How disaster responders do not engage

Peter Tamas (Wageningen University)

(Mis)recgonising Culture

We make snap judgments about culture all the time. When people talk about culture, what they are really saying is mostly that some people are different and usually that this difference is bad or confusing. There are three steps here:

  1. We draw a circle around a group of people
  2. We say they are all the same in some ways
  3. We make a judgement about those ways

This is all perfectly normal. Early on in history we needed to decide quickly if what we were seeing/hearing would eat us or if we should eat it. We learned early to look at a member of a group and make quick simplistic judgements about that individual. If we had the time and if it was safe, then we might go carefully sniff the individual to see if they were the same or different than we expected. This same strategy is with us today. In our normal day-to-day lives this quick classification and then efficient decision making works good enough. In fact, most of the time we are not even conscious of making these sorts of decisions.

Today disaster responders have to deal with many different kinds of people. We will take a quick glance and make initial decisions about the characteristics of that group and, on that basis, decide what we can and should do. If we are going to deal with people from that group, we will use our group based classification as a starting point for figuring out who that person really is. While this sort of decision making serves us well most of the time, there are a few ways in which they get us in trouble.

  1. The rules we have for classifying people took many generations to evolve. They might fit the world of our grandparents. When we are in new circumstances, as we are in any major European city, and we use old rules to classify new people, they will fail in ways we can’t predict and often can’t even see.
  2. We are invested in our rules. We don’t like it when they are wrong and we will persist in using them even when they don’t fit quite right.
  3. When our rules don’t fit quite right, rather than parking the rules and starting from scratch our initial response will often be to get a bit grumpy and try to make them fit.
  4. Once we have figured out that they don’t fit and we start from the ground up, the group based decisions we make will still be sticky. It will take time and effort for us to adjust
  5. When we are under stress, we don’t think twice. We will revert to simple rules and stick with the group based decisions they suggest
  6. Most of what is happening here isn’t conscious. This means that just learning will not fix what we do. Learning happens between our ears. Most of the decisions we make here are more gut-level intuitive calls.

It is possible for us to learn new things. We may, for example, learn how to work with people who are really quite different, people who behave in ways we initially thought were not good. This sort of boundary crossing work has to be done in consort by people on both sides. This is extra work that takes time and effort. In normal circumstances this if fine. We have the time and head space required to reach out, to make links, to figure out what is going on and how to work together. Under stress, however, we will all revert to the familiar and the efficient.

Putting this all together, all of the work that we do figuring out contact people in distinct groups, all the time spent going to meetings, all the time we spend building trust, may very well come to nothing. When the disaster strikes, we will all tend go back to are primal thinking: making quick judgments, clumping people into groups that are easy to think about, sticking to the familiar and doing what makes sense to me and those who think like me. Under stress our natural reaction is to kill off all of the careful thinking, all of the nurtured relationships, all of the individual understandings that let us see people rather than classes. In a disaster, our natural tendency is to crawl back into the culture, the shell, that is most familiar.

The only way to get to the point where under stress we go in the right direction is through conditioning. This is well known to the military whose training revolves around the saying ‘train as you fight, fight as you train.’ The only way to work effectively with diverse cultures in disaster is to fully integrate that diversity into preparation…so much so that it becomes impossible to think any other way.


To work effectively across cultures both disaster responders and members from the diverse groups who make up their cities must be conditioned. This means that, at every step of the way, we must not only be sharing or informing, we must be behaving in ways that build and use the relationships and the trust on which lives will depend in a disaster. This will be difficult because conditioning is far more expensive than training.

When the disaster is not pressing, with the exception of one organization, it is very hard to justify the time and money required for conditioning. Armed forces know about conditioning. They regularly second staff to work in other organizations. These other organizations are pleased to host these seconded solders. Very rarely, however, do other organizations second staff to work with Armed Forces. Further, in the military, approximate 1/3 of staff hours are spent in some form of training and this does not count all of the rituals that structure feelings and behaviors in ways that are useful for combat. This ratio is not supportable in almost any civilian organization. In civilian organizations, we are paid for what we are doing today and we are hired because we know how to do it. This means that our time is fully committed to our immediate tasks. Resourcing for current task loads means that we do not have the time required to design and undertake the sort of conditioning that will save lives when it matters.

It is difficult to talk about building conditioning into civilian organizations but it is possible. It can be made part of our jobs, our job descriptions, our performance review, our organizational culture. Our jobs can pay us to engage and our organizational culture can encourage us to find comforts in the diverse communities in our cities. This may be as simple as where we choose to get lunch together, who we work with on the annual litter picking day or where we recommend incoming colleagues look for housing.

It is, however, illogical to talk about building conditioning into the diverse communities that make up our cities. People do what makes sense to them today and our organizations can change what makes sense so that we are nudged towards engaging across difference. This does not work in private lives. The only way to build conditioning into the cultures of those we wish to serve is by going to them, by working with them on their terms to do what is important to them today…recognizing that what is important to them today may very well not matter all that much to us. If we do this for a long time we will build relationships, we will build trust. Working with each other will become part of who we are It is precisely the relationship and the trust that will matter in a disaster. Police have known this for at least a generation. The whole institution of community policing was and remains a seismic shift in what it means to police. More importantly, it is a fundamental change in what it means to be a police officer.

If we are to work effectively in our increasingly diverse and always changing cities, we can learn from the police and the armed forces. With the armed forces, we must make the time, the resources and the effort required to condition ourselves such that, when stressed, we behave appropriately. With the police, we must change how we are in our cities so that the time we spend those who become our neighbours and friends alters their conditioning such that the, under stress, also behave appropriately.

If we get culture right, then

  • the improbable and the illogical becomes instinctive.
  • we will leverage the bonds from which the diverse communities that make up are cities are built.
  • we will see ourselves as part of those communities, as supporting them so that our new friends and neighbors, when they respond first they will do so in a way that both preserves lives and integrates with the professional response that will quickly follow.

Culture: why it is an asset

When we are under stress, as in a disaster, we will revert to known familiar patterns. These patterns tell us where to go for information, who to trust, what we should do and with whom we should do it. They will tell us who we must look after and they also tell us who is obliged to look after us. Most of these patterns will tell us to trust, to share with, to help, and to be helped by the familiar. All of this happens without our thinking. These patterns are conditioned. This means that when there are distinct groups in a city they will have strongly conditioned patterns that link them to other members of their group. These patterns are usually difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to see. They, however, are far more durable that what people have learned, for example, in training sessions in which people are told about early warning systems for floods. This conditioning will survive a generation or two after a population immigrates. If disaster responders rely on training and information, they will likely fail. This information provided by outsiders is easy to reject. If disaster responders partner with members of the community and if, together, they become part of the tendencies, the conditioning, of that population, then they we will be able to leverage the assets, the strengths, the conditioning of that community so that they both look after themselves better (they will be first responders) and such that their actions are more compatible with those of the professional disaster response community.

Why our comfort zone matters and what to do about it

When we have time and energy and when we are feeling relaxed and competent, we willingly work at the edge of our comfort zones. This is when we are happy to try chicken feet stew for supper and shisha for desert…and find both desirable though perhaps not in the same night. The minute we are stressed, however, we will snap back to where we are comfortable. There is no way to avoid this snapping back and it would be foolish to try. When we are in our comfort zone we can think and act faster. We get in trouble when our comfort zone is not where we need to be to perform well. The only strategy available is to change what we find to be natural, to change what is comfortable, to change what counts as our comfort zone so that it is where we need to be when we are under stress.

The things we do, and the things that we do not, talk about – they matter.

Professionals do particular things in particular ways that are recognized to work. In addition, we are professionals in part because we talk about the right sorts of things in the right sorts of ways. Sometimes having some topics off limits is a good thing. There is no reason in professional conversations to talk about how bloated and constipated you are today…unless you are an adult performer preparing for a scene in which your bowl condition matters. While both may be very important, neither belong in most professional discourses. What counts as professional, like our culture, has taken generations to form and it changes slowly. Some of the things that we talk about do not help and there are some things that we avoid discussing that we should talk about. For example, both police and the military are still figuring out if and how to talk about mental health. Real men, they are learning, do cry and this, it seems, might be good to make part of professional talk. When disaster responders look at other communities there are all sorts of things that we do not think and/or do not say. We might, for example, label a Muslim community in some slightly insulting way and not talk about how in makes us uncomfortable to deal with women wearing head-scarves: it might be OK to label others but not OK to talk about our own discomforts. These patterns matter. Talking about others in simplistic terms draws lines that then become harder and harder to cross and not talking about our own discomforts makes it impossible for us to take the first, and necessary, step.

It is difficult to identify and deal with ‘unmentionables’ and ‘undiscussables’. For those who are in a culture, one way to begin to find undiscussibles is to look for discomfort. For example, mention of the adult entertainment industry in the previous paragraph might have made you uncomfortable. This discomfort is a flag that we have talked about something that is not proper. In most situations our reaction to mention of an undiscussable is analogous to a loud belch at the dinner table: we don’t see it, we minimize it, we make a joke of it, and, whatever we do, we quickly move on and pretend it did not happen. These strategies minimize disruption. They help us keep on with business as usual. Too bad for us that our business as usual is not good enough. If we have decided that the way we do things is not good enough, when we trip over an undiscussable the correct strategy is to stop, to flag it with a statement along the lines of ‘I just saw/heard a belch. That didn’t feel right.’ At which point you might learn that the belch you heard was the highest praise possible for a delicious meal and that the minimizing the silence it occasioned was a potential relationship-disrupting insult.

Having undiscussables makes our work efficient. It reduces what we can and need to think about. They work great until we are in a different world. The minute we are in a different world, we need to question what we do and do not talk about. Fundamental to these discussions is something called ‘metacognition’ which is fundamental to something called the relational model of intercultural communication.

Proxy indicators

When we look at people we make intuitive judgements about them. The Dutch, for example, say ‘trust me by the blue of my eyes.’ In this case blue eyes are a proxy indicator of trustworthiness. We have all sorts of proxy indicators that matter in a particular culture: the firm handshake, the straight gaze, the confident voice, being male, being clean shaven, being well dressed, using appropriate vocabulary, driving the right car. None of these measure what we are actually interested in. They, and many others, might work well enough in some contexts. When we move to new contexts, however, these proxy indicators might not work and we won’t know when they fail. This means that when we are working in new environments we can’t trust our intuition. Intuition, however is very convenient. It lets us make fast decisions that, when in the right circumstances, work well enough. Intuition will get us in trouble unpredictably when we are not in familiar circumstances. This means that we have to make every decision deliberately. This takes time and effort. In a disaster, when the unthinkable happened nevertheless, we don’t have time and we are exhausted. This means that we will not be able to make deliberate decisions. We must, therefore, train our intuition before a disaster so that the proxy indicators we have are good enough for the full diversity of communities we will work with in a disaster. This will take time and energy up front.