The visible fieldworker

The fieldworker might think he or she is just a representative of the message. When people meet they construct an image of the other in the first five minutes. Ones appearance is thus the basics for building rapport (the amount of confidence people have in the fieldworker). In extremities this can mean that a project has a slow start or no start at all only because of how one looks.




The appearance consist of fixed status and non-fixed status.

I think that the fixed status, like sex, skin color, handicaps, nationality define the larger part of the first impression. Related to the appearance these are all prejudices. Relentless if one thinks that prejudices are stupid, they exist and basically everyone judges the other on forehand by putting the other in a certain positive or negative category. Prejudice can be very strong depending on a person, the intercultural history or the culture itself.

The reason why I think that the fixed status defines the larger part, is the 'no go' in Tzununa. This was in the pre-mohawk-period. The sole reason was my white skin. In the eyes of the landowner I was the money, and blocking the project was her means to put pressure on me to buy the land.

Some examples:

  • Because of my white skin color, every one here assumes on forehand that I'm a gringo; some one from the United States. Historically this would mean that I'm from the same country that literally killed the rising democracy in 1954. Currently this would mean that I'm either here to build a villa or consume drugs. When I tell that I'm from Holland faces change. For some reason many Guatemalans are a big fan of the Dutch national football team.
  • A study friend of my anthropology teacher had a right arm that he could not use. Despite this handicap he could do basically everything with his left arm. For his research he went to South East Asia. A continent where the left and right hand are strictly separated. Right is to eat with, left is for cleaning your bottom. Only because one dirty hand he could not do his research, and was not allowed to sit on any table. Very unfair, but this is reality.




The non-fixed status can be changed right away by the fieldworker. This consists of clothing, hairstyle and behaviour.

Attach:D038_070716AmericanOveral.jpg Δ | Gringo payaso Starting with the first. It's easy to make mistakes with clothing. Women can dress themselves too sexy in a hot climate, men can dress themselves silly. An example. During the first project in Guatemala I constantly wore an American Overal. Comfortable and practical clothing. In Europe this piece of clothing would refer to professions like carpenter, road worker or gardener. In Guatemala you only need a red nose and your a clown. I did not know that. The only thing I noticed was that the children in Palestina changed there shouts from 'gringo' to 'gringo payaso' (American Clown). The people I worked with might have thought the same, but I never have noticed any problems in the interaction. Also note that a clown in Guatemala is not the guy that acts silly in the circus piste. A clown makes fun of the corrupt political system in busses, or has the noble job to entertain children at parties.

In addition, be aware that colours can have very powerful connotations. In Guatemala I could not think of a negative colour.




Attach:D038_070716Mohawk.jpg Δ | Punk, rebel or normal I wanted to get read of my dull haircut and moustache and feel faster. The old man in barbershop at the corner cut it without any questions. Since than I noticed more laughter on the street. It might be my haircut it might me not. The laughter comes mainly from young girls. Domingo, for example, thought it is a little strange, but more as a variation of the European culture. He thought that it's normal in Europe. In Guatemala it has no culture connotations like punk, rebellion or leftist protester. Anyhow I wear a cap most of the time.

Behaviour is a very wide and problematic field. Some examples:

  • In small villages people talk a lot about the visible stranger. Drinking alcohol, talking with girls, or kinds of gasoline for smalltalk can escalate. It doesn't matter if it really happened or not. If people believe it's real, they act like if it's real in their consequences (Clifford Geertz). This is culture.
  • Opinions: being honest or not? In Guatemala one of the first questions is: are you Catholic or Pentecostalist? It doesn't really matter what you are, but not believing in God is considered strange.
  • Cursing in Guatemala is not a good idea. Though Catholics seem to be more flexible with that than Pentecostalists.
  • Asking 'are you Indigenous or Ladino (mestizo)' is not a good idea in Guatemala. In the eighties some 100.000 Indigenous people 'disappeared' and 10% of the population fled from the genocide. Today it seems as if nothing happened, but underneath the surface many people carry huge traumas of civil war.
  • Not speaking the language, or not speaking it well can be understood as 'being stupid'
  • Carrying expensive equipement can enlarge the gap between the field worker and the locale. The DVD player I frequently used didn't do this noticeably (to my own surprise). Only young men have more interest for the apparatus than the information that it shows. The relevant public however hardly ever had any comments on the thing, but always concentrated on the contents of the movie.




To complete the notion of status. There is also a semi-fixed status like social class and age.




To conclude: it's basically a question of feeling and understanding the situation. Lying is allowed, but not always the best solution. Rapport has to be build. There are no red carpets and many people have a negative to very negative image of white people. Do's and dont's can very much from place to place. Maybe we should build a database of cultural experiences.

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Page last modified on July 17, 2007, at 11:22 PM