Why cultural sensitivity matters more than ever in 2017

We have shifted to the “Post -Truth” age in politics, big-money business and community opinion. In this new era might wins, size matters and the subtle art of intercultural dialogue risks being thrown out of the window for at least a year or two.

We are witnessing an unattractive tone in European communities when discussing refugees or hearing ‘newly elected Presidents’ displaying their distain for the press. In business, we also see examples of large retailers behaving like newly elected autocrats when they negotiate with regular sized suppliers or when they engage in a race to the bottom over employee terms and conditions.

However - all is not lost.

Battling behind the scenes are interculturalists, progressive economists and business leaders and a few new thinking politicians. They are working to promote cultural sensitivity, useful reflection and interpersonal exchange as a pathway to peace and continued commercial prosperity.

Dealing with Difficult People

Interculturalists are familiar with these challenging behaviours and have a few tricks up their sleeves to get past the barriers presented by the insensitive person sitting across the table in a meeting or negotiation.

1. Cultural Negotiation Style – Thomas and Kilmann identified five conflict management styles and defined as the Competitive Style the one we are currently encountering with increasing frequency. – When the conversation is all about power and winning then your response needs to be… finding and using… your own power. Interculturalists will tell you “You are never without power.” When you discover the underlying sources of your own leverage, then any negotiation or intercultural dialogue can turn into a reasonable exchange and start to move towards positive agreement.

2. Cultural Communication Style – The world can be usefully simplified by splitting people’s communication styles into more direct communicators (“I say what I mean and I mean what I say”) and more indirect communicators (“That is an interesting point and you also might like to consider some other options that, in the fullness of time, could provide a useful contribution to your long term vision, don’t you think?”) By simply being aware that both tribes roam the Earth we can feel less offended by the former and less frustrated by the latter.

3. Gamblers, Dancers and Builders – Leaping into the realm of imagination, we can identify various styles of behaviour in our partners and counterparts and adapt accordingly. The Gambler treats business as a game, plays as an individual and is prepared to bet all on a winning hand. The Dancer reacts to the rhythm of the music and the movement of their partner – for them it is about the grace of the pair’s dance more than the outcome. And, the Builder uses process, appropriate knowledge and skill along with dialogue, planning and co-operation to build a structure that will endure the heat, cold and wind that the weather brings and last the test of time.

Reacting to symptoms brings more symptoms

The cultural sensitivity that will be required in large measure in 2017 will allow the business person, the politician or the citizen sat in a town hall meeting to move beyond the drama of symptoms and competitive or fear-based rhetoric to consider the root cultural causes of the communication they are listening to and respond appropriately. When you become an accomplished student of intercultural communication, dialogue becomes more purposeful and constructive, even when faced with the most autocratic, bullying or powerful opponent.

We wish you well with your intercultural dialogue in 2017.

Matthew Image


Matthew is an experienced intercultural and leadership trainer, published author and professional speaker. He has lived in the Czech Republic and has worked extensively in 30 countries representing more than 80 nationalities. He also set up and runs the not-for-profit Intercultural Training Channel to help share intercultural resources. 

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