Developing Cross-Cultural Sensitivity

It’s Not Just for First-Time Culture-Crossers


When I arrived in Tokyo on the international product marketing team at Hitachi, I brought with me all the bravado of a 25-year old American. It was my first time working abroad, my first job out of graduate school, and the first “real” resume-building job of my budding career in marketing. The stakes were high, and I was determined to do well. Compensating for inexperience were youthful enthusiasm and a confidence borne of innocence.

As a young Asian female, I knew I might face challenges in the traditionally more hierarchical, male-dominated environment of a Japanese company. My defenses were up. I refused to be dismissed as a Taiwanese female (whom I imagined to be even lower on the totem pole than a Japanese female), nor underestimated because of my age. I would not yield and become yet another Japanese. I was not serving anyone tea.

No, not I.

Instead, as the only non-Japanese on a global marketing team, I took it as my mandate and mission to make our team more globally minded. As it turned out, my interpretation of “global” meant “American” in practice. I would assert my opinions, I would be proactive, and despite being the youngest and most junior member of the team, I would treat everyone respectfully as equals and expect the same respect in return.

What I didn’t realize was that what constituted respect in Japanese culture was completely different from notions of respect in the US.

If only I’d undergone some cross-cultural training first.

Suffice it to say, I stepped on a few toes and injured a few egos in my first six months there. Fortunately for me, I had strong backing from senior executives at Hitachi who supported me in shaking things up. Eventually, I learned to smooth my American edges and even perform Japanese courtesies like serving people at dinner or holding the elevator open for guests. Yet if I had learned earlier that I could behave in a Japanese style without losing my cultural identity, I would have been more effective in my work and saved everyone some culture shock.

It hadn’t mattered that I’d grown up straddling the cultures of Taiwan and the US, that my family relocated often, nor that I’d studied Japanese since college. I prided myself on being cosmopolitan and therefore thought my way was right. The irony was that I hadn’t displayed the cultural sensitivity of a true cosmopolitan — I was still behaving according to my own cultural norms, without making adjustments for a different culture.

 Developing Intercultural Sensitivity

To my relief, I later learned that intercultural sensitivity is not natural for us humans, according to foremost intercultural expert Milton Bennett. No matter how many cultures we’ve crossed in our lives, we humans want to stay secure in our own way of seeing the world and ourselves. Rubbing against difference is uncomfortable because it can make us question our very identities — so we maintain our security by rejecting difference.

Bennett illustrates this human tendency in his Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), one of the most useful frameworks I’ve come across in my cross-cultural training work. The model consists of six stages: in the first three (denial, defense, and minimization) a person is ethnocentric, choosing behavior based on one’s own cultural norms; in the advanced three stages (acceptance, adaptation, and integration) one is ethnorelative, able to choose behavior based on the specific cultural context.

Even the most multicultural people move up and down the stages of development depending on which behaviors or perceptions are being challenged. However many cultures we’ve crossed, intercultural sensitivity has to be consciously developed, each and every time we rub against different ways of seeing and behaving.

In fact, I’ve found in my cross-cultural training work that the more experienced culture-crossers tend to value the program even more than first-timers. It’s precisely because they have already experienced those jarring cultural differences that result in misunderstanding, simply because people come from different perspectives and are at different stages in developing intercultural awareness. Experienced culture-crossers find the programs a valuable opportunity to process their experiences, learn about different styles, and discover new ways to enhance connection and communication across difference.

 Crossing cultures is a moment-by-moment, day-by-day exercise in self-reflection and intentional understanding of others. Whether a veteran culture-crosser or a first-timer, we’ve all knitted together a tapestry of how we view the world based on our experiences, and it can be tough to set aside, and even harder to behave in a completely different style. Yet for all the trouble, the rewards are invaluable — true connection across difference.

If only my 25-year-old self knew what I know now!

Born in Taipei and raised bilingually in the United States, Jane W. Wang is a cross-cultural consultant at the Community Services Center and an instructor of Communication and Multiculturalism at Shih-Hsin University in Taipei. She works with expatriate leaders, teams, and families to deepen understanding of Taiwan’s culture for more effective interactions and a successful stay overseas. For more on the Center’s cross-cultural programs, please see: