Over-simplification can lead to costly consequences.


Stories abound of misunderstandings that arise from cultural misunderstandings. Some are funny and some are tragic. Many are costly. Some errors even occur after cultural training has taken place, because a brief class can bestow false confidence on the participant, who then believes that applying intercultural knowledge is as simple as paint-by-number. If this, then that. If a hospital patient from a certain culture is moaning in pain, it can be ignored because she comes from an expressive culture. Or if a business leader from a particular country says no with a distinct head movement, it means maybe. This over-simplified view of intercultural understanding can lead to damaging and sometimes tragic mistakes.

In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman has written a heartbreaking story of American doctors in California treating a Hmong child with epilepsy. Both the doctors and the parents wanted what was best for the child, but cultural misunderstandings led to devastating and irreversible consequences.

In an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, identified failed projects due to cultural misunderstandings:

The prison in Diyala Province... the Minister of Justice told us when we carried out our review of that project that they never really wanted it. As a result, there now is no prison in Diyala Province, yet we spent $40 million trying to build one there.”

“…when we undertake future operations [it is important] that we fully consult and we recognize and embrace and understand the host nation’s culture.

The high cost of weak intercultural skills is evident in almost every realm of our lives, and the biggest problems arise when we think we have more skill than we actually do. We may sincerely believe that our common humanity unites us all—and it does—but on a day-to-day basis we operate in a world of difference, both seen and hidden. We have different perspectives, experiences, needs, and behaviors. We bump up against difference with colleagues, clients, family, friends, and strangers. More often than not we ignore it, confront it, or pull back from it. But if we learn how to engage with it, we can achieve far more meaningful outcomes.



Intercultural skills increase the value of collaboration.