; the fruit – testa or endosperm; plus the juice, which is highly nutritious not vague or intangible. Political correctness and cultural sensitivity are fine but for academics scientific accuracy is better."

How About Onions?

Daibi G. Selema of The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited, provided the following illuminating response. "The term coconut when used in reference to a person is abusive. Coconut in most coastal areas of the part of my country grows by the shores of the rivers, most times unattended to. So when a person is referred to as a coconut, it simply means that the person is one who has grown without being trained in all respects. He grows and falls as the seasons dictate.

"When somebody is referred to as having a coconut head, it implies that that person is hollow upstairs with watery content upstairs only good for what others can make use of. Rather than the term ‘coconut’ I suggest that the research team use ‘onions’ which can adequately be used to explain the different layers."

In Mauritius, however, where coconuts are referred to in the local language as ‘coco’, they are used metaphorically in both a complimentary and disparaging sense. "If we say this person is a ‘coco’ it means that this person is an intelligent one," says Sydney Adelson, Public Relations Officer, FLACQ United Estates. "If we say this person is a ‘coco Piqué’ it means that this person is mad. If a lover says to his or her partner ‘Mon coco’ it means my darling. Mauritius local language is creole derived from African, Indian, French and English languages."

MagnaCarta PR’s Richard Dymond took the trouble to check out Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopaedia. Among the many entries for coconut he found that it is also used as a derogatory slang word referring to a person of Latino or Indian subcontinent descent who emulates a white person (brown on the outside, white on the inside).

"Have you also heard the term coconut used to describe certain cultures, those which are hard to crack but softer at the core. In contrast to peach cultures, which are fairly easy to begin with but there’s a hard core inside," added Leah Davcheva, Intercultural Projects and Literature, British Council, Bulgaria.

There were many other contributors to this frank and intelligent discussion. Apologies to those whose views I have omitted – exclusion is in no way a reflection of the value of what they had to say. The sheer volume of postings preclude reproduction of them all here.

The readiness of IPRA members to share their knowledge and insights on this matter shows what a valuable resource the e-group has become and proves it to be in vigorous health. Linning has forwarded the comments generated on the subject to the Living Stone Center, which is weighing up how to proceed.

Let us hope the coconut debate will not drive us all ‘bananas’...which, depending on where you are sitting in the world, you may or may not understand to mean crazy.


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The Author

Rob Gray

Rob Gray commissions and edits the IPRA Thought Leadership series of essays and is a regular member of the GWA judging panel.

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