Bill Gates recently greeted South Korea’s president with a one-handed shake, the other was tucked into his pocket, setting off an international etiquette firestorm. Similar gaffes are increasingly common in a global society where people interact with colleagues and cultures around the world. From hospital bedsides to corporate boardrooms, the demand for a culturally competent workforce has ballooned, and the required skills now go way beyond simple “dos and don’ts.” Kojo and diversity consultant Howard Ross explore the nuances of cross-cultural competency in the workplace and beyond.


  • Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
  • Gary Weaver Professor of International Communications, Executive Director of Intercultural Management Institute, American University

Cultural Norms: Who Knew?

Today’s health care workers encounter a growing number of patients with diverse cultural backgrounds. To help care providers better understand the unique needs of those patients, the diversity consulting firm Cook Ross provides these tips, among others, in its online resource, CultureVision.

  1. Many Chinese in the U.S. follow traditional healing practices which may leave marks that might be misinterpreted as abuse.

  2. Some doctors in Latin American countries prescribe injections rather than pills to treat illness. A patient accustomed to receiving a shot may expect one as part of treatment.

  3. Asian Indians often value stoicism and may not complain about pain. General questions about pain may or may not be responded to as effectively as precise inquiries.

  4. Among some Muslims, the left hand is considered to be unclean, and it is preferable that the right hand be used for feeding or administering medications.

  5. Some Russians will occasionally drink vodka with sugar to treat a cough.


  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It was dubbed the handshake that bruised a nation. Last month Bill Gates greeted South Korea's President Park Geun-hye with one hand stuffed into his pocket, a traditional sign of disrespect in Korean culture.

  • 13:07:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was a faux pas that set off an etiquette firestorm and just the latest example of the way seemingly innocuous interactions can quickly devolve into misunderstandings and mistaken impressions. International diplomats and business leaders have long known the hazards of ignoring other cultures norms.

  • 13:07:36

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIRemember when Michelle Obama broke protocol and touched Queen Elizabeth's back or when George H. Bush became ill at a state dinner in Japan. But today businesses operating within our own borders are confronting similar issues, moving beyond standard do's and don'ts to help people understand what makes other cultures tick and, well, what makes our culture tick too.

  • 13:08:00

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur guests have spent their careers imparting the nuances of cultural competency to others. Howard Ross is back. he is a diversity consultant and principal of Cook Ross. He's author of the book "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." Howard, good to see you.

  • 13:08:19

    MR. HOWARD ROSSHi, Kojo.

  • 13:08:21

    NNAMDIGary Weaver also joins us in studio. He's a professor at American University School of International Service. He's also executive director of the university Intercultural Management Institute. Gary Weaver, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:34

    MR. GARY WEAVERGood to be here.

  • 13:08:35

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call for you to join the conversation. 800-433-8850. Howard, I opened the show by mentioning some of the more famous or, well, infamous examples of cross-cultural gaffs that we've seen in recent times. But most of us won't be meeting the queen or holding bilateral talks anytime soon so why is it important to be culturally competent?

  • 13:09:03

    ROSSWell, you know, we're dealing right now, Kojo, in a culture, you know, forget leaving the country. even in this country right now we have almost 12 percent of our residential population are people who are born outside of the United States, which is the highest percentage since the 19th century. And so even if we're in our offices, in our businesses here we've got increasingly people who we're dealing with who were born outside of the country or whose parents were born outside of the country.

  • 13:09:28

    ROSSI give an opening lecture every year to the freshmen class at Johns Hopkins University and this year when we gave that talk there were about 1,400 students in the room and I asked them to raise their hand if either they were born outside of the United States or one of their two parents were born outside of the United States and more than half of the students raised their hands.

  • 13:09:47

    ROSSSo this is the world we're dealing with. And I also want to insert from the beginning into our conversation an invitation that we look at culture in a broader sense than simply race, ethnicity or nation of origin because there is a fascinating story in "The Washington Post" two weeks ago today. I'm sure some of our listeners saw it.

  • 13:10:07

    ROSSAnd what it said was that 75 percent, that soldiers coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq are 75 percent more likely to die in fatal car accidents when they come back to this country especially during the first six months I believe it was.

  • 13:10:20

    ROSSWhat they went on to say was that the reason and they suspect is because the way of driving that they're taught in a war zone, keeping their seatbelts off so that they can leave a car quickly, driving through intersections quickly, you know, various other kinds of things.

  • 13:10:34

    ROSSWhen they transfer those into this culture, a different culture, you know, the culture of war versus the culture of a peacetime city ends up resulting in them dying. So I think there's a broad way we can talk about culture in this regard.

  • 13:10:47

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, what do you think? Do you think that we don't know as much as we should about other cultures or do you think that's a stereotype of Americans that goes too far? 800-433-8850. Gary Weaver, as one of Washington's longtime global etiquette gurus, I'd like to ask you how the emphasis on this field has changed over the years especially in institutions like the military and the State Department?

  • 13:11:14

    WEAVERWell, what has changed is it used to be if you were going to be working overseas, let's say you're going to Mexico. Often you would get some kind of a do's and don'ts list type of training. Do this, don't do that, they tell you the courtesies, put you on your plane and assume you're going to function well overseas.

  • 13:11:31

    WEAVERBut what we've found out is very often that type of training simply perpetuated stereotypes and today what we want to do is teach people how to analyze or interpret any situation they're likely to encounter based upon understanding the values and the ways of thinking of people from another culture.

  • 13:11:48

    WEAVERSo the goal of good cross-cultural training today in the military and the business world is to develop what I would call realistic cultural empathy and that just means the ability to put yourself in someone else's psychological and cultural shoes. To understand the way they look at the world, the way they think so you can usually figure out what is the proper thing to do.

  • 13:12:11

    WEAVERWith Bill Gates putting his hand in his pocket, it's disrespectful to the president of Korea but if you understood the value placed upon hierarchy, status, age and so forth you simply know that if you're shaking hands with the president of the country it's not like shaking hands with your buddy at a bar. It's a completely different social situation and acknowledging status is so much more important in a country like Korea.

  • 13:12:35

    NNAMDIYou know, Howard Ross, I don't think I've ever been a country or for that matter to a state where one of my traveling companions did not say, "These people here don't know how to drive." I'd imagine that before you can train people to be sensitive to other cultures you probably have to dig around and figure out what our biases are to begin with, right, because that's one that I just mentioned?

  • 13:12:56

    ROSSWell, that's true but there's just a little antidote about that. you know, when I was in India about five, six years ago, we got there the first couple of days and my son at the time was 12 and we were traveling and he literally the first three days had his hood pulled over his head most of the time because it was so terrifying to him and you do have, you know, five lanes of traffic where there are three designated lanes and in the middle of that bicycles are coming through and toot-toots and cows walking, a cow will walk across...

  • 13:13:22

    NNAMDIThe fact that most people know how to drive...

  • 13:13:24

    ROSSWell, I was just going to say but you know what, we started to notice, Kojo, and I mean this seriously, over a period of time we began to notice we saw virtually no accidents. And that was exactly what I was left with. These people really know how to drive. I mean, they have a sense of being, who's around them and negotiating around them in extraordinary ways.

  • 13:13:39

    ROSSBut of course, we have a tendency to stereotype things that are different from us and its part of our brains defense mechanism. You know, our amygdala is designed to pick up things that are threatening more than things that are welcoming because if we miss things are welcoming it's a nice surprise. If we miss things that are threatening we could be dead.

  • 13:13:56

    ROSSSo foe is sort of our natural orientation when we see things that are different than us and in order to know how to quickly resolve dealing with those things we quickly put those into boxes and that's why I agree with Gary, that when we turn this into stereotypes, that is, you know, all people are like this.

  • 13:14:13

    ROSSI mean, one great example we use, as you know Kojo we do a lot of work in healthcare and have a tool called culture vision that we've designed, which is an online tool to have doctors and nurses have information available, everything from how do you communicate to people to what are the ethno-pharmacological issues that they may deal with because of their genetic stream.

  • 13:14:30

    ROSSAnd one example that I think I've talked about on this show before is that, Vietnamese women, when they go into labor in American hospitals tend to get dehydrated more than other groups and the reason is not biological it's cultural, that labor and delivery is considered a cold time and during cold times when they're, it's a culture based on hot and cold theory.

  • 13:14:50

    ROSSDuring cold times women are told not to drink cold liquids or eat cold foods. But then the nurse brings them ice chips and ice water to drink so they don't drink it they get dehydrated. It extends their hospital stay which has a financial cost, it impacts the mother's health, it delays lactation which then affects mother and baby.

  • 13:15:04

    ROSSBut we say to people all the time that doesn't mean that when you have a Vietnamese patient you go over and say here's warm water because they may a culture related differently. It is helpful to know to say, "What temperature water would you like?" And that's where an archetype of knowing that there's a pattern in a culture can be helpful to inform the questions that we ask and the kinds of things we're looking for. But turning it into an automatic response, as Gary was saying, becomes a stereotype which can be problematic.

  • 13:15:27

    NNAMDIIndeed, if you go to our website,, you can read about some of the interesting and often unknown cultural needs that doctors encounter when they treat parents from other countries. That's at our website, Gary, when you train our nation's diplomats you said it's no longer mainly a matter of do's and don'ts. Is there a real interest in knowing what makes other cultures tick?

  • 13:15:53

    WEAVERI think there is and particularly in the military today because it could save your life. I mean, if you understand the way other people perceive a situation, the way they think, they way they saw problems then you can anticipate how they're going to respond to what you say and what you do and that may be a vital survival skill.

  • 13:16:13

    WEAVERAnd in the military today I think many people would say if it saves my life and saves me from hurting somebody else then it's worth knowing. I do a lot of work with law enforcement and the police officers that I've worked with, who take this stuff very seriously are not the young, rookie cops.

  • 13:16:31

    WEAVERI mean, these are the guys with the pistol on the ankle and one on the hip and, you know, they want the cross-cultural stuff an hour between how to use a baton and how to use handcuffs. But you know, let's get it over with and move on.

  • 13:16:42

    WEAVERThe old-timers, when you start talking about this cross-cultural misunderstanding, they want to testify. They want to tell you about that Puerto Rican kid that they stopped and he stood 10 inches from their face and he's supposed to stand 18 inches so he can't grab the sidearm. But all at once this little incident where the Puerto Rican didn't know you're supposed to stand an arm's length, it degenerates into resisting arrest and so on and so forth.

  • 13:17:07

    WEAVERSo the old-timers will testify as to how this stuff is very, very vital. It's very practical and I think the same thing is true with many people in the military today. We've learned that this kind of knowledge and this kind of skill is vital to doing your job.

  • 13:17:22

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's the voice of Gary Weaver. He's a professor at American University School of International Service. He's also executive director of the university's Intercultural Management Institute. We're having a conversation about cultural competence.

  • 13:17:37

    NNAMDIAlso with us, of course, is Howard Ross, diversity consultant and principal of Cook Ross, author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance" and you, those of you who call 800-443-8850, have you ever encountered a cultural misunderstanding with your healthcare provider?

  • 13:17:56

    NNAMDIGive us a call or send email to Is there a right way and a wrong way to train people in cultural competence? I ask because earlier this year a cultural sensitivity program at the USDA came under fire for its emphasis on what you might call, extreme political correctness. A trainer had USDA employees banging on tables and chanting things like, "The pilgrims were illegal aliens." Is there a, well, that didn't get a good response.

  • 13:18:24

    ROSSWell, I think that, I mean, Gary and I were talking about this before we came on, Kojo, and, you know, as somebody who's done diversity work in organizations now for almost 30 years one of the things that we suffer with is people who may be well intentioned but who do things that are just inappropriate.

  • 13:18:39

    ROSSAnd one of the challenges of course with diversity work is that historically and this is really what my book's about, that's why I call it "Reinventing Diversity" is because historically we've looked at this subject through a good person, bad person paradigm. You know, and there are the good people who are like us and we think everybody should be treated fairly and like and then there are the bad people who do all that stuff that we're looking at.

  • 13:18:59

    ROSSAnd there's no question that there are people out there who are hurtful and harmful intentionally and they don't like certain groups of people and they go out to hurt them. But our research shows pretty unequivocally that 90 percent of the things or even more that happen in organizations today are not by somebody who's out to get anybody.

  • 13:19:14

    ROSSIts people who have blind spots, they don't realize that they're culturally insensitive. They don't realize that that person is operating differently, coming from a different cultural background or racial or ethnic or gender background or because of their life perspective or whatever else.

  • 13:19:28

    ROSSAnd the challenge with those kinds of programs where we, you know, take a position and try to ram it down people's throats using whatever clever techniques that we use, is that even know we might be able to break down people convince them to buy, of the error of their ways and buy into that but ultimately that doesn't have much stickiness. And ultimately when people leave if they're made to feel guilty they'll contract and they won't want to have anything to do with diversity ever again.

  • 13:19:54

    ROSSAnd so what we choose to do is, of course, deal with those, you know, that 10 percent when they come up and, you know, we have to have a very firm line of what's appropriate and what's inappropriate. But the bigger conversation that really transforms human relationships is how do we begin to see that we each come from different perspectives, culture being one important lens of that. And if we can begin to understand that the world that we see is actually not the same world as the world with the person next to us, because that culture provides lens.

  • 13:20:20

    ROSSYou know, you and I have talked about this as a black man in America versus somebody with white skin and that we see different things. We react to different things without intention to harm a lot of times.

  • 13:20:31

    NNAMDIThe (word?) , Gary, that emerged after videos of those USDA training sessions were released, brings up what might be a common misperception about what cultural competency really is. You say that bad training is worse than no training.

  • 13:20:46

    WEAVERAbsolutely. If it perpetuates stereotypes I think that's worse than no training. If it somehow gives people a self confidence that they can handle these people who are culturally different and they really don't have that ability, then I think that's counterproductive. But also, what we were just talking about -- Howard was talking about is that race relations training 20 years ago, and I think we all went through these seminars, where it often had to be highly emotional. You had to confess I'm a racist. You had to confess that you were hurt. Tears had to be streaming down your face. And then, by god, you've got it. We've got you trained.

  • 13:21:23

    WEAVERAnd you take that and you carry that into the modern world, and all at once we have psychological casualties. We have people who go on a weekend retreat and start doing this stuff in their church basements. And they don't know what they're doing. And it can cause -- I mean, you get all these blessings out of this diversity training. Well, sometimes it causes a lot of psychological harm.

  • 13:21:44

    WEAVERAnd there have been many cases years ago where I would be asked to come into a company, cleaning up the blood after one of these guys because -- and there would be blood all over the floor. And I would go and say, no, no, no, no. You don't have to confess. You don't have to beat up. You don't have to get all emotive. And that's the beauty of what we're talking about today.

  • 13:22:02

    WEAVERBecause when we start putting it in terms of culture, we're saying, isn't it interesting that Kojo looks at it this way, I look at it this way because of our different -- I'm not saying you're bad or good. I'm just saying isn't it interesting? So we can talk about very sensitive things such as gender and race without it becoming emotional, without screaming at each other. And that's where the real understanding comes about, in my opinion.

  • 13:22:25

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. there are several callers on the line who'd like to join this conversation. If you would like to join it too, the number's 800-433-8850. Have you ever committed a cultural faux pas when you've traveled abroad? You can also send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:24:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on cultural competence. We're talking with Howard Ross. He's a diversity consultant and the principal of Cook Ross. And Gary Weaver is a professor at American University's School of International Service. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to We move now to Tom in Springfield, Va. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:24:53

    TOMHi, Kojo. I think it's important to differentiate between cultural competence and cultural sensitivity. And if you're going into some specific culture, you can study up on it and maybe become a little competent. But in most of our interactions in sort of a global environment, it's important just to be culturally sensitive, and to admit that you do have a different perspective. And to put that out up front and say, you know, you may view this differently. So if, you know, where you're coming from is different, please correct me if I need correcting.

  • 13:25:22

    TOMAnd sort of being open to the other person's experience rather than thinking you could be competent in everybody's culture.

  • 13:25:28

    NNAMDIThat's true. You're saying that cultural competence may be a step farther that requires some knowledge, some understanding. Where cultural sensitivity really means just being sensitive to the fact that you're not in your own or a culture that is familiar to you. A lot of us working now in offices where we're undertaking projects with or talking regularly with colleagues who are overseas, what kinds of challenges are most common when you're trying to work productively with colleagues in different cultures who you may only see on video screens, Howard?

  • 13:26:00

    ROSSWell, I think, you know, look, you could take virtually any industry and show -- I mean, I was with a law firm in New York City the other day. I was talking to a bunch of litigators. And in the midst of a conversation, you know, I was talking with them about the voir dire process where they're interviewing jurors. And I said to them, so you know, what's that like? And they said, well, a lot of it is gut instinct in picking up certain signals.

  • 13:26:19

    ROSSI said, so for example, you know, what do you do if you've got somebody on the -- you know, who you're interviewing during the process and they don't make eye contact with you? And to a one, everyone of them said, don't want them on the jury. And I said, well, let me ask you a question. What if you find out they come from a culture in which averting their eyes is a sign of respect, but making direct eye contact is a sign of insolence? And they said, oh, you know.

  • 13:26:41

    ROSSSo we talked about health care already. Of course in the military hundreds of examples of times when, for example, in Iraq when soldiers thought that they were telling people to stop with the hand signal. That was actually telling them to come forward and people almost getting shot. Gary, I know you probably got hundreds of examples of the same.

  • 13:26:58

    WEAVERIf I can just add to what you're saying. We had the incident up in Boston with the marathon runners. And if you recall, the young man appeared before a judge -- a female judge who thought that he was insolent because he kept looking down at the floor. Remember that?

  • 13:27:12


  • 13:27:12

    WEAVERAnd that was the lead story in all the newspapers. This kid was defiant to this judge, where as in Eastern Europe that's how you show respect to somebody of higher status. But of all the hundreds of reporters that reported on this, not one said, wait a minute, maybe he's just culturally different.

  • 13:27:28

    NNAMDIIndeed we got an email from Laurie who says, "Thank you for talking about this important topic. I teach biotechnology at Montgomery College and many of our students are from other cultures. When talking about applying and interviewing for jobs, we mention American business expectations, specifically one, eye contact. Americans make eye contact regardless of age or title, two, the handshake and three, personal space. Americans have a large personal space."

  • 13:27:54

    NNAMDI"Cultural misunderstandings such as not making eye contact can be misinterpreted as extreme shyness rather than the show of respect it is in other cultures," a point that both of you were just making.

  • 13:28:06

    ROSSYeah, or for that matter firmness of handshake, which we, you know, an American -- you know, in our norm handshakes are like wrestling matches, you know.

  • 13:28:14

    NNAMDIYes, if you can't make somebody cry out in pain, it's not a genuine handshake.

  • 13:28:16

    ROSSExactly right. And, of course, in many other cultures that's considered aggressive. A softer handshake is much more welcoming. But I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, or when I ask, you know, in audiences I'm training, how many of you believe that if you shake hands with somebody at the beginning of an interview and they shake hands softly, it's already at least a point against them. And maybe you don't even hire them for that reason. And it's astonishing how many people.

  • 13:28:37

    ROSSYou know, I mean, how idiotic is that to take one interactive point like that and turn it into an overall assessment of a candidate. But it's a good indication of sort of the way the mind works, how quickly we take those stereotypical behaviors and then justify them.

  • 13:28:51

    NNAMDIGary, I mentioned video screens earlier. This kind of virtual work life is also happening in classrooms at American University. You've just kicked off the international school's first class where you meet with students located around the world in a video conference. What do you hope your students will learn from this experience, especially since they're not seeing the other person in person?

  • 13:29:12

    WEAVERWell, I'm biased against online learning. I didn't believe in it because I'm an old time lecturer, classroom, that sort of thing. But this new technology allows you to have each of your students on the screen. It's like the opening to the Brady bunch. You know, you got them all there and so you're making eye contact with them continually through the course.

  • 13:29:31

    WEAVERActually, I have more interaction with students then I have in the classroom. In the classroom if I'm talking to one student I can't look at the others. Here I can see all of them at the same time. They can talk over each other. So it's not -- our image of online learning is a glorified chat room or some kind of a Skype thing. The technology has gone way beyond that.

  • 13:29:50

    WEAVERAnd the beauty of it in our area, intercultural relations, is my students come from all over the world. So I've got somebody in Afghanistan, a soldier at 3:00 in the morning, somebody in Belgium at 6:00 in the afternoon. And they're all over the world, but it's like we're sitting around a table having a cup of coffee together. So I'm beginning to overcome my bias. I'll still be resistant, but I'm beginning to appreciate how this technology can actually connect us rather than disconnect us.

  • 13:30:17

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones again. Here now is Diane in Laurel, Md. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:30:25

    DIANEHi. I'd like to tell you briefly about my cultural misunderstanding in doing business here in the United States. I had a situation years ago where I was trying to purchase a mattress. And the guy was from, I don't know, out of the country someplace. And he had people of his culture that were there and I was watching how the businesses were going on. And I assumed that I'd be getting the same deal because in America that's what we've been instilled. When you're doing business everybody is treated the same.

  • 13:30:58

    DIANESuddenly I found out that that wasn't the deal. I ended up putting down a deposit and thought the next day I could come back and get my deposit. I couldn't. It ended up taking me a year to get my deposit back and going through all these ridiculous escalations, a long story short. His friend -- when it got physical his friend was the one who cleared the air and said, he will give you your money back.

  • 13:31:26

    DIANEAnd through his intervention and consumer affairs, it was a learning lesson both for him and I in that he was kind of sort of not to harm or anything, but he was what I call playing both sides. You're trying to do business for people of your culture like you always do and be fair to them, but at the same time, he wasn't doing that with people of his non-culture. And so it was kind of getting him in trouble. He was looking like he was misrepresenting himself. And it was all explained and it was a lesson learned for him and for me. But it is not one I would want to go through again, to teach anybody again.

  • 13:32:10

    NNAMDIIt sounds like a fairly complicated situation that you found yourself in, Diane. I'm glad it was ultimately resolved to your satisfaction. Howard, I have read a statistic that around 80 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail to meet financial expectations. When businesses combine forces, it seems they often overlook the important of meshing the cultures in those offices as well.

  • 13:32:34

    ROSSAbsolutely. And that's a lot of the work that we've done over the years with businesses, you know, the organizational development work that we do is working in cultural -- in bringing those cultures together for exactly that reason. I can give you an example of the way this shows up in a very simple and somewhat humorous form. We were working, bringing two companies together. They were in the utility industry.

  • 13:32:56

    ROSSAnd one of them was a very structured environment, a very buttoned down sort of, you know, everything had rules and regulations and was followed to the letter by rules and regulations, which is actually more common in the utility industry because there's so many safety considerations. Obviously people can die if people do things the wrong way in power plants and the like. And they were talking about a potential merger with a company that had a much more free flowing sort of a cowboy culture where people, you know, kind of thought on the moment, etcetera.

  • 13:33:26

    ROSSAnd so we're having these meetings as we're getting together with the leaders of the two different -- you know, for example the two different IT or the two different HR groups or whatever. And one of the leaders of one of these teams who was from the looser culture, sent out an invitation to this meeting and, you know, said the agenda was 9:00 to 12:00. We were going to be talking about the such-and-such subjects.

  • 13:33:49

    ROSSAnd the day before the meeting he gets a phone message from his cohort on the other side who says, I received your invitation. Since there's no clear agenda here, I won't be attending the meeting. Because in their culture the meetings would literally have said -- and I mean this literally to the minute -- 9:00 to 9:08, introductions of participants, 9:08 to 9:17...

  • 13:34:10

    ROSSAnd so as far as he was concerned, 9:00 to 12:00 talking about these subjects, it was just too vague to be worthwhile in his world. So, I mean, that's just an indication but it shows up in many, many different ways in organizational cultures.

  • 13:34:22

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join this conversation on cultural competence, or for that matter, cultural sensitivity. Are you an immigrant to this country? What confused you about the American culture, 800-433-8850? Gary, can you talk a little bit about the kinds of differences, maybe some examples in work and decision making across cultures and what happens?

  • 13:34:47

    WEAVERYeah, for example, in cultures that are traditionally non-northern European, Asian, African, Latin American, often you have to develop a relationship before you can get down to business. And this getting acquainted phase is absolutely essential because it helps the other person to know your character, the type of person you are.

  • 13:35:07

    WEAVERAmericans, if you're from Manhattan you usually want to get right down to business. You don't want all the chitchat and so forth. So the American comes across as if we're pushy. We don't want to develop a relationship. And on the other hand the American is looking at the fellow from Mexico City and thinking, you're totally incompetent. I mean, what do you mean talking about my father? I mean, my father has nothing to do with this business deal. But if you don't respect your own father, why would you respect me?

  • 13:35:32

    WEAVERSo the way you answer that question could have a tremendous impact on getting the business deal settled. So it's a completely different way of thinking but it shapes the way you do business. It shapes your conversation and so forth. Even -- if I can -- even the way we identify ourselves. We meet somebody at a party and we say, hello, I'm Gary Weaver. I'm a professor at American University. What do you do? And the implication is if I'm not doing anything I don't have an identity. To a certain extent that's true.

  • 13:36:01

    NNAMDIWell, I'm pretty good at doing nothing myself.

  • 13:36:02

    ROSSThere you go. You know, the same thing you're talking about, Gary, can exist in differences between New York City and Jackson, Mississippi as well...

  • 13:36:07


  • 13:36:08 know.

  • 13:36:09

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up. We have a caller who wants to address that. Here's Janet in Fairfax, Va. Janet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:15

    JANETHi, Kojo. Yes, that is exactly the subject I wanted to address. I worked for many years in the Washington, D.C. area as an audit damage appraiser. And most of our management was from northern from New England and from New Jersey. And many of the people who were working were from the south. And we found large differences in the way we would approach people and the way we would speak to one another and so on.

  • 13:36:46

    JANETAnd one of the things that came up in meeting was a woman in management said the first thing you do is you offer your hand. And I said, no, I'm sorry, I don't, especially when speaking to a woman. I let her offer her hand first. And during the conversation she did a quick tally of the people in the room and everyone from the north felt it was appropriate to stick their hand out right away. And everyone from the south, particularly men, said no, absolutely not, especially when I'm speaking to a woman. And...

  • 13:37:26

    NNAMDIHere's Howard Ross.

  • 13:37:27

    ROSSYeah, you're absolutely right, Janet. I mean, I was -- I had just by virtue of the way a schedule ended up, about two years ago I was working with two of my clients, both law firms, one in Jackson, Miss., one in New York City and I'm down in Jackson. I'm doing the same thing, interviewing some of the lawyers, right. So down in Jackson it's typical to talk about the kids and the dogs for a while before you get to business.

  • 13:37:47

    ROSSI mean, so you sit and you chat for about ten minutes and then you get to business, along the lines what Gary was saying. You get to know each other a little bit. So I'm doing that for a couple days and then I get on a plane and I fly up to New York City. I come in and in New York City of course you're not even in your chair when people say, what are you here for? So it was culture shock to see it so dramatically within the two days.

  • 13:38:04

    ROSSIt's not like I don't know what happens but there's sometimes when we're doing this work where it just hits you right flush in the face.

  • 13:38:10

    WEAVERJust to add something to what I think Janet has said. Part of it may be generational too. I mean, I find that the younger generation tends to -- how can I put this politely -- the courtesies that you would have in a conversation might not be well developed. So I'll get a young person who will come to my office and say, about my grade. And I'll say, let's begin with, good morning. How are you? I mean, a few pleasantries.

  • 13:38:35

    WEAVERAnd I'm realizing there are different generations and we can talk about generational cultures as well.

  • 13:38:39


  • 13:38:40

    WEAVERSo I'm used to opening the door for anybody, but particularly a woman. My younger female students wonder what am I up to.

  • 13:38:48

    ROSSYeah, well, and I think the very technology that you were talking about, Gary, impacts that too. Because when you live in a world of texting, when communications are blip, blip, blip, you know, really quick or Tweeting and things like this, you know, everything is concise, not even spelling out the whole word. And that becomes our way of communicating. And it translates very easily to how I'm communicating face to face. And so we do lose some of those what we sometimes call the pleasantries, but they're actually the foundation for communication when we've created a connection, a relationship in terms of how we've been treating each other.

  • 13:39:20

    NNAMDIBut you both raise an interesting question. Do we even know our own cultural norms? Is it something we think about consciously or do we just notice it when someone transgresses?

  • 13:39:31

    WEAVERWell, this is the interesting thing about us Americans, I think, is most of us Americans aren't really sure we have a culture. I mean, if you ask the average American on the street, what is the American culture, I mean, they would find that to be a strange question because we don't think about it. We don't talk about our culture. We're not like the stereotype of the French. People in sitting cafes in Paris and discuss what it means to be French. I mean, we take our culture for granted.

  • 13:39:56

    WEAVERAnd when you were talking about training earlier, I think Howard has probably found this to be true. Very often with our clients we have to begin with know thy own culture first.

  • 13:40:06

    WEAVERI mean, how can you appreciate how someone else's culture has shaped their way of thinking, the way they communicate, if you don't realize that your culture has shaped the way you think, the way you communicate. So often you've got to stop people in their tracks and say, before we start studying people from Kenya, let's look at Americans and see what are some general characteristics of people here in the United States.

  • 13:40:27

    ROSSYeah. I mean, I think that this is characteristically true of people who are in dominant cultural groups, and because we are now the dominant cultural group in the world, relative to how business is conducted for example, and most people are generally accommodating to Americans way of doing business, it makes us particularly blind to ourselves. You know, there's that, you know, the classic old story of the older fish who swims past the other two fish and says how's the water, and one fish turns to the other and says what's water?

  • 13:40:52

    ROSSI mean, we don't even realize that we're in it. You know, the same thing is true when we look at race issues in the United States. You know, white people don't necessarily think about themselves as having a culture. People of color absolutely white culture. Men don't think of the masculine culture of work environments, women absolutely see it. And this isn't because we're bad people, it's because we don't have to look at those things. When the normative culture that we're in is the culture we were grown up in, it is the culture. It's not our culture. And when other people who we deal with are more likely to accommodate to that culture, that just reinforces that notion.

  • 13:41:26

    NNAMDIJanet, thank you very much for your call. Here's is Frank in Fairfax, Va. Frank, your turn.

  • 13:41:32

    FRANKThank you gentlemen for an interesting discussion. I'd like to raise it up a little bit to the -- what I experienced coming from an earlier generation, one we constantly borrowed from European culture in particular before the '60s. For example, I'm not a fan of the atom bomb, but we had four Hungarians and (unintelligible) Denmark and other luminaries who assisted us in making the bomb, and the rocketry and so forth. But in the sixties the curtain seemed to come down, and that was spearheaded I noticed even by our highest university circles, for example Princeton and MIT abandoned all language requirements.

  • 13:42:22

    FRANKWe were, I guess, superior economically and technologically in those days, and maybe we felt we could do it alone. So I'm perceiving that we're now hurting because we can't take advantage of...

  • 13:42:37

    NNAMDIAllow me to -- allow me to have both Gary and Howard respond. Gary?

  • 13:42:41

    WEAVERWell, certainly one of the lessons of 9/11 is that we can't withdraw from the world. The two oceans are not going to keep other people away from us, and furthermore our economies are connected all over the world, and therefore, I think today we realize that we really are dependent upon other cultures. We can't go it alone, and it's very unlikely that any young person today will end up working only with people from his or her own cultural background. So I think to date there's a greater understanding of the need to intercultural competence, not just cultural competence, but the ability to interact with people who are culturally different domestically and internationally.

  • 13:43:23

    ROSSYeah. And I think -- the other thing -- I agree with that, right on, and also think that there's something underneath what Frank's saying about this change. And if we look at this historical change, if we look back to the times before say the 1960s, 1950s when we've had heavy immigration into this country, it was overwhelmingly European. You know, at the turn of the last century when my grandparents came, for example, 65 percent of immigrants came from Europe. Now, less than 30 percent do, and that means more different cultures, but also more different in appearance.

  • 13:43:54

    ROSSBlack or brown or, you know, other people of color from all around the world, and it brings up a greater sense of xenophobia, a greater sense of the other people looking more different, acting more differently, and it's not surprise that we're having an increase again in the anti-immigrant feeling as a result of that, as the immigrant population comes and looks more different.

  • 13:44:15

    NNAMDIFrank, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on cultural competence and cultural sensitivity and take your calls at 800-433-8850, or send email to What tops you list of worst diplomatic blunders ever? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:22

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on cultural competence with Gary Weaver. He's a professor at American University School of International Service, and executive director of the university's Intercultural Management Institute. Howard Ross is diversity consultant and principal of Cook Ross, and author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." If you'd like to join the conversation, you should probably shoot us on email to Here is Rafael in McLean, Va. Rafael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:46:53

    RAFAELHi Kojo. Glad to be here. Thanks. Listen, I just want to talk about my experience with a faux pas in Latin America. I'm from Puerto Rico. I wasn't to University of Puerto Rico, but the language I took there was German. So I spoke Spanish and English since I was born, but I was translating one time for the chief of the staff for the army in Argentina, and I used a common word that we use in the Caribbean, which is (speaks foreign language) , and after I used it about five or six times, one of the officers from Argentina came up to me and said, you know, we don't use that word here. It has sexual connotations.

  • 13:47:28

    RAFAELAnd I had spent, you know, I was in Special Forces. I had spent almost 15 years in Latin America, so I said, he's pulling my chain. And then I talked to a couple of other people who said no, no, that's a bad word here. You shouldn't use it.

  • 13:47:39

    NNAMDIWhich is an indication of the distinction that has to be made between language and culture. Because we often feel that if we know the language then we know the culture, that that same language in another culture has different meanings for words and different implications of words.

  • 13:47:53

    ROSSWell, and even more than that, it actually -- the language shapes the way we think. We were just talking about how there's a professor Lera Boroditsky who's at Stanford University now who studies neural linguistics, in which she's starting to find is -- because we can now watch the brain working in different ways, that you can see that the brain actually functions differently depending on the particular language that we have. So certain cultures, you know, if you look at the German language for example, it doesn't have the language of subtlety in it that other languages do.

  • 13:48:23

    ROSSIt's a much more direct language by its nature. You have to work hard to find -- I mean, I don't speak German, but one of my best friends in German and we've talked a lot about this, that it requires you to shape very carefully what you're saying to bring in subtlety, because it's not built into the language. The language is very much straight forward.

  • 13:48:40

    NNAMDIWell, Rafael speaks German, so...

  • 13:48:42

    ROSSThere you go.

  • 13:48:42

    NNAMDI...Rafael, you can probably underscore what Howard just said.

  • 13:48:45

    RAFAELYes. Well, you know, my experience after that was, before I traveled to any other country, I went to Mexico -- all over Central America. I used to ask some of the local people, give me a list of all the words that I should not use. And I'm talking common words that you and I would use, you know, in Spanish I'm talking about now, that we would use daily, and they were saying, no, no, you can't use that word here. That's -- you know. But I'm going -- so I had -- for each country I had literally, you know, three or four pages of bad words.

  • 13:49:14

    NNAMDII hear you. Thank you very much for your call. Kim in Clinton, Md. has something that we may have talked about in the break. Kim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:22

    KIMHi. I was at UCSD, and we were in the pediatric clinic when a Hmong who's one of the boat people who came over to California in the '70s and '80s came in with two kids. The little one had a upper respiratory nothing, but the older one was showing signs of a bad diphtheria, and we freaked out, isolated the older child. The mother, who spoke very limited English, was really upset because we obviously did not know we were doing. We took the wrong kid. The pediatrician was trying to pat her on the back and explain it's okay, it's okay, and patted the little on his head. It turns out in the Hmong culture, it is a complete insult to touch about the shoulders.

  • 13:50:07

    KIMIt became a huge incident, and it ended up with the university had to donate a chicken, and there had to be a sacrifice on the roof of the university hospital in order by the priest of the Hmong culture to get rid of the curse and allow the family to be reunited.

  • 13:50:26

    NNAMDIIndeed, we were talking about that patting on the head during the course of the break, Kim, and why that in some cultures is considered disrespectful and offensive. But Gary, she also mentioned that the mother did not speak English very well. Are there some rules of thumb we should keep in mind when we speak with colleagues, acquaintances, who don't speak English fluently?

  • 13:50:47

    WEAVERWell, I think if possibly, you need to find somebody who can speak the local language. I mean, because as Howard just said, it's not just a matter of language, it's a matter of a whole different way of thinking. But sometimes it's not possible, and you can rely upon non-verbal communications, gestures, and so forth, and that can be very helpful, but those are the kinds of things where the greatest misunderstanding occurs. As you said, President Clinton going to Bangkok after the Tsunami, couldn't resist himself, and kept patting Tai's on the head.

  • 13:51:21

    WEAVERWell, it's fairly innocent, but it made the front pages of every newspaper in Bangkok, because as this lady said, it's a tremendous insult. So having somebody, an informant, a local person who can tell you these things, verbal and non-verbal, is very useful. The problem is, very often, local people don't even think about this.

  • 13:51:39


  • 13:51:39

    WEAVERThey just do it naturally.

  • 13:51:41

    ROSSRight. And I think that, you know, Kim (unintelligible) there's also just -- there's a wonderful book which unfortunately the name escapes me. It's when -- about the Hmong culture and healthcare, and I wish I could recall it right now, I just can't. But it's very important for us to recognize that health care is one of the areas that this is most critical, for a number of reasons. First of all because we're dealing with life and death situations, and the subtlety of getting the right information at the right time is critical at that moment.

  • 13:52:07

    ROSSYou often don't have a second chance to do that. Secondly, because even if people are very literate in terms of their ability to function on a day-to-day basis, they may not be health literate. And when you start talking about, you know, colonoscopy or something like that in another language, it's very different than saying, you know, where do you go to the bathroom. And thirdly, because often when we're interacting with people in healthcare environments, and, you know, whether it's a doctor, a nurse, or whoever, people are traumatized.

  • 13:52:33

    ROSSThey're dealing with something that's very frightening. They're either sick, or a family member, or somebody who they love is sick, and therefore, the heightened sense of urgency about it can make us return even more to our native cultures, you know. Our cultural of origin often is where we go when we're the most frightened, when we're the most scared, and at times like that, so you have a combination of the criticality of the situation and a tendency of people to revert to their basic cultures even more. It's a nexus of perfect storm potential.

  • 13:53:03

    WEAVERIf I can just add a quick sentence here. Howard, you're absolutely correct. In a crisis situation, people go to their rule of thumb, which means my native culture. It also means prejudice, and in law enforcement this is very common. I mean, at the very point when the police officer should step back and say I wonder what the cultural aspects are, that's the last time you do it. So one person's I'm very sincere, which is why I'm getting loud and I'm waving my hands, is another person's you're out of control, call security. I mean, how do you know?

  • 13:53:30

    NNAMDIWell, speaking of police officers, I think that's what Alan in Washington D.C. wants to talk about. Alan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:38

    ALANHi there. I was just remembering once a while back on Mount Pleasant, a largely Hispanic neighborhood now in Washington D.C...

  • 13:53:44

    ROSSMm-hmm. Of course.

  • 13:53:46

    ALAN...these two -- this white police officer and this Hispanic rookie and they pulled over this Hispanic man walking home late at night, and threw him against the car. And had his hands down on the car, and the white cop asked him a question. So the Hispanic guy raises his hands and he's talking, you know, (word?) and talking, and the cop threw him back down the car, spread, you know, spread his legs and slapped him down on the car, asked him the same question again. Again, he tries to raise his hands to talk, and again, the cop goes -- the second time throwing -- splattering him on the car -- or hood.

  • 13:54:22

    ALANThe Hispanic rookie then humbly steps in and whispers to the guy real quick, look, you got to answer without your hands. The white cop was oblivious, had no idea of the cultural difference there. A lot of cultures, you cannot talk without your hands. There's a link that does not allow you otherwise.

  • 13:54:41

    ROSSMm-hmm. And it's instinctive. It's important for us to realize, Alan, that when things like that happen, it's not like people think about I'm going to use my hands now to talk. The mouth starts and the hands start at the same time. It's a built-in instinct.

  • 13:54:54

    NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Alan. We got an email that says, "I just wanted to comment that cultural etiquette is becoming even more confusing for first generation Americans like myself who are raised in their traditional cultural norms at home, and then got to school and are taught a completely different set of them. We often operate within both and have to relearn what the American cultural etiquette norm is. Do your speakers have any experience in countering this?"

  • 13:55:21

    WEAVERYeah. This is a phenomenon that in research we used to call being a third culture kid. It applies to the immigrant child. You're not part of your parents' culture or the new culture. You're in between cultures and usually you end up being somewhat bicultural, and you have to go back and forth between the two cultures, which other kids don't have to do. So you tend to generate relationships with other third-culture kids because you're sharing a common phenomenon. But this is becoming increasingly more common with the new immigrants coming into this country.

  • 13:55:54

    ROSSYeah. And of course our president is not somebody who is a third-culture kid, and one of the things that happens when you're raised in a TCK situation, is that it's not just that you learn about the different cultures that you happen to be a part of if you're an American growing up in Korea for example, or something like that, but you also develop an inherent sense of relativism about culture that people who grow up in one culture don't. So yourself, Kojo, you know, for example you, you know, growing up in another culture...

  • 13:56:22


  • 13:56:22

    ROSS...and coming to this country, you've lived in two different cultures, so you know that cultures are different and that both can potentially have values, and both can potentially have negative sides to them. And so when you -- when one encounters a new culture coming from that experience, the natural tendency is to be more relative rather than definitive in terms of how we see a different culture.

  • 13:56:39

    WEAVERSometimes you ask a third-culture kid who are you, and he says when.

  • 13:56:44

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Chuck in Brentwood who said, "Much of the anxiety over cultural competency comes from the fear that we will inadvertently offend people and the examples you've given of cultural gaffes feeds that. I've traveled a lot in East Asia, and I find that this is not something to worry too much about. The people I deal with are usually pretty cosmopolitan themselves." Lucky you. "They understand that I'm a foreigner and not likely to completely understand all their norms for interaction, and they cut me a fair amount of slack. The real trick is to be open to new experiences, be open to learning, try to pick up some of the language if you can to show you want to meet them halfway. Things will go generally pretty well."

  • 13:57:22

    ROSSWell, and that's one of the reasons when I'm working with people who I know are going to be working with another culture, and that means either domestically or internationally, one of the things I make sure to tell them is, look, in addition to all the things you try to learn around that culture, make sure you learn the culturally appropriate way to say I'm sorry. That I made an inadvertent mistake, and I apologize. We are going to make mistakes. We'll never be perfect. We can't remember all this. So learning how to responsibly say I'm sorry is a very important part of the process.

  • 13:57:51

    NNAMDIHoward Ross. He's a diversity consultant and principal of Cook Ross, and author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Howard, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:03

    ROSSThanks so much, Kojo. Good to see you.

  • 13:58:04

    NNAMDIGary Weaver is a professor at American University School of International Service. He's also executive director of the university's Intercultural Management Institute. Gary, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:13

    WEAVERThank you. Thank you very much.

  • 13:58:15

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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