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- 5 Ways To Improve Your Life & Work Today Using Traditional Sāmoan Rhetoric
5 Ways To Improve Your Life & Work Today Using Traditional Sāmoan Rhetoric
Last week, I shared 9 Lessons for One-Person Businesses from 90 Days of Consistent Writing. This week, I did a deep dive into rhetoric (the art of effective or persuasive speaking/writing). Specifically, Sāmoan chiefly rhetoric.
Although many cultures have their own communication protocols, I chose Sāmoan rhetoric because of my ancestry. Despite being Polynesian, I discovered a lot of similarities to classical Greek rhetoric, which is what most Western communication is based on. I think all entrepreneurs and community-builders can learn from this when it comes to communicating with people better.
Because when you improve your communication skills, you improve your relationships. When you improve your relationships, you improve all areas of your life - whether personal or business.
Let's dive in!
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The rhetoric of a culture is the collective set of beliefs, values, and ideals that drive society. It determines the way its people think, speak, and act towards one another. The Sāmoan culture is no different. They have their own unique set of values, beliefs, and ideals that drive how they interact as a society.
Read on to find out more about traditional Sāmoan rhetoric in modern society and how you can use it for your own benefit as a speaker, writer, entrepreneur, or community-builder.
What is Sāmoan rhetoric?
Rhetoric, in its simplest form, is the art of effective or persuasive communication. In a collective sense, it refers to the ideals, values, and beliefs that drive society. The Sāmoan culture has its own unique rhetoric - especially when it comes to chiefly class - that impacts its people's communication, thoughts, and behaviors.
It is important to understand the rhetoric of a culture because it has a significant impact on how we interact with one another.
In Sāmoa, there is an indigenous, political (chiefly) system known as fa'amatai, which is still present and significant to the culture. A chief is often referred to as a matai, a title that is often passed down via heirs. But to go even further, there's a subset of the matai class known as O le Tulāfale - "The Orator" or "talking chief."
What is the significance of O le Tulāfale?
Just like some ancient cultures revered professional storytellers (see The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco), in Sāmoa, they revered the Orator when it came to demonstrating one's grasp of traditional rhetoric.
The culture surrounding chiefly oratory is highly developed, with its own style and language.¹ This is because, before the arrival of European missionaries, knowledge was passed down primarily through oral traditions.
Therefore, these systems needed to be incredibly precise in order to ensure the right information was passed down from generation to generation - a far cry from the way we treat language and knowledge today (just look at social media).
The key tenets of Sāmoan chiefly rhetoric
Sāmoan rhetoric has a number of key tenets that determine the way their culture functions. These values are inherent to the Sāmoan people, regardless of age, social standing, or geographical location.
Within the matai class, there are various types of speeches that the Tulāfale (Orator) needs to know. One includes the "welcome speech" (lauga o le feiloaiga) when engaging with groups from other villages, which includes very specific components in sequence:
Opening (tuvaoga): proverbial phrases hinting at the substance of the main body of the speech
Gratitude (fa'afetai i le Atua): Give thanks (e.g. God) for the safe arrival of the party, which translated well into a post-missionary (Christian) society for Sāmoa.
Apologies ('ava): common (tongue-in-cheek) apologies for the quality of presented kava roots to the arrival party, expressing a "wish they could be bigger and better." But usually, they are quite plentiful.
Recall (tapui le nu'u): recitation of the names (fa'alupega), in their proper status order, of all the important chiefs, clusters of chiefs, and special personages like the ceremonial maiden (taupou) and the prince (manaia) of the visitors' village.
Concluding remarks (fa'aiuga): singing praise to the other party, closing with remarks such as, "Now my speech is finished. God bless you and protect the malaga and the village."
Due to the constant recollection of the above facts, little confusion develops about the duties and obligations of matais (chiefs). The fa'alupega (recitation of names) "illuminates the chain of authority in districts, on given islands, or in island groups."¹ (Sounds like a good use-case for blockchain 😅)
After the initial party concludes their speech, there is the "reply speech" (lauga tali).
The similarities between Sāmoan & Greek Rhetoric
Much like formal debates in today's times, there's also something called the seu, which is the traditional attempt of the host's village orator to interrupt the other's speech.
This certainly adds some drama and intrigue, but it's also a way for orators to try and demonstrate who's better. A battle of wits.
In classical Greek rhetoric, the Samoan chiefly rhetoric structure maps over quite well:
Exordium (introduction) -> Tuvaoga (opening)
Narratio (context/situation) → fa'afetai i le Atua (gratitude)
Confirmatio (arguments/facts) → tapui le nu'u (recitations)
Refutatio (counter) -> seu (interruption)
Peroratio (conclusion) → fa'aiuga (conclusion)
You might notice that the order is a bit different, but the structures are quite similar, despite the cultural differences.
5 ways "you" can utilize traditional Sāmoan rhetoric in life and work today
As aforementioned, Sāmoan rhetoric is a set of ideals, values, and beliefs that drive the Sāmoan culture. They determine how Sāmoans think, speak and act towards one another. Understanding this can also help you better understand your own self and cultural influences when it comes to communicating with others.
So how can you utilize traditional Sāmoan rhetorical practices in your life and work today?
Well, there are a few things:
1. Find a talk from a ("chiefly") leader or speaker you admire. This will give you an inside look at how a culture (and time period) influences the communication style of a speaker. It will enable you to see why their rhetoric resonates with their audiences or not. I use YouTube to find such speeches and/or talks. Here's one of William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) from the movie Braveheart:
2. Share your gratitude, authentically. One thing Sāmoan orators do a good job of is "giving thanks" at the beginning of their speeches. In neuropsychology, studies have proven that authentic gratitude actually has powerful effects on the brain. Opening your formal, public communications with an expression of gratitude might prove beneficial over time, as witnessed here with one of my favorite actors, Denzel Washington:
3. Memorize knowledge that's relevant to your field. If you recall, Sāmoan orators often have to recall the names of all their families, chiefs, etc., plus have intimate knowledge of any mythical or biblical references. So if you're a politician, it helps to know laws and policies inside and out. If you're a biologist, it would help to know the ins and outs of biology, reputable people in your field, facts & figures, and even popular myths (so you can confidently debunk them).
4. Join communication-focused organizations, communities, or courses. There are various groups on the web dedicated to helping you improve your writing or speaking skills. Just like the O le Tulāfales, perfect your craft by putting yourself in scenarios that force you to speak more formally and directly with others. This will not only help you to improve your communication, but it will also allow you to see what works vs. what doesn't. For modern times, this can come in the form of podcasts, newsletters, tweets, interviews, or public speaking. Specific online groups you can join to improve general rhetoric include:
Toast Masters International - a long-running non-profit dedicated to public speaking practice
Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasive Writing and Public Speaking - a well-known online course by Harvard to help improve your writing and public speaking skills
Charisma On Command - one of my favorite YouTube channels for analyzing the talks and personalities of various celebrities and leaders.
5. Commit to consistent writing or speaking via modern channels. Studying is one thing. Practice is another. I'm very much an advocate for the "learn-to-do-by-doing" approach to education, so finding ways to put what you learn into practice will always ensure you improve your craft.
So while getting started is important, it's also important to increase the difficulty and conditions of your practice (so you don't get complacent). As a result, here are a few ways to continuously improve yourself:
Ship 30 for 30 - join this monthly cohort (by Dickie Bush) to put yourself amongst other writers and commit to daily writing
Justin Welsh - study the way this entrepreneur approaches writing online via systems, then develop your own style.
Do a daily vlog challenge - commit to 30/60/90 days publicly. This will allow you to just get started, then see how people respond. Pay attention to engagement each day, and keep refining to see what works vs. what doesn't.
If we don’t understand cultural rhetoric, we don't understand the underlying mechanisms that influence our own culture’s collective thought processes and ways of communicating. This makes it difficult to function as a member of society, let alone operate within it because you get caught up on content without understanding the context.
Sāmoan culture is incredibly rich, which has enabled the Sāmoan people to create a unique, vibrant, and inspiring community regardless of their geographic location. If you want to learn more about the Sāmoan way of life, scroll back up to my premium newsletter links, and take a read of each edition.
Hopefully, by looking into another culture's rhetoric, it has also helped you look deeper into your own influences, while at the same time inspiring you to improve your communication in general.
What's one thing you learned today? What's one thing you could apply this week when it comes to writing or speaking?
Until next week , remember: through patience & persistence, it will come.
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