Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A Russian meets an American at a bus stop …

They are a rugged people who conquered a rugged land. The territory was vast, ranging from forests to grasslands, from deserts to a mountain range that separated the country into East and West. The land did not yield its resources easily but that was no challenge to people who persevered through adversity. Instead, through hard work and sacrifice, the country was settled from ocean to ocean and the people enjoyed their success with quiet satisfaction.

Were these people Americans or Russians? Yes, on both accounts.

Political leaders and governments come and go but the fundamental character of a people does not change so easily. Be they Russian or American, the day-to-day life of the ordinary citizen has certain common goals. Give them meaningful work, let them raise their children, and let them hope that the next generation fares better. It doesn’t matter if the mountains on the horizon are the Urals or the Rockies; the aspirations are the same.

If a Russian farmer and his American counterpart were to meet, they would find they had much in common and worried about the same things; weather, crops, and livestock, and they both worked from sunrise to sunset. Likewise, factory workers would have the same aches and pains, the same headaches from the continuous noise of machinery, and the same pride in the tangible goods they produced.

S73-02395 (August 1973) --- An artist's concept illustrating an Apollo-type spacecraft (on left) about to dock with a Soviet Soyuz-type spacecraft. A recent agreement between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics provides for the docking in space of the Soyuz and Apollo-type spacecraft in Earth orbit in 1975. The joint venture is called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

S73-02395 (August 1973) — An artist’s concept illustrating an Apollo-type spacecraft (on left) about to dock with a Soviet Soyuz-type spacecraft. A recent agreement between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics provides for the docking in space of the Soyuz and Apollo-type spacecraft in Earth orbit in 1975. The joint venture is called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

International exchange programs between the nations have existed for many years. The Apollo-Soyuz joint test project launched only a month after my high school graduation in 1975. Having grown up in the Space Age and being a student of science, this was a source of great fascination and inspiration. Imagine how the Earth must have looked from orbit as the daring astronauts and cosmonauts looked down at it together, seeing no political boundaries, just one fragile globe. Those men had so much in common in their knowledge, training, experience, and passions, that language and political differences must have seemed trivial.

Many of the exchange programs between the Russians and Americans have taken place at high levels. While not at the level of Earth orbit, programs for scientists and scholars have allowed exchange of ideas along lines of common inquiry. As of this writing, there are exchange programs for firefighters and even for counter-terrorism experts, in advance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. These are fine programs with the potential for benefit in both hemispheres.

But what about the “regular people,” who are not government officials, scientists, or university students? How can the man-in-the-street in St. Petersburg, Russia ever meet his counterpart in St. Petersburg, Florida? A useful way of considering this problem was originated in the same year as the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Professors Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese developed “Uncertainty Reduction Theory” as a way to understand how strangers get to know each other. Since they have no foreknowledge of the other person, the first effort is to make the situation as predictable as possible, and then to use the knowledge gained to evaluate the next actions and communications exchanged. Each person is trying to reduce cognitive uncertainty, hoping to understand the other person’s beliefs and attitudes, and behavioral uncertainty, hoping to pick up cues on facial expressions, tone of voice and personal space. As each person engages in self-disclosure, telling the other person bits and pieces about himself, gradually a knowledge base is built and shared so that the two people can be more at ease with each other.

Using this theory, we can imagine a conversation between the two people from the two St. Petersburgs. Let’s make them shopkeepers, John and Ivan, waiting for a bus, and we’ll overcome the language barrier via creative license.

John: “Good morning. Been waiting long?”

Ivan:  “Only a few minutes. How are you?”

John: “Doing okay, thanks, but my feet hurt from standing at the cash register all day.” (Note the first self-disclosure, revealing something about his work.)

Ivan: “I know how that feels. I run a little shop back home.” (Note the deeper self-disclosure as Ivan reveals he is not from the area.)

John: “Me, too! I wait on tourists all day.”

Ivan: “I get a lot of tourists, myself. They complain about prices but they always buy something.”

John: “Mine always seem to want something with pink flamingos on it.”

Ivan: “My tourists are always looking for ushanka hats or matryoshka dolls.”

From there, the talk could turn to how hard it is to manage teenage workers or how their wives want them to take a little time off to go on holiday. Eventually, they would each learn that people really are the same all over.

If more meetings such as this imaginary encounter could be arranged, Russians and Americans might find they have more in common than previously thought. To have strong national pride, a sturdy work ethic, and a generally decent nature would mark these folks as potential fast friends. Online communication tools can cross the various time zones and borders but face-to-face, we can take the measure of each other and find that neither is lacking in character.

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About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. teaches journalism at Full Sail University in Orlando, FL. Dr. Thomas also heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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