Misunderstood. It’s one thing nobody wants to be. But in cross-cultural encounters, misunderstandings happen with alarming frequency and scale. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it's scandalous, but misunderstandings always damage credibility.
It’s not fate: people of different cultures can learn to relate to each other with efficacy and grace. We learn to be fluent in our home culture, and we can learn to fluent in a host culture as well. Like any other skill, it takes dedication and practice. It usually involves blunders, apologies, and plenty of deep breathing but the subsequent social agility makes it worth the cost.
By increasing your cultural competence, you learn to hear what’s unspoken, catch what’s invisible, and interpret another person’s symbolic behavior by its original intent. The struggle for healthy cross-cultural relationships is won or lost in the day-to-day encounters of greeting, chit-chat, hosting, and arguing, and you can become an expert.
After working in Africa since 2008, DiGennaro has published a book on cultural competence for Westerners in Africa (and Westerners working with African immigrant populations abroad). The book discusses cultural dynamics around seven common areas of misunderstanding: finances, conflict, leadership, work, organization, spirituality, and friendship.