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I’ve Had It With Cultural Sensitivity

IF WE MUST DO AS THE ROMANS, LET’S MAKE DEMANDS OF OUR OWN.

There’s been an awful lot of talk lately about “cross-cultural training,” which basically describes a kind of crash course for executives who frequently work in other countries. One item that caught my eye was a New York Times profile of Dean Foster, president of a Brooklyn firm that specializes in this sort of cultural reorientation program. According to Foster, he once held hands for half-an-hour with a man leading him around Cairo because “in Arab culture, holding hands is just a sign of friendship.” The man, incidentally, had no idea where he was going.

Another time, while visiting the Shanghai Circus in China, Foster was picked out of the crowd by the ringmaster, led on stage, blindfolded and forced to stand at attention while sharp knives were thrown within inches of his body. He graciously accepted this as a venerable Chinese tradition. Then, on a trip to Nigeria, it was back to the hand-holding routine: The leader of the group Foster was training suddenly clutched his hand and held it “for a long time.” Why? According to the specialist, it was “a sign of trust.”

This kind of wacky behavior-cultural blackmail is more like it-is the reason I don’t spend more time overseas. I don’t care what the French think, I don’t like kissing other men on the cheek, let alone both cheeks. I’m not going to eat haggis just because the Scots do. And just because fat, middle-aged men like to get dressed up in leather hot pants and yodel their heads off in southern Germany

doesn’t mean I have to do it. Sure, I understand the time-honored concept of “other cultures, other customs,” but that doesn’t mean I have to participate in them. Other customs, yes; other costumes, no. Remember: Tubby men cavorting in leather hot pants is not the first bad idea to come out of southern Germany.

What really worries me about cross-cultural training is the possibility that foreigners may be playing a fast one on us. Maybe throwing knives at Americans has less to do with ancient circus customs than with disdain for American import taxes. Maybe holding hands is a way of preventing an American businessman from getting on his cell phone and booking the next flight out of Lagos. And maybe kissing strangers on both cheeks is just a way of checking to see if he likes the smell of garlic.

According to Foster, ceremonial gift-giving is essential in Asia, where “you are supposed to give a gift at the end of the first meeting, and this makes the second meeting happen.” Fine, but is it okay if I only spring for a Whitman’s Sampler or an Elvis CD? Or will everybody be offended?

I also resent the one-sidedness of all this. Why should Americans have to acquiesce to foreign cultural standards they find demeaning, offensive, stupid or dangerous without some reciprocal arrangement with guests who visit these shores? Here a few suggestions.

The next time you are negotiating with someone from an Arab culture, say that you do not mind holding hands as long as he doesn’t mind footing the bill for your kid’s junior-year tuition at Yale. “I know it’s expensive, but it’s our culture,” you can say.

If a visitor from Asia insists on receiving a gift, turn the tables by asking for a Lexus or four box seats to the NCAA Final Four. “If you want the second meeting, you better pony up for the first,” is how you should explain it. “And, oh yeah, I want courtside.”

If anyone from China tries throwing knives at you, ask if you can fire back with a bow and arrow. Stress the fact that you have never actually shot a bow and arrow before.

The Times article concludes with a description of an incident that took place in Bratislava in the 1990s. Seemingly, the Slovakians were “eager to learn everything about Western ways after so many years under Communism.” On the last day of the training session, Foster’s host handed him a tiny bell. He explained: “For centuries, our people were like sheep, and we ring these bells to celebrate that we are no longer sheep, we are free. You have helped us to live our freedom, and we will always be grateful.”

Foster says that the bell was “one of the finest gifts I could ever have received.”

I would have held out for the Lexus.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.