Cross-Cultural Dialogues: 74 Brief Encounters with Cultural Difference

Cross-Cultural Dialogues: 74 Brief Encounters with Cultural Difference

by Craig Storti Craig Storti
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Cross-Cultural Dialogues: 74 Brief Encounters with Cultural Difference

Cross-Cultural Dialogues: 74 Brief Encounters with Cultural Difference

by Craig Storti Craig Storti
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Culture affects everything we do: the simplest phrase can be so steeped in cultural context that even seemingly innocent exchanges between people are loaded with cultural differences waiting to expand into misunderstanding and tension. In response, Cross-Cultural Dialogues: 74 Brief Encounters with Cultural Difference offers a collection of seventy-four brief conversations between an American and people from other cultures, spanning nearly every major region of the world.Each dialogue is categorized as a social, workplace or business interaction and contains at least one breach of cultural norms, which the reader is then challenged to address. Even the most careful reader will be caught off guard by some of the dialogues' hidden subtleties. Storti is meticulous in his analysis of each dialogue, pinpointing not only the moment when the interaction goes wrong, but also identifying the cultural reasons behind each participant's point of view.Whether training others or adding to your own cultural awareness, Cross Cultural Dialogues is an excellent resource, encouraging readers to engage in the world and increase their multicultural understanding. Contents 1 The Concept 2 Social Settings: Dialogues 1-17 3 The Workplace: Dialogues 18-49 4 The World of Business: Dialogues 50-74 5 Seven Lessons How to Write a Dialogue Index of Dialogues by Country/Region

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781877864285
Publisher: Mobius
Publication date: 01/01/1994
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 6.06(w) x 9.12(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

Craig Storti is founder and co-director of Communicating Across Cultures, a Washington, D.C.-based intercultural communication training and consulting firm specializing in seminars on cross-cultural adjustment and repatriation. With work appearing in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, he is the author of six books, including Speaking of India: Bridging the Communication Gap When Working with Indians and the bestselling Cross-Cultural Dialogues, The Art of Crossing Cultures, and The Art of Coming Home. Having lived nearly a quarter of his life abroad, he lives now in Maryland. For more information, please visit his website:

Read an Excerpt

Cross-Cultural Dialogues

74 Brief Encounters with Cultural Difference

By Craig Storti

Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Copyright © 1994 Craig Storti
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-877864-28-5


1 The Concept

Every country has its own way of saying things. The important point is that which lies behind people's words.

Freya Stark The Journey's Echo

This book consists of 74 dialogues — brief conversations between an American and a person from another culture. In the course of each of these conversations, the speakers make comments which reveal significant differences in their values and attitudes or in how they view or understand the world around them. The speakers are not trying to express these differences — they are in fact quite unaware of them — but the differences manifest themselves all the same as each speaker responds in a completely natural manner to the particular situation. After reading a few dialogues, one begins to wonder if what is "completely natural" to a person from one culture is all that natural to someone from a different culture.

Which is the central lesson of this little book: that when we are merely "being ourselves," acting according to our deepest instincts, human beings reveal fundamental differences in what we all tend to think of as normal behavior. In other words, we learn that much of what we assumed was universal in human behavior is, in fact, peculiar to a particular group or culture. With the inevitable consequence, of course, that whenever we leave that group — to live, work, or do business abroad, for example — or come in contact with people from another group, much of our behavior necessarily becomes suspect.

And that is just what happens, over and over again, in these pages: individuals come face to face with the fact that many of their most cherished instincts don't travel very well, that what is expected and understood in one culture may be shocking and incomprehensible in another. These cultural differences inevitably lead to all manner of misunderstandings, and these misunderstandings, in turn, often result in a wide variety of unpleasant emotional and practical consequences, from hurt feelings and missed opportunities to failed negotiations and lost profits, to anger and hostility, to organized warfare.

By the same token, if we could avoid these misunderstandings, then we would stand a very good chance of sidestepping all the unpleasant consequences they lead to. That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of this book: to alert readers to the misunderstandings lurking in the most common interactions we have with people from other cultures — and to jar us, as a consequence, into being a little less sure of our instincts.

If we look at a sample dialogue, all of this will start to become clearer.

DEAN SMITH: I asked Professor Desai in yesterday to Discuss his new course.

MISS SINGH: How was the meeting?

DEAN SMITH: He was very charming. But he avoided the subject of the new course whenever I tried to bring it up.

MISS SINGH: He may be upset that you didn't consult him in advance.

DEAN SMITH: I don't think so. He didn't say anything.

The facts here are simple: Dean Smith, evidently dean of the faculty in a college or university, decided to have one of his faculty members, Professor Desai, teach a new course, apparently without consulting him ahead of time. But when the dean met with Professor Desai to raise the subject, Desai avoided it. Miss Singh, a compatriot of Professor Desai, thinks he must be upset at not being consulted, but the dean feels sure he isn't because the professor "didn't say anything."

But in fact he did say something quite clearly, only Dean Smith didn't hear it. In refusing to discuss the new course, Desai — by the standards of his culture — is signaling his extreme displeasure in a most direct manner. Smith misses the signal because, by his standards, it is too indirect and also because Professor Desai has been his usual charming self. In other words, Smith assumes that someone who is upset is going to say so and that someone who is angry is not going to be charming.

But these are norms — that people will be direct and that angry people won't be charming — and norms, which is where we get our idea of normal behavior, vary from culture to culture. Indeed, in Professor Desai's culture it is very important not to embarrass another person through any kind of overt confrontation. For him to declare outright that he was upset about the new course would make Dean Smith feel very uncomfortable, something that is simply not done (not the norm). Instead, Desai communicates his displeasure indirectly, in this case by not talking about the new course, thus avoiding any kind of unpleasant incident. All the while he maintains the most correct exterior so as not to betray the slightest sign of his wounded feelings, which would only make the dean feel bad if he detected them. It's quite likely, by the way, that Professor Desai has made his feelings very clear to Miss Singh, who is in all likelihood speaking for him (not for herself) when she says to the dean, "He may be upset that you didn't consult him in advance."

Dean Smith and Professor Desai have had a classic cultural misunderstanding, caused by the usual culprit: the fact that each of them assumes the other looks at the world exactly as he or she does. While such misunderstandings can, of course, occur between two people from the same culture, they are much more common between two people from different cultures. And these misunderstandings, as we have noted, lead to all manner of unfortunate consequences which quickly sour — and even poison — relations between people from different cultures.

If we could stop assuming that other people are like us — if we could begin to believe that we don't necessarily understand how foreigners are thinking and that they don't always understand how we are thinking — then we would be well on our way to avoiding cultural misunderstandings and all the problems they give rise to.

Cultural Conditioning

We need to back up here and examine how people come by their behavior and especially why it is we are so intent on attributing our own behavioral norms to complete strangers from the other side of the planet.

We get our norms, our notions of how to behave, from the people around us, and especially from those who raise us. As young children we observe our parents, siblings, and peers and imitate much of what they do and say. Over time we internalize these behaviors, which is to say they become unconscious and instinctive, and we no longer have to think about what to do or say in a given situation; we just know. And what we "know" is what we have taken in from observing the world around us.

But the world that we observe — and the behaviors we internalize — is not entirely the same as the world Mohamed or Mikako observe. Yet they learn their lessons just as well as we do — and come away with a very different notion of how to "be."

In the United States, for example, parents teach their children that it's good to be an individual, that you should be self-reliant ("stand on your own two feet"), that you shouldn't go behind someone's back, and that "where there's a will there's a way." In Morocco, on the other hand, children learn to identify with their primary group (the family). They learn that you can always depend on others (even as they depend on you), that you should never confront another person directly, and that God's will is paramount. With these norms firmly rooted at the level of unconscious instinct, is it any wonder that, when John and Mohamed meet, a cultural incident can't be far behind?

But "teach" is too formal a word to describe the process of cultural conditioning. As a rule, parents don't actually sit down and explain these values to children; most parents aren't even aware they hold them. Rather, these cultural attitudes are merely inherent in the things parents do and say (which they learned from their parents), and children, imitating what parents do and say, absorb the values along with the behaviors. This is the reason, incidentally, that people from a particular culture often can't explain when they are asked why they behave in a certain way. "It's just what we do," they say, because they've never thought about the value or assumption behind what they do or even realized there was one.

This is also part of the reason why we so readily project our own norms onto people from other cultures: because these are behaviors we are not aware of ever having learned. And if we didn't learn them, then we must have been born with them. And if we were born with them, then so was everyone else. It's not like learning to ride a bicycle; you remember that experience and can therefore imagine that only people who have had that same experience will have learned that particular behavior. But you don't remember learning that "Where there's a will there's a way." So that particular knowledge must come with the species.

Another reason we attribute our norms to perfect strangers is that we've always done so, and it's almost always worked. That is, people have always behaved the way we expected them to in most situations, or at least in enough situations to confirm our view that everyone else is just like us. But of course the reason that most people behave the way we expect them to — that our norms are also their norms — is that they learned the same values and behaviors from their parents that we learned from ours, all of whom grew up in the same cultural environment.

One last reason we expect everyone to behave like us is that we couldn't function if we didn't. The minute you're no longer sure how people are going to behave in a particular situation — when you start doubting what you know from experience to be true of the world — you will no longer be able to engage successfully in day-today life. In other words, if everything in life were completely unpredictable, if we could not depend on things continuing to happen in more or less the same way they have always happened, we would be paralyzed and unable to act. If we couldn't be sure that other drivers would stop at red lights, that trees would stay rooted to the ground, that airline pilots wanted to live, that passersby wouldn't shoot us — how would we dare leave our homes? We expect people — all people — to think and act the way we do because we have to in order to survive.

The Purpose of the Dialogues

As we have seen, however, it isn't altogether true that all people think and behave the way we do. And for the sake of successful intercultural interaction, the sooner we stop expecting them to, the better. All of which is much easier said than done, for this habit of being right about how people are going to behave — a cornerstone of our being able to function in the world — isn't easy to displace. It takes, in fact, a very strong dose of being wrong about people to bring about the necessary change in attitude.

This book is the first course of the medicine. After reading these 74 dialogues and being mistaken about other people 74 times in succession, even the casual reader starts to doubt some of his or her instincts. Maybe there are other people who aren't exactly like us. And maybe, in dealing with people from other cultures, everything isn't exactly as it seems. If you can look this truth in the eye without blinking, you will have taken the first and most important step down the road to cultural sensitivity.

In bringing cultural differences to life, these dialogues make four important points:

1. They show that culture is real, that it actually does turn up in our behavior.

2. They show, therefore, that cultural differences must also be real and that we should try to be aware of them.

3. They present some basic American cultural norms.

4. They present some contrasting cultural norms of selected other cultures.

The reader should read each dialogue and try to figure out either what went wrong or what cultural difference was revealed in the brief exchange. All the dialogues are constructed in such a way that the key to the conversation — the clue to what's not quite right — is contained in the exchange itself. In other words, the reader does not have to know about Arab culture or Chinese culture in order to see what the problem is. You may not know the explanation for what has happened, but you should be able to see what the "mistake" or mistaken assumption was without any additional information. At the same time, we hasten to add that the "mistake" is normally not very apparent. You will have to sniff around for it. Needless to say, if cultural mistakes like these were obvious, most of us wouldn't make them.

If you can't figure the dialogue out, try reading it a second time, assuming that nothing is what it seems to be or means what you think it means. Eventually, whether you figure out the dialogue or not, you will want to read the explanatory notes (which follow each section of dialogues) for the observations they offer on American and other cultures.

You will find some repetition of key cultural themes in a number of the dialogues. While the dialogues in each case will present entirely new examples of a given theme, the explanations may sound familiar. We have done this on purpose to make the point (and to offer illustrations of it) that certain profound cultural differences — a respect for rank and status, say, vs. the American ideal of egalitarianism — can manifest themselves in a variety of ways and contexts. And these new contexts, in turn, often reveal additional dimensions of the value or belief under analysis.


The explanations of the dialogues necessarily contain scores of generalizations; one can't talk about cultures without generalizing. But the reader would do well to remember that while generalizations may be accurate about groups, they're never going to be wholly true of individuals. In other words, many of the individual Japanese or Germans you meet may not act at all like the people in these pages.

This doesn't mean we've got our "facts" wrong, but only that in any culture you will always find a broad range of behaviors vis-a-vis a particular characteristic. Take indirectness, for example: you will find some Japanese who are exceedingly indirect, some who are rather indirect (by American standards, that is), and some who are blunt. Or take Americans and the notion of individualism or self-reliance: some Americans are extremely self-reliant, many are rather self-reliant, and some are very dependent. What we mean, then, when we say the Japanese are indirect or the Americans are self-reliant is that this trait seems to predominate, to be true of more of the people more of the time than either of the other two extremes. If you think in terms of the bell curve, what we are describing here is the 50 percent of the people who make up the middle of the curve and not the 25 percent who inhabit either end.

Another reason to beware of our generalizations is that while it is only the cultural roots of behavior we are concerned with in these pages, culture is only one of many influences on behavior. Depending on the circumstances, any one or a combination of these other influences — such as social class, gender, age, level and type of education — may be the primary determining factor for any particular example of behavior.

Some American readers may react to the generalizations made about them in these pages and may not even recognize themselves in these dialogues and the explanatory notes. Some possible reasons for this, in addition to those cited above, are: 1) that compared to many cultures, the United States is a very diverse society with striking differences among the various subcultures, which makes generalizing especially tricky and 2) the fact that Americans, because of their well-developed sense of individualism — the much cherished notion of personal uniqueness — are especially put off by generalizations. Indeed, one generalization we can safely make about Americans is that they do not like to be the object of generalizations.

But all of our diversity and individualism notwithstanding, there is an underlying cultural ethos, a shared core of assumptions about people and the world, that most of us would instantly recognize as American (whether we felt it applied to us personally or not). We see it, for example, in many common expressions, such as the abovementioned "Where there's a will there's a way," and "Stand on your own two feet." And in these:

She puts on airs.
He's pulling rank.
They think they're better than so-and-so.
Don't beat around the bush.
She's all talk (and no action).

It is this core of assumptions that has inspired most of the dialogues in this book.

As we mentioned above, only cultural behavior is discussed in this book — the shared beliefs, values, and actions of a specific group of people — but not all behavior is culturally determined. There is a whole body of behavior that is human or universal that does not vary from one group to the next. People in all cultures feed themselves, look after their children, and construct some sort of shelter. Needless to say, when you project universal (as opposed to cultural) norms onto other people, there are no surprises, no misunderstandings, no incidents of the type captured in the dialogues. This is why many of our interactions with people from other cultures are quite successful: because they happen not to involve any behavior that is specifically cultural. In other words, it would be quite wrong for readers of this book to conclude — as they easily might — that anytime two people from two different cultures meet, there will be confusion, misunderstanding, and some sort of unpleasant incident.


Excerpted from Cross-Cultural Dialogues by Craig Storti. Copyright © 1994 Craig Storti. Excerpted by permission of Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition xiii

1 The Concept 1

2 Social Settings: Dialogues 1-17 13

3 The Workplace: Dialogues 18-49 39

4 The World of Business: Dialogues 50-74 87

5 Seven Lessons 131

6 Teaching with Dialogues 135

How to Write a Dialogue 145

Index of Dialogues by Country/Region 149

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