Joseph Hilferty: “A good communicator knows how to listen and observe”

Joseph Hilferty, linguist and professor at the University of Barcelona, is not only an expert in language, cognition and communication, bus also in culture, being an American in Catalonia and therefore, obviously, an expert in American-Spanish-Catalan multiculturalism. Who else, but him, could answer this questions about culture and communication? Right.

So, enough talking. Enjoy the following interview!


“The more something coheres with our traditional conceptions of what is considered artistic, the more easily it may be described as culture.”

What is culture for you?

Answer: Wow, that is a question I’m not usually asked, so I hope that I don’t say anything too stupid, especially since it’s coming off the top of my head. Culture is a polysemous term. First, it refers to those aspects of human life that are dependent on groups, and not on individuals per se. Groups are made of interacting individuals, to be sure, but a single individual does not give rise to culture in this sense. Culture (and cultures) are constrained and motivated by the limitations and needs of our biology, but this is also true of groups and their environment (I use the term environment in its broadest sense). So, for example, the biological need for food might be fulfilled differently in different cultures, and this is what we find: what’s considered appropriate foodstuffs differs from culture to culture depending on availability and successfulness of intergenerational cultural transmission, as well as the relevant knowledge and goods obtained from other groups.

Of course, I’m merely scratching the surface here. Without a doubt, there are many, many facets of culture that are not primarily the product of obvious biological needs. This brings us to a second use of the term (there are more uses): culture as a synonym for art in all its forms. In this sense the more something coheres with our traditional conceptions of what is considered artistic, the more easily it may be described as culture. A graffiti tag is more of an eyesore than culture on this view, whereas a painting by Turner is probably a very good example.

That said, I personally don’t get too hung up on this notion of culture. If I like something or I see some merit in it, that’s good enough for me. Whether it’s the latest Netflix series, like Stranger Things, or a nonfiction piece in The Atlantic, the important thing is whether I enjoy it and take something with me from the experience.

What are cultural differences between USA and Spain? Are there similarities?

Well, the U.S. is a big place. I can only speak about the Bay Area (I’m from a small town on the San Francisco Peninsula). One difference is the sheer amount of ethnic diversity. This means you might be hanging out with a friend of half-Italian decent, another of friend whose parents immigrated from Central America when they were young, and yet another friend whose father is ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. Meanwhile your neighbor might be Australian, Argentinian, Canadian, or perhaps from India. Or they might be second-generation Korean or third-generation Armenian or Basque. Or somewhat more likely they’ll be something of a mixture of many heritages.

Quite often you can glimpse the mark of different cultures just by going to the home of a friend or a neighbor. You see it the the food they eat, especially. And that’s a good thing, believe me.

Mixing cuisines is really popular now. Some of the mixtures of different tastes are quite surprising. In fact, at this point I think Californians will eat just about anything!

Another big difference with Spain is that only city dwellers live in flats in the Bay Area; most other  people tend to live in a single-family homes, much like the depictions of suburbia that you see on TV. In Spain pretty much everyone lives in a flat. Single-family dwellings are the exception. Unsurprisingly, it’s rather difficult to live without a car in California, whereas in Spain it’s usually pretty feasible to get from point A to point B by public transit.

There are many other differences: too many, really, to enumerate here. But in general people are people and every place has its positive and negative points. I certainly can’t complain.

One cultural aspect of the USA you definitely miss here in Spain?

Being able shop or get something done at 3:30 in the afternoon! Even after living here so long, I still have to remember that things tend to close down between 1:30-4:00 pm.The other thing is August. Spain is completely paralyzed during the month of August because almost everyone goes on vacation at that time. (Having a month-long vacation is a good thing, though!)

One Spanish aspect would you like to introduce in the USA?

Month-long vacations!

Something you see as totally Catalan?

Recently I’ve seen a joke called The Hipster Nativity Set. Well, nothing beats the Catalan Nativity Scene! That is totally Catalan!

Do you adapt yourself to Spanish/ manners and traditions and adopt them? Or do you keep American traditions?

It’s pretty much impossible to keep up most American traditions since my family all live in the States. I almost always find myself adapting to the ways things are done here. So no Thanksgiving but, ironically, I do instead get to “celebrate” Black Friday.

Can you talk about your hobbies? For example, we know that you have a musical project. Can you tell us more about it?

Sure. The Neurotic Kites started as a project for a self-released EP with my friends Oriol Solé and Toni Sistaré (who also had their own project called Ghandi Rules OK). I had been programming (sequencing) in MIDI for a few years and I play the guitar somewhat. So, the next logical step was to start writing full songs with music and lyrics. The first demo I showed Oriol and Toni was “Emotional Suicide.”

What I wasn’t ready for was that I going to be the lead singer in this project! It caught me completely off guard. In fact the only song that I managed to sing pretty much on key in that original EP was “Sea of Shadows.”

It was about this time that the three of us became involved with an independent label called Repetidor Disc. I continued writing more songs, which turned into a sort of concept album called Lives.

The video for the song “Over” from the Lives LP is brilliant, though a bit unsettling.

Perhaps my favorite song on the album is “Takes Too Long”.

After the disc came out, my health wasn’t allowing me to do very much but, after a few years, I finally pulled myself together and started writing again. We’re currently in the process of recording a new album, and in fact I’m already working on new songs with my friend Carlos Barranco for a follow-up disc.


“Be clear, logical, and self-confident, don’t take up too much time, give cues as to where your train of thought is going, stress the main points you’re making, and above all don’t be boring.”

What do you think are necessary skills for communication?

To paraphrase Chomsky in his unwittingly hilarious interview with Ali G, it all depends on how we define “communication,” since it might be argued that all organisms communicate.

In the sense that I think you are talking about, the ability to cooperate, conceptualize, and overtly use signs (semiotic systems) strike me as some of the most basic necessary skills for (human) communication. This might be true of many other species as well.

What is good/bad communication?

Perhaps it might be better think of the matter in terms of good or bad communicators. First of all, a good communicator knows how to listen and observe, and they are able to adjust their discourse according to the feedback they are getting. Second, a good communicator knows the limits of their knowledge on a given topic and they try their utmost not to stray beyond those limits. Third, a good communicator tries to be honest, and tries not to place undue burden on their interlocutors or audience. Be clear, logical, and self-confident, don’t take up too much time, give cues as to where your train of thought is going, stress the main points you’re making, and above all don’t be boring.

Bad communicators lack self-confidence and they show it. Bad communicators also keep their audience guessing what they are trying to convey without realizing it and they’re probably boring. Chronically bad communicators don’t listen: they just don’t take the interlocutor into account.

Do you have a favourite communicator?

Neil deGrasse Tyson! He has a podcast called Star Talk.

He’s really funny and very smart.

How can Social Media change/influence culture?

On the negative side, social media can take advantage of what is known as the confirmation bias (the fact that we filter out disconfirming evidence for our beliefs and pay attention to those things that confirm them). A case in point: it is starting to look like social media has the ability to affect election outcomes through the spread of fake news, for example.

The positive side is that social media has the ability to help us keep contact with and meet people from almost any corner of the world. It also has the ability to help us keep up with the latest developments in just about whatever you’re interested in.

The trick is to be able to discern between what’s real and what’s a hoax. It’s not easy sometimes.

How can Social Media change our way of communicating? Is it positive? Or negative?

Humans are social animals. Traditionally this has meant face-to-face encounters. Social media is changing this even more radically than the invention of the telephone or mail systems. Nonetheless, I don’t think it will ever completely replace face-to-face encounters. I guess it’s neither positive nor negative: it’s just different.

On the other hand, the amount of screen time that many children (and many adults) accumulate can get to be pretty annoying. Virtual worlds have always had their place ever since the invention of storytelling but there is no substitute for the real world.

Can it be seen as our “own” culture?

The only thing that really keeps anyone from claiming social media as part of their own culture is not having access to the requisite technology. That’s what truly separates the haves from the have-nots.

Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Hilferty!



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