Communicating in War and Peace

April 14, 2014—When a U.S. Marine goes into an Afghan village to build relationships with local leaders, there is one critical thing he must keep in mind: do not assume your Afghan counterparts will be like you.

Don’t assume they will talk like you, gesticulate like you, even sit or drink tea like you. To a degree, the Marine’s success hinges on his ability to understand these differences and then adapt to them. These cultural differences aren’t necessarily intuitive. They need to be learned. That’s where Gabi Rubin (C’15) comes in.

Rubin, a linguistics major from Bethesda, Maryland, is a research assistant for a project run by the Social Interaction Research Group (SIRG). Most of the group’s work, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is aimed at helping the military and government officials better communicate with people outside of the United States.

“We want them to be as well-equipped as possible so as to minimize the possibility that they might offend people,” Rubin said.

Dr. Aubrey Logan-Terry and Dr. Rebecca Damari, both post-doctoral fellows in the Department of Linguistics, lead the project, which is the social science component of a much larger DARPA initiative. They are tasked with creating Strategic Social Interaction Modules, or methods for training the military in effective communication.

The modules, according to DARPA, aim to help service members “approach and engage strangers in unfamiliar social environments, orient to unfamiliar patterns of behavior, recover from social errors, de-escalate conflict, integrate tact and tactics, transition in and out of force situations, and engage in the process of discovering and adapting to previously unknown ‘rules of the game’ intrinsic to social situations.”

In the nearly two years that Rubin has worked on the project, she has experienced things few undergraduates would ever have access to. As a part of her fieldwork for SIRG, Rubin has visited classrooms at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia to analyze how Marines are being taught to communicate. She’s also analyzed videos of classroom instruction to help determine how to improve approaches to cross-cultural interaction.

“It’s been a really amazing experience,” Rubin said. “It’s been very formative in my college career, and I’m really passionate about this research.”

SIRG’s work is critical to informing how the U.S. military will proceed as they move through the world. Warfare has changed over the years, as has peacekeeping and nation building. Effective and respectful communication is a crucial component to all of those, Rubin says.

“In a world of asymmetric warfare, the warfighters become asymmetric diplomats, but they haven’t been trained in that role,” she said.

In order to help the military carry out its foreign missions with minimal cultural confusion, Rubin and her collaborators identified three key skills personnel would need to employ: observation and adaption, rapport-building, and trouble remedy. Observing and then adapting to local customs are perhaps the most important ways an individual can show respect and understanding overseas. Things that may seem benign to Americans, like eye contact or proximity to people you’re speaking to, can have a big impact abroad.

“The possibility for violence is frightening, so we try to do anything we can to mitigate violence,” Rubin said. “You would think many of these are common sense issues, but they’re not because currently mistakes happen.”

SIRG uses a general approach to educating the military about the nuances of communication. Because the military is deployed all over the world, what might specifically work in Afghanistan might not work in the Philippines. So the group tries to identify skills that the military can use in any scenario.

Rubin’s academic interest in the sociolinguistics of cross-cultural communications stems from a desire to understand how to create bridges between people with wildly different backgrounds. For instance, how can urban Americans bred on pop culture and secularization relate to, say, devout Muslims in rural Pakistan when they have virtually nothing in common? It’s a question that SIRG is trying to answer through its research for DARPA.

Rubin was recently accepted into the linguistics department’s accelerated master’s program, so she has time to complete her research with SIRG. After she graduates, she says, she hopes to continue on a similar path.

“I think we’re doing really important work,” she said. “We’re helping to see what can be done to minimize violence around the world.”

—Lauren Ober

Related Information

Learn more about undergraduate research opportunities with the Social Interaction Research Group and the Department of Linguistics.