Tuning into BBC radio 4 recently, I caught the last few minutes of an episode in a series I had never heard before – The Headline Ballads. From what I heard I understood the programme to be comparing and contrasting the response of two very disparate communities to the trauma of flooding. The piece that made a strong impression were the translated final words of a Bangladeshi woman:
“We are doing what we can to help each other. We are digging out the soil so we can raise our houses and live here permanently. We don’t just wait for others to help us. We would rather be doing it ourselves.”
The only context I had for this snippet was the half-heard short clip of a Cumbrian woman who was talking when I tuned in. She appeared to be bemoaning the hardship of having to live with the constant threat of being flooded.
From these few snippets, I believed the programme was comparing the resilience, stoicism and self-determination of the Bangladeshi community with the English tendency to believe that someone else is to blame for such misfortune, and someone else – i.e. the Government – is responsible for putting it right.
I was basing this on an impression gained over recent years from the media coverage of UK flooding events in which victims seem to me to be continually looking for someone to blame. The Government, local councils, builders, insurance companies, all come in for their share of blame or criticism, while the flood victims appear to me to be in a state of suspended animation as they wait for someone else to make things right for them again.
How wrong I was and what a salutary lesson in basic communication principles.
I’d heard only a very small piece of the whole and, based on my interpretation of some of the storyline, I jumped to a conclusion about what the ‘compare and contrast’ exercise was going to reveal.
Yet, as a ‘professional’ communicator, I know that listeners will interpret the same story a multitude of ways based on their own experiences and beliefs. Even those who have been exposed to exactly the same messages will recall it differently as each listener attributes greater or lesser significance to those bits that resonate most strongly with their own situation or understanding. Ensuring that the audience is given the opportunity to assimilate the message in its entirety through consistent repetition and reinforcement is a basic principle of effective communication.
In reality the programme was a much more complex and subtle piece in keeping with the theme of the series in which “…poets and storytellers respond to stories underneath the world news headlines”.
In this episode, the writer and poet, Kamal Kaan begins with the story of his own parents move from Bangladesh to escape the poverty and the floods of their native homeland. His ballad is interwoven with personal testimonies from those who have experienced firsthand the devastation caused by flooding.
The half-heard quote from the Cumbrian flood victim, when heard in full and in the context of the rest of the programme, painted a picture of determined optimism equal to that of the Bangladeshi woman I had so admired. She was most definitely not the whinging stereotype I had erroneously assigned her.
“You’ve got to build up an emotional resilience to (the prospect of flooding)….You’ve still got to live your life. You can’t live thinking that every time it rains you’re going to flood because, what kind of life would you have out here in Cumbria. It’s the wettest county in the country. It rains quite a lot!”
I’m glad that I took the time to listen in full to an unusual and illuminating programme even if it did shame me to realise how far from the mark my initial assumptions had been. In my business, if I start thinking in stereotypes, I only have myself to blame if none of my messages get through.