The Intercultural Double Bind

So, you want to be able to work effectively in different cultural contexts, not just your own… Good choice.

Even living in one place, we live in a world that is diverse and (seemingly) getting ever more so. Being at home, whether here or there, does work much better with some cultural intelligence.

All the intercultural competence training, in all its desire to be practical and politically correct, tends to forget about the power plays in the background of intercultural interactions, though.

As always, it takes at least two to talk – and if we are sometimes at odds with our very own selves, there are even more possibilities for things being at cross purposes when these two are two people from two different cultural backgrounds.

Fortunately, personal variation tends to matter rather more than cultural differences: you are talking to another individual person, not another culture. Thus, there can be hidden problems beyond the all-too-often-mentioned issues of how to greet another person and present your business card properly; but there is also quite a chance that you do not encounter a stereotypical “American,” “European,” “Chinese,” “Japanese,” “Arabian,” or whatever else…

That said, it still is an interaction between people of different backgrounds.

The American manager may be seeking to continue or import his friendly, non-hierarchical style and be seen as a weak leader by Chinese well-aware of hierarchy and used to more direct management styles. The German may – or may not, e.g. depending on age – concur with the Chinese in wondering what the American’s put-on friendliness is supposed to accomplish (or hide), but also consider the words of a verbal business agreement (let alone a written contract) to be writ, whereas Chinese tend to see those as more of a guideline and statement of intent that still has to be open to change if there are sudden exigencies.

The matter at hand is that different perspectives may not just be different; they go deeper. They are of real effect, embedded in common narratives of cultural contact, and thus subject to hidden power plays.

The very desire to gain intercultural competence and “show respect” for a cultural other, as it is near-universally put, can be interpreted as a weakness of that culture.

“Doesn’t it show the obvious superiority of Japanese/Chinese/… culture if everyone feverishly tries to act according to Japanese/Chinese/… expectations and conventions?”

Or it can be recast yet again as a mere ploy to get a foot in the door…

“Sure, they act all nice and deferential, but they are just here for our resources, money,…”

Sometimes, these issues surface in unexpected places. I once traveled on a Chinese train (even with my wife, who is Chinese), got into a little talk with another (female) passenger – as good as those work with my limited Chinese – and when said passenger asked whether I liked China, and I answered in the (not-much-saying) affirmative of liking China, being interested in Chinese culture, she asked back:

“Do you really like Chinese culture, or is it actually Chinese girls that interest you?”…

In business and politics, it can be even more of an issue, of course. Suspicion – or political clamoring – of neo-colonialism, of only being in a country for resources and/or money (or actually for political change, for forcing upon them a foreign system) easily arises.

If you get a communication partner who just wants to misunderstand, things get difficult. All intercultural competence training will probably not help – and you may not even be aware of the reason, operating under the assumption that everyone and their dog will try to accommodate their communication partner…

Knowing that such problems can happen, maybe explaining things differently, and especially moving from “showing some respect” to actually acting respectfully and proving yourself over time may just do it. And still, you have to know where you find the right balance for yourself, in the situation in question.


  1. David Livermore

    Excellent point. While the research doesn’t necessarily support that personal differences matter “more” than cultural ones–I think your overarching point is crucial–that is that the two are so deeply intertwined and it simply isn’t sufficient to presume learning about a culture is all there is to it. And I’m increasingly convinced of the point you make–that what’s going on within our internal selves is core to the whole intercultural engagement.

    Thanks for the ways you provoke good thinking in all this as well as living it out!

    1. Gerald

      Thank you – and yes, it is a point I keep finding in my own personal life, and intercultural interactions: so much of it is focused on the facts and trainings that can be nicely packaged and sold, and then what really makes for the major problems is something more akin to a little tick.
      There is a reason why even your average guidebook will mention things such as whether soup is slurped – but knowing it is still not enough to know how you’ll react to it (if it’s bothering you especially), let alone how you can learn to handle it. (And of course, other things may be and are more important. It’s these small things that can make or break an expat situation, though – and they provide stepping stones to learning the skill necessary to recognize and handle other, more subtle, issues.)

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