In the spring of 2020, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden affirmed what his policy concerning the Iran nuclear deal would be if elected: “I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it.” After eight months in office, nothing significant has come to pass. Biden has also shown little aptitude for collaborating with America’s closest allies on issues as fundamental as exiting Afghanistan or defining his Indo-Pacific strategy.
Informed analysts such as the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi warned at the beginning of the year that because the impending elections in Iran were likely to reinforce the hardliners, the Biden administration had a “short window” to act on rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and undoing Donald Trump’s handiwork. In June, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, won the election in Iran.
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The indirect talks, begun too late to have an impact, were already stalled. Shortly afterward, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken complained that the Iranians were dragging their feet. “We are committed to diplomacy,” he asserted, “but this process cannot go on indefinitely.”
This past week, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell sat down with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian for clarification. Citing President Raisi, she began by asking the minister whether Iran was committed to moving forward “within weeks.” Americans believe that “time is of the essence.” Mitchell insisted on pinning down that essence. The minister chose to respond as any Asian diplomat might.
He used the kind of indirect language Americans habitually fail to understand or simply lose patience with. US culture expects people to call a spade a spade, even though in politics, Americans rarely do so themselves, preferring deviation or even prevarication to ironic reflection.
“We do not have the opportunity nor the time,” the minister replied to his impatient interviewer, “to sit in meetings simply to drink coffee with one another. What is important for us are tangible results.” He was reminding Mitchell of Iran’s well-established position that consists of challenging the Americans, who unilaterally broke the deal and applied sanctions, to cancel the sanctions as the means of returning to normal.
Mitchell then added new pressure, citing Blinken’s position that “time is not indefinite” and asked him to “project how quickly” Iran might return to the negotiating table. The minister complained that the JCPOA had not provided any benefits to Iran in years and explained that they are currently “reviewing” and “assessing” in order to “keep the window of negotiation open.” He added that “we will very soon return to the negotiations.”
His remark provoked a new misunderstanding echoed in the press the following day. It concerned the word “soon.” Reuters reports that Amirabdollahian went on to explain to his compatriots on state TV channel IRINN the obsession of Americans who “keep asking how soon is soon. Does it mean days, weeks or months?”
He added: “The difference between Iranian and Western ‘soon’ is a lot. To us, ‘soon’ means really in the first opportune time — when our reviews (of the nuclear file) have been completed. What is important is our determination to return to the talks, but those that are serious and guarantee the Iranian nation’s rights and interests.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A measure of the relationship between identifiable events that most cultures see as variable and flexible but US culture long ago decided is a rigid, fixed system that can be translated both into monetary value (“time is money”) and a means of measuring the moral character of those who fail to respect time limits.
At one juncture, Mitchell asks a question only an American would ask: “Is time running out for Iran’s willingness to go back to the JCPOA?” Americans believe that everything must have a cut-off point or expiration date that should be defined as quickly as possible. Amirabdollahian replied, “We believe diplomacy always works,” adding that if the other parties (all six original signatories) fail to honor their commitments, Iran would not “remain in the deal, fulfilling our side of the bargain.”
According to the minister, Iranians “believe diplomacy always works.” Just like “soon,” the word “always” has a different meaning in the two cultures. Analysts of culture describe Iran as a high context culture, in contrast with America’s low context culture. In a high context culture, the circumstances and context provide and complete the meaning that is only superficially indicated by a word or an idea.
Without context, one can never be sure of the meaning. Americans prefer to think everything has a fixed, univocal definition. Not only do they call a spade a spade, they believe it is only a spade.
In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Humpty Dumpty tells the eponymous heroine, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Bemused, Alice replies: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Humpty Dumpty may have a talent for confusing young girls and may even be less than totally sincere, but he represents high context culture. Alice thinks like an American.
Ever since it supplanted French as the recognized universal diplomatic language at some point in the 20th century, English has become the world’s lingua franca for business and politics. One of the advantages the British and Americans have is that everyone is now obliged to speak a language they understand. But there are ways in which using their own language prevents them from understanding what other people mean when they use it.
Being monolingual often correlates with monocultural thinking. English speakers today may feel comfortable with the sound of the words they hear while not even hearing the thoughts and intentions others express with the same English words. That is what appears to be taking place in Andrea Mitchell’s interview. It required Amirabdollahian to explain something most Americans fail to understand.
Mitchell is of course just doing a job that entails delivering a form of entertainment called the news to an audience with known expectations. For that, she doesn’t really need to explore meaning. Her audience expects her to produce a superficial impression designed to comfort their own beliefs. That is the law of the media. A deeper question to consider is its impact on foreign policy.
Biden’s foreign policy aims at understanding the material and psychological truth of the situation. But it is also orientated by what they know about the American public’s much more superficial expectations. A significant part of their job is to please American voters, a key to being reelected.
Most Americans probably learned at some point in their life that the Spanish word “mañana” means “tomorrow.” Americans sometimes say they will do something tomorrow. They mean it as a promise to act the following day. But they are also taught that when Mexicans promise to do something mañana, it expresses a vague intention to possibly do it sometime in the future. This stereotype allows Americans to categorize Mexicans as both unreliable and lazy.
What monolingual, monocultural Americans fail to appreciate is that every culture treats time and everything related to timing differently. There is no logical reason why “tomorrow,” “demain,” “mañana,” “domani” or “Morgen”should refer to a precise date in the calendar. In Spanish and German, “mañana” and “Morgen” also mean “morning.” Those languages designate the coming night as dividing the present from the future. That future can be indefinite, such as “für ein besseres Morgen” — for a better tomorrow.
In South Africa, the English word “now” similarly can mean any time in the future, starting from the present moment. To situate things closer to the present, people will literally say “now now,” but even then there is some leeway. As one South African notes, “we can try to explain it, the reality is you still might not get it.” This is a case where English doesn’t translate into English.
Both Andrea Mitchell’s interview and the example of Americans joking about the Mexican “mañana” highlight the difficulty low context Americans — convinced that words have a fixed meaning — have understanding not just other people’s concept of time but, more importantly, the value of time-related notions in those people’s minds when applied to real situations. Perhaps in the domain of foreign policy, like cigarettes, they should be labeled as potentially dangerous to your health.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.