Vantage Point: Communiplexion

A 368Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

I made up that word in the title. It represents communication under a complex fusion of scenarios that have made me re-examine what I thought I knew about getting a message across. Actual delivery is only half the answer; is there something beyond words that may help convey the intended meaning?

Within the past few months, I’ve listened to several variations on an unexpected single theme: the societal aspect of communication. As surveyors we regularly interact with people from broad ranges of experiences and levels of understanding of what we do. We should strive to speak in a way that fosters two-way communication, rather than presenting our words with single-minded focus. My recent experiences are related to flood recovery and floodplain management, primarily with people for whom English is not their primary language and who may have limited proficiency in English. For these groups and individuals, federal regulations require everyone involved with disaster recovery to comply with provisions assuring meaningful access to activities, programs, and services. This may take the form of providing written translations for forms relating to the purchase of damaged homes and oral interpreters (not friends, family, or a minor/child) for meetings and negotiations related to buyouts of homes. Failure to provide language access is national origin discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Beyond mere words, there are many in our nation for whom an understanding of their cultural background, which affects social roles and interactions, can mean a world of difference in the outcome of attempted communication. Really, this applies to daily interactions with everyone we meet, but sometimes a little extra effort is more than a mere interactive nicety.

During the June meeting of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council to FEMA, we heard from March Runner, the Tribal Administrator for Louden Tribal Council (Alaska). Her message transcended the specific problematic communication examples she presented, and is universally applicable. She discussed the dilemmas caused by federal agencies disagreeing with each other (in this instance, about what predicted flood levels should be), not speaking to each other or heeding local experiences about flooding, and not clearly communicating to the individuals affected. Many surveyors have experienced similar situations (I will cast no stones here), but Ms March’s words made clear the far-reaching impact lack of cultural awareness can have.

She focused on what happens when non-Native Americans come into the villages to talk about mapping flood hazards. Ms. March stressed the need for awareness of the intended audience’s level of understanding, using terms comprehended. The presentations made in the villages are not in Native languages, a circumstance that should compel much more sensitivity to cultural differences.

Particularly in her tribal experiences, she noted that many people are open when speaking one on one, but will not challenge or question perceived authority in group situations like public hearings. What people most want from visiting speakers: slow down, don’t rush, wait and be patient, especially with Elders who are thinking about their responses. Ms. March advised that if asking questions in a group setting is eliciting no responses, go up to someone you know and ask directly; people often don’t want to be first to say something in public. Doesn’t all of this sound universally familiar?

Specifically related to the floodplain management side of things, Ms. March gave clear examples of how important local experience and knowledge are in identifying flood hazards and flood risks. She described how locals knew that if water flowed around one side of a mountain, flooding would occur in one particular location as opposed to if it flowed around the other side. And if the flow was around both sides, it was time to evacuate. Furthermore, local conditions include differences in temperatures, varying kinds of water bodies and soils, and where flood-borne debris accumulates to cause additional problems. That kind of site-specific information can’t be gathered from the usual studies resulting in Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

Outreach and communication comprise a significant component of risk management, although they may seem difficult due to cultural differences. Alaska has been the site of Native American homes for 14,000 years; this long history in their way of life means people will not leave floodprone areas simply because of external floodplain management policy.

I’ll close with this check list from a course for federal Civil Rights Act compliance, much of which applies to everyday interactions:
• Be patient and listen attentively
• Speak slowly, in plain English
• Speak in short sentences or phrases (to make translating easier for the interpreter)
• Check what you think you heard
• Do not make quick judgments
• Learn how to pronounce names correctly
• Be sensitive to others’ feelings or viewpoints
• Avoid stereotypes
• Remain respectful–of people, of culture, and of differences

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 368Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE