Miscommunication: Too Much Cultural Sensitivity!


This cross-cultural dating mishap (in response to this post) is a true story from UC Berkeley’s International House, submitted by Joe Lurie:

A German male student and a Guatemalan female student have agreed to go out on an evening date beginning at 8pm. Both wishing to make a good impression, decide to leverage their cross-cultural skills and sensitivity when dealing with approaches to time. The German fellow, normally stereotypically monochronic — 8 means perhaps five to eight — arrives at 8:45 only to find the anxious, somewhat distressed Guatemalan woman saying, “Where have you been? I have been ready since 7:50  as I wanted to be sensitive to your cultural clock.”

Adopting each other’s styles provoked an amusing disconnect — but in this case, not serious. They are married today!

Thank you, Joe! Reminds me how often I used to bow in Japan when my colleagues would simultaneously stick out their arms in anticipation of a handshake.

2 thoughts on “Miscommunication: Too Much Cultural Sensitivity!

  1. Love this topic! Especially about times when both people try to be culturally sensitive and end up on opposite sides again. My example is about Deaf and hearing cultures. Many years ago, when my first book on this subject came out, I had a book party to celebrate with mostly hearing friends and family but a few deaf friends as well, most notably the 3 respected deaf consultants who helped me with the book.

    When it was time for speeches, I publicly thanked my 3 deaf collaborators for their invaluable assistance. Then Dr. Tom Holcomb, one of these consultants, got up and signed with a twinkle in his eye, “Sure I helped Anna, I pointed out WRONG WRONG WRONG (meaning “all her mistakes!”). I was thrilled! As I explained it to my non-signing family members later, “Tom teased me the way deaf people tease each other. Now I feel like I belong!”

    When I got home from the party, however, I had an email from Priscilla, one of my other deaf consultants. She said, “I am so embarrassed that Tom talked to you like that. Do you think everyone thought he was being rude?”

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  2. Oh what a wonderful story, Anna! That “in-between” space, when we straddle multiple cultures, is so fascinating. One person compliments you, and a friend sees it as a diss. Behaving culturally appropriately for one group is inappropriate for another. Example: one night in my Japanese office, working very late with some overseas visitors, in English. I laughed loudly, with my mouth open, US American style. The next day my local colleagues were hesitant with me. When I asked them about it, they said they’d never seen me behave so “gaijin” before, and it scared them. They felt like they no longer knew who I was. So easy to lose hard-gained credibility and trust, though hopefully we can convert such instances into growth opportunities and teachable moments.

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