Development Cooperation Handbook/Cooperation and Communication/Punctualization

The punctualisation of the process of communication

Another important concept of the school of the Pragmatic of human communication is "punctualisation". To "punctualise" a communication is the effort to understand the sequence of action and reactions in the exchange of messages. When we fight, who started the fight? We always tend to attribute to ourselves the initiative of the good things and to the others the initiative of the bad ones. To be objective in recognising reciprocal responsibilities and interactions is not easy. Also because in many cases, open expressions are provoked by the counterpart who pretends to be surprised by the reaction itself.

Let’s take a look at real life. Each country has a Defence Ministry. No nation has an Assault Ministry. So theoretically, we could do without Defence Ministries, because no nation plans any attack upon the others. But the others’ defence is perceived as an attack. So I’m very worried if my neighbour is doing a big defence program; I will immediately perceive this as an aggressive intention.

Let’s change the field and take the courting process. Who starts the process? Who has allowed the other to take the next step? Once one "allows" the other to advance a little, the other perceives that permission as an invitation. It’s not easy to understand, to punctualise the process - who is taking the initiative and who is responding? And there is always an ambiguity because of which people can pretend they were not "courting" but merely "joking", or "being friendly". But while "joking", there are many small passages of the intention to go "a little further"; then if the other does not respond with hostility it means that permission is granted. The language of courting is different for different cultures. A nice example that Watslawick makes in his book, "Pragmatics of the Human Knowledge" is about how both Western men and Japanese women, both complain that the other’s courting is too fast. How is this possible? We can understand that one culture is faster than the other; in that case one of them should complain "too fast" and the other "too slow". But here, both complaining of the other being "too fast": Why? The problem was on where the "kiss" is placed in the courting process: in the two cultures "kiss" is put in a different stage of the punctualisation. In the American culture, the kiss is a step taken very early in the relationship: after an initial intimacy, kissing is a natural step. But there’s still a long way from the kiss to the moment the relationship enters into full physical intimacy. The kiss may be just the next step after an invitation to the cinema: there is still a long way before sleeping together. But in the Japanese culture, the kiss comes almost at the end of the courting period. After the kiss, the relationship turns fully physical as the next step. So, when the American men made the move to kiss early in the relationship, for the Japanese women it was too fast, because it meant a sexual commitment and this was too early in the relationship. But the American had taken the step: so the Japanese was forced either to break or to give in. In case the Japanese women decided to go on, at that moment they were ready for full intimacy. But this was too fast for the American men, who expected still a lot of courting time after the first kiss . So both were finding the other "too fast". Both the cultures require a punctualisation process in courting; but the kiss stands in a different position of punctualisation in the courting process and this is the cause of misunderstanding.

Another example is the difference in punctualisation as perceived by the Indian and the Italian cultures in the dinner structure. In the Italian culture, when people are invited for a meal, the meal is served soon after the guests arrive. This is because in the Italian culture, the real conversation time is during and after the meal. So, people talk for hours after the meal, because the Italian culture assumes that one has more energy and is in a better mood once one has eaten well. Instead in the Indian culture, the conversation time is before the meal and so meals are not served immediately after the guests arrive but much later. The Indian culture assumes that once one has eaten, one tends to become lazy and sleepy and so is not in the mood for making interesting conversations. So, a misunderstanding is generally created between the Italians and the Indians. When Indians go to the Italians for a meal, they consider the serving of the meal as an indication that the Italians are not really interested in talking to them. Instead, when Italians go for meals in Indian homes, they do not like the fact that after dinner they are somehow communicated that their presence is unwanted. So in both cases, they are often unable to perceive each other’s kindness, and they rather interpret it as indifference.

Punctualisation is very important in the relationship between the teachers and the learners. Their relationship is of mutual recognition of role. There are two fundamental factors which establish the relationship: one is the respect due from the students to the teacher; the second is the service that the teacher offers to the students. The teacher serves the purpose of the students and not vice versa; but the students obey the teacher, and not vice-versa. If the students do not give respect, the teacher will not teach; and if the teacher does not teach, the students will not give respect. Now, who will start? The punctualisation process is what starts the process of communication. Is the respect given by the students to the teacher what makes him serve the students? Or is it the other way round, i.e.: is the teacher who, by serving the needs of the students, provokes their respect? The wrong starting steps may jeopardise the whole relationship. Surely, the relationship works well when it works both ways. But who starts building or breaking? As a teacher, I can stop serving you, if you start disrespecting me. But, in fact, you may feel that you have started disrespecting me, because I have stopped serving you.

Everybody reacts negatively because he perceives the other’s reaction as negative. Both are acting in self-defence but the self-defence of the other is perceived as an aggression. It’s important to think about who starts the creative process and the capacity of the creative process to continue, in spite of situations that are perceived as aggressions.

This is true in all relationships- in team relationships for instance. The advantages of having a team are many; but a person who is working more than the others will start thinking that it is not in her/interest to work so much and have the others take most of the profit: "If I was working only for self-interest, I could get more benefit than from sharing it". The team dynamics then starts breaking down. The typical reaction is "I’m not going to work much because the others aren’t". When the team starts moving in that direction, then a negative spiral starts and one starts working less, with the result that the others start working less and it becomes worse and worse. No work thus gets done at the end and the team breaks down. The opposite spiral is if one thinks that one should put in more work because the others are doing so. We would like to partake of the benefits and advantages of being part of a team that is producing results.

These processes are ruled by the punctualisation process. Who is starting the creation to which I respond with a creative approach and who starts destruction to which I respond with a destruction approach. You must never see the product as something that stands on its own. Sentences are always a part of a global process of communication and they get their meaning from this global process.