Different Cultures and Cross-Cultural Competency

You have no choice about which culture programs you from birth. So don’t judge others because of their cultural differences from you. All complex societies (such as our own) contain subcultures that share the larger cultural outlook, but have significant differences. The culturally savvy Soldier will take an active interest in any culture he or she works in. ReALLIT: read, ask, look, listen, investigate, and think. Look for styles of interaction/proper behavior, greeting rituals, local dress, daily routines and movements, transportation, eating habits, treatment of children, major or common ceremonies and rituals, and frequencies of young men visible on the street.

Soldiers who are not culturally savvy compromise the mission by alienating the locals, or even by creating major crises. All cultures impart huge amounts of information to their members—but often it is information of a different type than we focus on in our culture. Cultures vary greatly around the world.

Any generalizations about culture have exceptions. Knowledge of the specific culture is necessary.

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Individual characteristics and personalities vary greatly within one culture. To attribute one characteristic to everybody in a culture is called stereotyping. Cultural relativism is critical for understanding the locals among whom you work, but some cultural differences, particularly regarding ethics, cannot be brushed aside. Things we hold to be fundamentally wrong—abrogation of human rights, for example—may require us to impose our outsiders’ ethical standards on locals’ behavior. Read materials from the TRADOC Culture Center (like Smartbooks and online trainings), published ethnographies, and popular media of the area; Ask locals already available to you on the FOB, such as interpreters, or culture experts around you, as well as people you meet on patrols; Look at the behavior of locals in markets, on the roads, in meetings on post; Listen to the conversations you have access to, as well as local media; Investigate in more depth any questions that come up; and think about what you know and what you don’t yet know, and how you can find out what you don’t know.

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Often in non-Western society’s beliefs are not “beliefs” in the way we think of them and as such are more or less open to modification. Things that we would call beliefs are often thought of by other cultures as just the way things are – matters of fact, not opinion. Religious belief systems in particular and other aspects of locals’ world view can be driving motivators for conflict; economics is not the only reason people fight.

Power Systems

In most cultures, any visible formal power structure will lie over a more fundamental, less formal, structure of influence. This underlying power system will often be based on patron-client relations, in which patrons become influential by acquiring clients who owe them favors. Often, this takes a pyramid form as more powerful patrons acquire clients who have clients of their own. Interacting directly with this patron-client power system can be more effective than trying to deal with people in overt formal positions of power.


Kinship is usually much more of a cohesive social force in non-Western societies. Kin group members internalize a corporate identity – the family is viewed as an extension of the self. Often large, pyramid-shaped kin groups – usually descendants of one man (or, rarely, woman) and their dependents – serve to organize political, military, economic, and religious activities.

City vs Country

People in the city generally have much different ways of living and worldviews than people in the country. Adherence to rural customs may begin to slacken, groups of acquaintances and awareness of the outside world broaden, and people may become more tolerant of others’ beliefs. In the countryside, no matter how remote the region, there will probably be considerable awareness of the outside world, often from men travelling outside to work. Do not underestimate the importance of language in establishing good relations with locals. Taking the time to learn even basic greetings can make a huge difference in establishing rapport. Usually, you are starting at a disadvantage, seen as a stranger with a gun. Using greetings in their own tongue shows locals that you have enough respect for them to make an effort to speak in their language. Failure to communicate is often interpreted as hostility or at least a lack of interest. Learn some of the local language and avoid that misimpression.

Knowing some of the local’s language can be invaluable in helping you determine if your interpreter is doing his or her job well. Knowing the language can also give you insights into locals’ conversations, which they may presume you cannot understand. The language barrier is often used as a disguise of local intentions and a tool to maintain separation from outsiders—a sort of built-in everyday code. Switching languages in the course of conversation is known as code switching. In many regions of the world, most people can speak two or even three languages.

Use of a second language in the context of a conversation often helps locals maintain ethnic or otherwise specialized identities during social interaction. Generally, use of a particular language in these code-switching contexts shows insider knowledge and positive sentiment toward the culture of the language used. If you use local phrases in your communication, it can send a signal that you value local culture and want to become an insider. Demonstrating that you want to speak the local language will be much more important than your degree of expertise.

Impression Management

World views can make you or the locals misinterpret behavior Enemy information operations (IO) tactics will strive to take advantage of this fact You need to be very clear and vocal as to why you undertake any action Seek feedback from those impacted by the action (stakeholders) Seek out local’s concepts about Army motivations

Hostile IO efforts will seek to spread negative stereotypes of the Army. They may assert that we’re all greedy and looking for material gain, we are ignorant and hostile to all the locals, we are dirty, we are sexually promiscuous, we are excessively violence prone, we don’t really care about the locals, and so on. The best way to combat such stereotypes is to consistently show, by your actions, that they are inaccurate. Most important is the development of trust. Never promise something you are not sure you can deliver. Do everything you say you are going to do and follow up with the locals to be sure they know you did it. In a chaotic environment, be the element of consistency, truthfulness, and reliability. In short order, deception erodes relations with locals. Be aware of and help inform Army IO campaigns in your AO. Have talking points ready if locals argue with you, particularly when there is an audience.

Redirect the conversation to local cultural practices or, if necessary, break off contact once you have made your points, or if a local adversary gets the best of you. Be willing to admit to yourself when this is happening. Though you want to be as conversational as possible with the locals-be transparent enough that they can read for themselves your genuine good intentions-do not continue an argument about military or political issues if it gets too heated, or if you are clearly losing. “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” It is much easier for your enemy to malign what you said than to malign what you did not say. Remember, from the point of view of the locals, you are the Army. Mission success often depends on your behavior presenting the Army in the best light. Locals in your area may be receiving propaganda broadcasts and leaflets in foreign languages you do not understand.

Usually enemy propaganda campaigns will be carried out in the locals’ language, but often they will be in a language that is secondary but known to the locals. If you notice foreign language broadcasts or print media in your area, make sure the G2 is aware of it. Local insurgents may use clandestine means of communicating with and intimidating locals, such as the infamous “night letters” left by insurgents in local mosques in Afghanistan. Look for such means of communication if you notice a sudden about-face in the locals regarding U.S. Army initiatives or agreements. Just being attuned to subtleties and complexities of local social situations usually gives the locals the upper hand in assessing the overall situation in the area. Acknowledge this and try to get the locals to share their understanding with you.

There are many non-threatening ways to elicit explanations that may substantially change your perception of what is going on in your area. Asking about such non-sensitive subjects such as proper behavior; greeting rituals; local dress; daily routines and movements; transportation; eating habits; treatment of children; and major or common ceremonies, and rituals can help give you a general picture of social life in the area and a backdrop against which to gauge your situational awareness Probe all the methods used by people in your area to make sense of what is going on around them. They may use completely unexpected means of assessing their environment. In Afghanistan, for example, most people can tell what region any given person comes from based solely on facial and bodily features.

Help your Soldiers maintain their cool and reserve judgment

An uncertain and probably harsh future adds a huge psychological burden In situations of extreme poverty, the power of money increases dramatically. For example, insurgents may be able to influence locals to take what might seem like insane risks for paltry material gains. If we maintain a proper perspective on the impacts of poverty, we can use this fact to our own advantage, winning the cooperation of locals and demonstrating our good will with economic development programs of relatively small scale that will provide tangible benefits quickly.

The Practical Implications of Poverty (continued)

The perception of poverty can be powerful
Relative poverty can have significant psychological and social impacts People who are unable to afford symbols of material success may suffer feelings of personal inferiority People who have relatively low incomes may choose to invest in highly visible items

Additional Reading

Perceived disparity in wealth can fuel problems between social groups, particularly when the material differences are not in line with hereditary markers of social status. If a particular racial or ethnic group, for example, suddenly hits on a way to make money that elevates them “beyond their station” in the traditional hierarchy, the traditionally higher-status folks may become angry and take steps to keep the upstarts “in their place.” Commonly, those who feel the most resentment are others of the same traditional social status as their lucky, newly wealthy neighbors-“They’re no better than us, who do they think they are?”

Community Influence

Power of Wealth

Often the power of wealth is used to obtain other, more formal, types of power. In India, for example, it is not uncommon for politicians to send buses out to their rural constituents to take them all for a large feast in the city. It is understood that in exchange for this largesse, the voters will vote the powerful man into political office, whereby he can exert still more influence Influence

One can have influence by holding an important position in various types of groups: kinship groups, religious or healing-related groups, groupings based around occupation or land use, age set groups or groups based around education. For example, the most important person in your AO may derive their status in part from being able to perform divinations. If you are not aware that divinations – making decisions, explaining situations, or telling fortunes based on seemingly random occurrences, such as flipping a coin – are important in your AO, you could fail to recognize the most important person for you to influence

City and the Country

Forms of community influence will differ markedly between the city and the country. Cities tend to be more oriented toward impersonal, economically based influence or western-style “democratic” governance. At least in the city these things may be more visible. But don’t underestimate the effects of neighborhood-level influence based on patron/client relations, kinship, religion, healing, or trade guilds in the city. As always, take a cultural ReALLIT check to give you the basic lay of the social situation. The more you know about the locals, the smoother your relations with them will progress.

Social Stratification

  • Most societies separate their people into ranks of social worth
  • Commonly, one is born into the group and its status
  • Differences in status are often subtle and difficult for an outsider to detect It is important that you try to discover such differences when you deploy

Low-status individuals may be the most eager to engage you and try to enter into agreements with you in order to gain what they can from you and enhance their local status. You should engage them and learn what you can from them, but do not be hasty to enter into agreements until you understand the relative status of the people you are dealing with. In South Asia, for example, to enter into an agreement with a low-caste man could discourage later agreements with more influential high-caste men.

Long-standing resentments between high-status and low-status groups can fuel conflict Genocidal conflicts have usually centered on co-residing ethnic, religious, or kin groups The group with the superior social status attempts to inflict genocide on those of lower status On a smaller scale, insurgents may exploit resentment over status differences to recruit locals or to incite destabilizing violence between locals. Since few, if any, Army missions call for destabilizing an area, you generally want to be careful to take local social stratification into account for all of your operations. Simple awareness can help you avoid worsening existing ill feelings between groups.

Levels and Sources of Internal conflict

These complex webs of allegiances and grievances can make working with locals a very tricky business. This is especially true since disagreements are usually the last thing anybody wants to talk about to outsiders. Particularly in cultures, which place a high value on saving face or public honor, people may not want to say anything that could be taken as disrespectful of their neighbors, even though they may have big problems with them. For this reason, it is desirable when possible to talk to locals out of earshot of others so they may feel freer to hint at conflicts with their neighbors. Any information you can pick up about who gets along and who has a beef with who could be very helpful in carrying out successful engagements and initiatives with the locals.

For example, if you know that members of one subgroup are in collusion with insurgents, you will be more likely to find willing partners among that group’s current detractors in a lower-level conflict. Disagreements and cross-purposes regarding ethnicity, politics, religion, kin groups, or economics are likely to exist in even the most placid-seeming community. Such conflicts can revolve around material concerns such as land, inheritance, water rights, death re-compensation, or bride price.

Likewise, they may be centered on purely ideational (non-material) concerns such as religious disagreements, a history of fights between groups in the distant past, or discord over the ways children should be educated. Since people in different cultures have different worldviews than our own, elements which might seem insignificant to us could be worth killing or dying for, to them. So do not discount farfetched-sounding explanations for local conflict until you have learned enough about the culture to judge. In fact, if you can get locals talking about any conflict past or present, you can learn a great deal about their culture in a short time.

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Different Cultures and Cross-Cultural Competency. (2016, Sep 25). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/cross-cultural-competency-essay

Different Cultures and Cross-Cultural Competency

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