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The Need for Intercultural Sensitivity

          by Patrick Schmidt

“The Germans are just too obsessed about doing things perfectly. If this keeps up, our operations here will go bankrupt.”

          American manufacturing executive, working in Frankfurt

“The Americans are very easy-going and self-confident. But behind that facade, we often find them shallow. They don’t always follow up on what they say they are going to do.”

          German engineering executive, working in Los Angeles

The two quotes above illustrate clearly the stress and frustration international executives often feel when trying to cope with another culture. Each country has its own way of perceiving and doing things, with subconscious assumptions that can make cooperation difficult. Learning to live in a new environment is, in most cases, a painful process of adapting to unstated rules and hidden differences. Communications sometimes seem to break down and it is then that something in human nature prompts us to have negative feelings toward anybody who is not “one of us”. Judgmental and condescending remarks, like those expressed above, are often the result.

How does one overcome intercultural misunderstandings? Curiously, the basis of any successful overseas adaptation is not so much learning about a new culture as it is acquiring a better understanding of your own background. This becomes apparent when you arrive in a foreign country for the first time. Nothing is more startling than to realize how much your work and leisure habits, your taste in food, even your outlook on life continue to depend on values learned in childhood. Only by becoming aware of your own “cultural baggage” will it be possible to transcend your thought-patterns so that, in the end, you’ll be able to comprehend “foreign behavior”.

The premise of this book is simple: understanding your culture and your own “mental software” is a prerequisite to understanding other people’s ways and habits. By explaining the psychology and behavior of Americans* and Germans respectively, both American and German readers will become conscious of their own national uniqueness. This book doesn’t pretend to solve the problems of cultural transition, but attempts to anticipate them by explaining the context in which American and German firms operate.

The work is divided into seven chapters, the first of which discusses the concept of culture and how social scientists have designed theoretical frameworks to explain behavioral differences. These frameworks will contribute to an initial understanding of how culture operates and allow the reader to better understand the ways in which German and American companies differ. The chapters which follow describe the behavioral patterns of Americans and Germans, first from a psychological point of view, then with a look at business practices, communication, and the influences of the respective legal systems. Lastly, the book attempts to describe the characteristics of an interculturally competent person.

For the most part, the comparative method is used. A basic example is the fact that a German speech is normally longer, very detailed and more serious, quite different from the standard American presentation which is shorter, humorous and with easy to remember statements. Contrasting has the advantage of reducing our reliance on a single set of values; it challenges the implicit superiority of one culture over another.

Although every culture has its collective qualities, its members are individuals and there are always exceptions to the rule. Many readers might say that generalizations of national traits through the use of clichés and stereotypes can be misleading. Despite this, the author firmly believes that each culture is a unified entity, in which everything interrelates. An “inherent logic” can be discovered through close observation.

Becoming interculturally sensitive and competent is much like learning a foreign language: it takes practice and continual intellectual effort. But it offers unexpected and pleasant rewards. By understanding the sometimes obscure codes of another culture and their impact on behavior, you learn much more about yourself. This is, in the last analysis, what makes intercultural learning so attractive. If this book encourages the reader to view and analyze cultural differences in terms of “why I act in the way I do”, it will have succeeded in its mission.