Eight Steps Toward Cultural Competence
By Ruth Seymour
Wayne State University
Two common reasons not to learn intercultural skills:
1) "I'd rather just to go in there and be myself. Why put on such an act?" And,
2) "When in Rome, do as the Romans do. They're in America, so it's their turn to deal with us."
Two good reasons to learn intercultural skills:
1) What if your behavior is as uncomfortable for them as theirs is for you? And,
2) You're the one who wants the story, right?
In my college-level news reporting classes, we spend a good bit
of time considering how to achieve instant rapport with strangers.
Beginning reporters have to consciously learn this skill. They try
different techniques: a friendly smile, a small show of intelligence
and/or humility, some subtly prolonged eye contact, perhaps a
compliment. Whatever it takes to warm things up.
Then, a little way down the road of life, those who survive as
journalists discover that tried and true rapport devices can backfire
interculturally. A smile feels a bit false or poorly timed. Your
opening question lands with a thud. A handshake is almost rejected. You
call someone by the wrong part of her name for most of an interview.
Some of this is unavoidable, and some isn't. But in "Push the
Edges," we held a day-long session on cultural competence because we
figured that most reporters can at least help the odds by studying up a
bit. So here are some pieces of advice, from "Push the Edges," to you.
Your customary strategy in an intercultural interview-just as
in an intracultural interview-is to minimize the discomfort strangers
might feel because of your very North American behavior.
Unfortunately, a lot of this discomfort occurs below the radar
screen. Your source will not necessarily be able to tell you what is
wrong, because they may find themselves feeling a bit nervous or
self-conscious as you miss subtle cultural clues.
So it's up to you. If you are thinking and watching carefully,
you can adjust your behavior to the greater comfort of your
interviewee-no matter what part of the world he or she comes from.
Clearly, every individual you meet is unique, and some of the ideas
below would serve you well in every interview you do, not just those
across cultures. But there are still issues that are culturally based,
behaviors you can monitor in order to help sources feel more
comfortable with you.
We have identified eight for you: physical closeness, saying
hello, facial expressions, showing respect, touch, talking style, gifts
and food, gender and age roles.
Members of some cultures stand shoulder to shoulder for
professional conversation; others separate by two or three feet. There
are also variations within cultures by gender. You won't be able to
memorize all of the cultures of the world. But what you can do is to
very consciously and kindly allow the other person to determine how
close to you he or she wishes to remain.
The way it works is this: If your source stands so close you
can feel his breath over the top of your notebook, don't back away.
Conversely, if your source greets you and pauses several feet away for
your first question, just stay where you are and allow her to close the
distance according to her comfort. Don't barge into someone else's
personal zone just because you can't see the line.
Keep your hands to yourself. Among most North Americans, as with
the French, a quick, firm handshake is just plain friendly. But with
Ecuadorans, it is used as a signal of unusual respect. In many
countries, a polite handshake is far more limp than the U.S. version.
In Muslim countries, your offer of a simple handshake, between genders,
can force your conversational partner to either do something they
consider morally wrong or embarrass you publicly by refusing your hand.
The moral of this story: When entering culturally unfamiliar
ground, pause. Then pause again. A second or two may feel like an
eternity, but let the other person greet you. You just follow.
Watch your face. And theirs. The three most important things to watch on faces are: transparency, smiles, and eye contact.
• Transparency: Americans are kind of midway on the face-chart.
As a culture, we permit more immediate emotion to show on our faces
than do those in many Asian countries, but less than do those in Latin
America or southern Europe. I was once advised by a (kind) Korean
American friend that I had just frightened some visiting Koreans during
my interview. What had I done wrong? I leaned forward in my chair
several times, raised my eyebrows with interest, smiled warmly, and
nodded at their comments.
• Smiles: To most cultures in the world, smiles simply express
happiness, pleasure, and ease. But don't count on the simple meaning.
Among Puerto Ricans, a quick smile can mean "Please," or "What
can I do for you?" or "Thank you." The difference depends on eye
expression and forehead movements. Japanese men sometimes hide anger,
sorrow, embarrassment, or distrust with laughter and smiles. Koreans
interpret easy smiles as indicative of a person's shallowness or
• Eye Contact: The issues are but two: Where do you gaze, and
for how long? From one country to the next, there is marked
disagreement on the answer.
First, you need some understanding of your own behavior.
Americans are fond of the thought that they "can't trust people who
won't look them in the eye." But, in fact, the average duration of eye
contact among North Americans is only about three seconds. (Check it
out. Less than that, and the person appears somewhat shy; more than
that, and we interpret unusual interest.)
Americans do not look steadily into the eyes of someone with
whom we are speaking, unless we are feeling romantic. Here's what we
are trained by our culture to do: Make eye contact when we begin to
speak, then look away, and then, periodically, return to the eyes of
the person to whom we are talking. Oddly, it is when we are listening
that most Americans gaze directly into the other person's eyes. But we
still look away from time to time.
We should also remember that even among native-born Americans
there are cultural differences. To note just one: African Americans,
when speaking, use much more continuous eye contact than do whites. In
contrast, European Americans use their strongest eye contact when
listening. Black Americans are more likely to look away, and then
return periodically, to signal interested listening.
Arabs and Latin Americans often look directly into the eyes of
their communication partner, and do so for long stretches. They believe
such contact shows interest in the other person and helps assess the
truthfulness of the words. But in Japan, children learn to direct their
gaze at the region of an adult's Adam's apple or necktie knot. Chinese,
Indonesians, and rural Mexicans also judge too much eye contact as a
sign of bad manners. And there are the predictable gender differences:
In many Asian and Arab cultures, women are not supposed to look
directly into men's eyes. So most men in these cultures, out of respect
for the prohibition, also do not stare directly at women.
Can you already see how these differences could affect
interview comfort? Most cultures agree that "too little" eye contact
signals indifference, and "too much" eye contact signals sexual or
romantic interest. Unfortunately, what is "too little" and what is "too
much" varies quite a bit by culture. The single most important piece of
advice is: Bring your facial behavior closer to that of the other
Two pieces of advice:
• First names are not universally charming. Calling someone
"Mr." or "Mrs.," most certainly if they are older than you, is a good
idea. Most cultures are more formal than in North America. And in any
given conversation, it's easier to begin letting down formalities than
to hastily erect them.
• Remember that names come in different orders. What looks
like a first name to you might be a surname, or a mother's surname, or
something else. You can always ask: "What would it be best for me to
call you?" You will also need to straighten out the given name and
surname question by the end of the interview, for the sake of correctly
printing the name on the page or the screen.
There are four key questions here. How much touch is
comfortable? Who is allowed to touch whom? On what parts of the body?
Under what circumstances? Fortunately, to all four questions there is
only one right answer: Don't. Don't initiate touch with anyone until
you have time to do some observing and have some early clues to the
answers to all four questions.
• How much touch is comfortable? North Americans are rather
moderate, among world cultures, in their use of touch in communication.
In other words, day by day, by family, friends, and acquaintances, the
least-touched American is still touched more often than the
most-touched Japanese. But the most-touched American is still a
physical island in conversation compared to Latin Americans, Arabs, and
• What parts of the body? Don't use your own cultural norms as
guides. For people from many parts of Asia and Africa the head is
rather sacred. It is rude to even touch a child on the head. Among
Muslim men, the shoulder is the most approved zone, and is used for
hugging. But in Korea, young people are socially forbidden to touch the
shoulders of elders. In many parts of South America, male friends will
often walk arm-in-arm or holding hands
• Who is allowed to touch whom, and under what circumstances?
The answers generally don't come through observation. The rules are
quite possibly too complex. Over the course of time, it's better to
find someone trusted and simply ask.
• Idioms: Think about it. For a source working to mentally
translate your words (from perhaps their second, third, or fourth
language) American expressions like "go out on a limb," or "Bummer!" or
even "Way to go!" are not helpful.
• Silence: North Americans get
very uncomfortable during conversational silences. Except with close
friends, even 10-15 seconds produces nervousness. In some cultures
people are expected to take a longer time to think before they say
anything in conversations. In other words, they are accustomed to long
pauses. If you don't know this, you might be constantly interrupting
your source as he or she prepares to respond to you.
There also are profound and interesting differences in the
degree to which a culture values silence. For instance, a Budd- hist
expression teaches: "What is real, is, and when it is spoken, it
becomes unreal." A similar Japanese proverb reminds: "A flower does not
speak." Compare these to the Western idea: "The squeaky wheel gets the
grease!" and you might get a sense of what could go wrong in East-West
intercultural interviews. In intercultural conversations, consciously
slow your speech (you will be understood more easily) and permit longer
silences. Avoid both idioms and contractions (like won't or can't or
shouldn't) because "will not" and "cannot" and "should not" are simpler
to a non-native ear.
And spend (what feels to you like) a little extra time being friendly before getting down to the business of asking questions.
• Directness: Cultures vary in how directly they will answer
questions. Americans are direct, not relying much on nuance or implied
understandings, but trying to say precisely what they mean. This is not
true for all cultures. Many value the ability to communicate actual
meanings "between the lines." Sometimes you may want to ask your
question a couple of times, in different ways. Try to notice nuances
and probe at them. It is also true that not all cultures appreciate
direct questions, but in the course of doing your job you may not have
as much room to wiggle on this issue, though you may preface your
question with an apology for its directness.
• Compliments: The same formulaic compliments that warm up a
North American encounter, "Nice earrings!" "What a beautiful rug!" "You
are really good at that, aren't you!" can backfire in other cultural
settings. Latin Americans, for instance, will sometimes offer you the
object complimented. (If this happens to you, refuse to accept it, as
graciously as possible. You aren't really expected to walk away with
Additionally, many other cultures, particularly Eastern
cultures, prefer not to have much attention or glory directed at just
one individual. In these cases, compliments can produce an embarrassed
shrug or can be all but ignored. Use compliments tentatively, only if
you can't think of other conversation-warmers.
Gifts and food
In multicultural reporting, journalists will need to be more
open to accepting small gifts. That means accepting them with pleasure
and grace. Not all gifts are dirty. In fact, in many cultures, small
gifts or keepsakes are exchanged far more frequently than is done in
American culture. Few of these would be considered bribes.
At my university in Detroit, a journalism student once brought
me a small turquoise rock, shaped like a chile pepper. It was the day
following our first class of the term. Introducing herself by name, she
told me that in her culture a rock like this was a traditional symbol
of good luck. She asked me to not think of it as a bribe, because she
was happier doing what her culture taught her to do by thanking me in
advance for the effort I would put forth that term.
I accepted it. The rock chip still sits on my bookshelf, although I have long since forgotten her name.
Most newsrooms have a $25 limit on gifts that can be accepted,
and most gifts you will be offered fall far, far below that line. You
may want to have some newsroom discussions about these boundaries,
given intercultural realities and ethics policies.
What goes for gifts goes doubly for a host's offers of food
and beverage. Try not to reject reasonable offers of food or drink,
whether or not they seem delicious, unless you have a vital health
reason for doing so. In some cultures it is extremely insulting to
reject someone's offer of beverage or food.
Gender and age roles
Many cultures attach more social significance to gender and age
than do Americans. Usually, when there are age roles in a culture, the
eldest person in a group is treated with the most respect and
deference. These cultures require the younger person to defer to the
older in most situations. It is a fairly safe assumption, in
intercultural settings, that you should treat elder persons with
increased respect rather than patronizingly or familiarly (as North
Americans tend to do with their elders).
You may also find that gender and age roles in cultures go
together. If you observe that a culture has obvious rankings of respect
for a person by age, you may also find strong gender distinctions.
Similarly, it will be a good guess that a culture in which you observe
strict gender roles will expect strict rankings of respect according to
If you feel a bit dizzied by so many cultures, don't worry.
The simple message is: Interculturally, things go more smoothly if you
expect behavioral differences, notice them, and do what you can to
honor the other person's comfort zone. Because you're the one who wants
the story, right?