Spilling the Beans: A Guide for Indians to Understand and Communicate Successfully with U. S. Americans by David Sanford. Notion Press, 2018, 180 pages.
reviewed by Craig Storti
In our manifesto for the BookMarks column (see the January newsletter), we stated that a key criteria for any book chosen for review was that it must in one way or another be “exceptional.” In some respects, Spilling the Beans is not exceptional, at least not to seasoned interculturalists. Indeed, the author himself readily admitted to your reviewer that the intercultural content in the book is a simple, straight-forward summary of the basic concepts in the intercultural field. Nothing new.
And that’s exactly as it should be because Spilling the Beans is not written for interculturalists or for anyone else with any knowledge of the field. It is written, rather, for lay folks—Indian lay folks to be precise—whose life or work circumstances require them to interact with Americans on a regular basis. And because that very often involves close encounters with cultural differences, Sanford has to briefly sketch a few fundamental cultural concepts in order to tee up and illustrate his thesis: If you’re going to succeed interacting with these folks from America, you need to understand how they think and why they behave the way they do.
And that’s what makes Spilling the Beans exceptional and where it adds something important to our field. Most of the books we Americans read about other cultures are necessarily US-centric; they describe and present other cultures from an American point of view. There’s great value in that, of course, but what’s usually missing in that approach is it doesn’t help Americans understand how they are perceived from the foreign point of view. These books help us see and understand them better, in short, but they don’t typically help us see and understand ourselves better. Spilling the Beans, precisely because it is written for a non-American audience, is full of insights for Americans (and for some other northern Europeans as well), which is why it ends up getting reviewed in this column.
What insights? Here are just a few:
[T]he majority of American employees [have a] preference for a horizontal management structure in which most of the decisions are made in a collaborative atmosphere. [They] generally dislike situations where status and hierarchy are [emphasized] because they do not honor the value of equality.
More explanation and verbal communication are necessary because greater importance is placed on the words spoken rather than gestures or the…context around the words. Therefore, the burden is on the sender to make the message clear [and] the burden is on the receiver to ask clarifying questions.
Americans are taught to approach life…from the point of view of unlimited possibilities…. It is the attitude of “We have the opportunity to be first” rather than “It has never been done before”; of “It will be a challenge” versus “It cannot be done”; of “Necessity is the mother of invention” versus “We do not have the resources.”
In the U. S. where equality is highly valued individual team members are empowered and expected to take the initiative and make decisions without interference from a team leader. They are expected to “just do it” and get the task done without managerial oversight.
I think it was John Condon who said that the essence of intercultural competence is the ability to see others the way they see themselves and to see yourself the way others see you. A lot of books help Americans do the former, but only a few, like Spilling the Beans, help them do the latter. We need more books like this.
And speaking of other books, your reviewer humbly begs your pardon by closing out this review with the observation that although Sanford doesn’t mention it, my own modest tome, Speaking of India, is in many ways the perfect complement to Spilling the Beans. Read Speaking and you’ll learn about Indians from an American perspective; read Spilling and you’ll learn about Americans from an Indian perspective.