Intercultural Blunders

No Matter How Experienced, Even the Best and Brightest Commit Faux Pas

News | Patrick Schmidt | June 2008

In the summer of 1997, Time magazine covered the G7 summit near Denver and reported the following:

As soon as it happened, the incident became legend. Germans called it ‘the boots fiasco.’ French commentators sniggered over it. On June 21, as Bill Clinton was playing host to world leaders in Denver, the guests were asked to [dress] themselves for the banquet in jeans, cowboy hats and boots.

Though fancy dress was just meant to break the ice, the idea went wrong ... Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, who weighs in in Panzer proportions, balked at the whole rig, but especially the boots.

"We had a long discussion about boots, and Kohl said he would never wear them, absolutely never," Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said later. President Jacques Chirac of France also refused. A man who very rarely wears jeans and has never been seen in any kind of hat, Chirac had made a solemn deal with Kohl to stick together on "the [clothing] question."

People from different countries and cultures can have very different ways of dealing with situations in day-to-day life. Clinton liked cowboy clothes and, since the summit was being held on a ranch in Colorado, he assumed the other leaders would get a kick out of dressing up as cowboys. He made the mistake of assuming that we all think alike. To his dismay, he found out the others didn’t see things the same way. Rather than amused, they felt humiliated.

Or consider the first encounter between Daimler-Benz and Chrysler. It’s a case study of good intentions (and unconscious beliefs in similarity) that led to serious misunderstandings.

When the two companies merged in 1998, it was decided to hold joint board meetings. In the first session, each company would present themselves. Of course, both sides wanted to make a good impression on their new partner; however each had a radically different idea about what that meant.

The Germans began with a long introductory statement — the history of the company, its model range, future prospects —and included lots of background information and hundreds of transparencies. This "train-wreck of a presentation" (as perceived by the Chrysler execs) lasted for almost two hours.

The Americans, on the other hand, presented Chrysler in a simplistic fashion and went straight to their range of models, using showy effects and easy-to-remember slogans. Their approach was like that of an overly-enthusiastic salesman — lots of smiles and jokes — and only 35 minutes long. For the Germans, it was an exercise in superficiality coupled with "optimism gone overboard".

Both sides sincerely believed that they’d done an excellent job but it was apparent the different communication styles weren’t working.

"The Germans have a penchant for coming to meetings armed with tons of overhead transparencies and colored charts," Chrysler’s CEO, Robert Eaton, told a journalist from the Stuttgarter Zeitung. "It’s absolute information overkill."

A classic case of differing perceptions.

These two incidents highlight the pitfalls even the best and brightest face when dealing with other cultures. On a more practical level, the breakdown in communication touches on several aspects of relating to others: structure versus informality, decision making, deadlines, relationship building and the purpose of a meeting.

And it raises the broader question of how we really think. According to inter-culturalist Milton Bennett, the overwhelming majority of people in cross-cultural situations use the "golden rule": treat other people the way you want to be treated by them. This, in fact, denies that people are different. It assumes that we are only different in the outer layers of culture, such as behavior, manners and style and deep-down, we are essentially the same, sharing the same strivings and values. This assumption is a form of ethnocentrism, the tendency to see our own culture as the center of the universe. This pattern of thought results in unintentional faux pas.

To avoid such misunderstandings, Bennett urges a strategy of empathy. This means, we let our self-boundary go and emotionally "pick up" people’s thoughts and feelings (vibrations) from their own perspective. An example is when a friend tells you that he was bypassed for a promotion, you can "participate" in his/her feelings of disappointment.

Successful (intercultural) communication should be approached as if each person is different and the difference should be acknowledged and respected. Bennett summarizes by formulating a "platinum rule": "Be aware of how others would like to be treated – from their own perspective."

Before assuming we are all alike, perhaps Bill Clinton and the Board members of Daimler and Chrylser might have considered the words of a Chinese emperor:


The people of the world are bigoted and unenlightened: invariably they regard what is like them as right, and what is different from them as wrong. 

They do not realize that the types of humanity are not uniform, that it is not only impossible to force people to become different, but also impossible to force them to become alike.

(Yung Cheng 1727)


This article is adapted from the author’s book In Search of Intercultural Understanding, published by Meridian World Press — ISBN 978-0-9685293-1-7, available at bookshops in Vienna such as Shakespeare and Company, the British Book Shop, Frick Buchhandlung or on  Price Euro 19.90

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    the vienna review June 2008