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The Importance of Cultural Competency

My German friend, Klaus, did an exchange program in Mexico during his third year of undergrad. After a couple of weeks in the bustling metropolis of Mexico City, he had made a few friends. One night, over some beers in his new friend Juan’s apartment, he was invited to a party. He inquired after the time and place.

“Next Saturday at ten,” he was told, “en tu casa.”

Tu casa, he thought, in my house? He found it more than a little bit strange that he’d just been invited to a party in his own home, but attributed it to cultural differences. He didn’t want to be rude, and so, graciously, he accepted. The following Saturday, he cleaned up his apartment, bought enough beer for twenty or so people, sat down and waited. Ten thirty came and nobody had shown up. He brushed it off, recognizing it was the German in him that was feeling fussy about punctuality. By midnight, though, he was angry and confused.

The next morning, he received a text from Juan.

“Where were you last night, amigo?”

“In my house,” he wrote spitefully back, “Waiting for your party to arrive.”

It took some back and forth, but eventually, Juan and Klaus got to the bottom of their misunderstanding. As it turns out, in Mexico, the famed idiom ‘mi casa es tu casa’ or ‘my home is your home’ gets inflected in quotidian language, so that Mexicans will actually refer to their own homes as ‘your home’ when speaking to friends. The invitation had always been to Juan’s home, but, lacking cultural competency, Klaus didn’t have the tools to interpret Juan’s invitation any way other than literally.

What is It and Why Does It Matter?

So, what exactly is cultural competency? Well, while definition specifics may vary, the overall idea tends to remain the same: “cultural competence occurs when behaviors, attitudes, and policies align towards enabling individuals, agencies, and systems to function effectively in cross-cultural environments.”

Obviously, in Klaus’ case, the lack of cultural competency did not allow him to function effectively. But while a lack of cultural competency can lead to harmless mix-ups that make for good anecdotes, in the increasingly globalized sphere of today’s labor markets, a lot of the time, those mix-ups can be more harmful.

Marketing campaigns can do a lot of damage to a brand if they’re not careful, like when a Tesco store in London initiated a Ramadan campaign with a promotion for smoky pork flavored Pringles, or when McDonald’s released an ad in China – where begging is considered highly shameful – that showed a middle-aged man doing just that when an employee at an electronics store refused to accept his expired coupon. Similarly, medical interpreters who lack cultural competency may find themselves in violation of religious practices or cultural taboos by speaking openly about a terminal prognosis, certain body parts or bodily functions, or even speaking directly to a patient rather than to the person that certain cultures mandate should be addressed based on familial hierarchies. In a business setting, lack of cultural competency can lead to loss of sales, failed business relationships, and a lot of PR headaches. In a medical setting, outcomes may be effected and doctor-patient relationships may be jeopardized.

But while the necessity for cultural competency in advertising, international relations, healthcare, and even student exchange programs may seem relatively obvious, in some less obvious fields, the failure to recognize its importance may lead to systemic issues and even, in some cases, tragedy.

Cockpit Culture Theory

Take aviation school, for example. For a period at the end of the nineties, Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world. Normally when we think of plane crashes, we imagine that systemic errors must be due to old, run down planes, poorly trained piolets, or some combination of the two. But that wasn’t the case with Korean Air. They were using Boeing and Airbus’ modern, complexly designed planes, and though their pilots may not have been the best trained in the world, they certainly weren’t so poorly trained as to merit the disproportionate number of crashes that the airline saw during this period.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers chapter on this subject, he looked at the pilot transcripts of two flights that ended in tragedy. The first was a plane that had to divert several times from its planed landing at JFK and started to run dangerously low on fuel. The pilot instructed the co-pilot to tell Air Traffic Control that their fuel levels were becoming a problem. The co-pilot did so, but his tone of voice remained calm, and he didn’t use the word emergency. Air Traffic Controls told them to divert again, and shortly afterwards, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.

Here, Gladwell pauses to analyze the language. Korea, he explains, is what we would call a ‘high power-distance’ country. What that means is that, in contrast to a ‘low power-distance’ country like the United States, things like rank, authority, and even age have a strong effect on the rules of communication. Koreans also tend toward ambiguity and subtlety, relying heavily on the receivers’ ability to interpret underlying signals in what a speaker is saying.

Thus, while the message that the co-pilot was sending to Air Traffic Control may have seemed like a clear advertence of emergency to him, at JFK, where Air Traffic Control is notorious for its bluntness and even rudeness, the subtle implications went tragically unnoticed.

In a second case, a Korean co-pilot made subtle remarks to an American pilot about the weather. Upon subsequent analysis, these remarks were clearly intended to alert the pilot that conditions were becoming dangerous. When that didn’t work, he tried talking about how much he appreciated having a weather radar in the cockpit, which was meant to signal to the captain that he should take a look at the radar. Again, his underlying message went unheard. Ultimately, after a number of failed attempts to alert the captain to the danger of their situation, the plane crashed.

Ultimately, Gladwell argues that a lot of the issues that Korean Air faced during this period come down to the airline’s failure to provide adequate cultural competency training that would have clarified the rules of communication on American turf and better prepared Korean pilots to fly such complex and modern planes, which are built to function best when operated by pilots with low power-distance relationships.

This may seem like a niche or highly specific example of the importance of cultural competency, but that’s kind of the point. For many years, nobody even considered that the issue with Korean Air could have to do with cultural competency, because we tend to think that the necessity for understanding other cultures can be ascribed to a few key industries or professions. When we take a closer look, though, we find that the reality is not always as straight forward as it seems. In today’s increasingly globalized world, cultural competency should be being studied in every field. As in the case of Korean Air, when we do the work, there’s a lot that can be discovered, improved, and in some cases, even lives that can be saved.

For more information on ALTA’s language training, please visit:

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

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