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Cara Summerfield, M.Ed. M.A.

Intercultural Sensitivity

When ex-President Nixon, upon leaving Africa, gave the peace sign as he boarded the plane, he soon realized his mistake when his advisors explained to him that the Africans perceived his sign of friendship as an obscene gesture.  Cultural ignorance has the power to disrupt, damage, and, in some cases, destroy relationships.  Diverse cultures and values systems confront people in business, education, and government on a daily basis. As the world grows smaller and globalization becomes widespread, people must develop skills to be a part of the ever growing global community.  It has been proven that merely knowing the behaviors and speech of a different culture does not adequately prepare an individual for that specific culture. It is common for individuals, who are unaware of their own values, to feel threatened when they perceive their personal values being challenged.

Geert Hofstede, the founder of Cultural Dimensions, describes common reactions experienced by individuals when they are not aware of their own value systems.

Cultural Values
Listener who is culturally ignorant can misperceive culture-based behavior of foreigners as:
Collectivist insulting, stressed, heartless, rude
Individualist dishonest, corrupt
Feminine aggressive, showing off (of men); playing "baby doll" (of women)
Masculine weak (of men); unfeminine (of women)
Strong Uncertainty avoiding unprincipled, amoral
Weak Uncertainty avoiding rigid, paranoid

For example, when a Collectivist encounters an Individualist, he or she may perceive the Individualist as insulting, stressed, heartless, and rude because that is how he or she sees his or her own culture-based behavior.

Most people are not aware of their own culture but are aware when something new threatens their cultural background.  For an intercultural interaction to be successful there is a need to be able to preserve a satisfactory identity for each party.  The nature of human beings can make self-observations imprecise.  There is a tendency to find reasons, which may or may not be true, to interpret situations in a specific manner. 

However, when one is fully aware of his/her values, it would be difficult to interpret a situation in any other way but what is true.  There are many opinions about this issue; however, at a minimum, a teacher of intercultural communication should promote understanding and knowledge of the student’s own culture.  Without this understanding and knowledge, there will always be the propensity for putting one’s own values upon another, thus creating faulty communication with people from other cultures. 

There are different tools that can be utilized to develop sensitivity. Training can be provided in a classroom, online, or a blended learning environment. It is important to provide time for the trainees to reflect on themselves in order for awareness to be achieved. Whatever method is used, intercultural sensitivity can be achieved.