Academic journal article Military Review

Strategies for Developing and Practicing Cross-Cultural Expertise in the Military

Academic journal article Military Review

Strategies for Developing and Practicing Cross-Cultural Expertise in the Military

Article excerpt

Cultural understanding doesn't just help you achieve your objectives--it helps you discover what your objectives should be.

--General Anthony Zinni

IN THE CURRENT operating environment, mission success relies on the ability to improve relationships with foreign individuals, organizations, or militaries. Service personnel tend to deploy to a variety of areas in the world throughout their careers and are only assigned to certain jobs and locations for relatively short periods. They need efficient, effective ways to acquire a culture and language capability. The notion of cross-cultural competence (3C) has been developed to reflect this requirement. (1) One definition of it is "the ability to quickly and accurately comprehend, then appropriately and effectively engage individuals from distinct cultural backgrounds to achieve the desired effect, despite not having an in-depth knowledge of the other culture." (2)

In the last few years, we have undertaken a number of research projects aimed at understanding 3C in the military. We have had the privilege of interviewing many warfighters from the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force, warrior-diplomats who spent years interacting and building relationships with their foreign counterparts in different parts of the world as a part of their assignments. (Henceforth, we refer to them as "cross-cultural experts.") Reflecting on our research, we noticed that cross-cultural experts develop certain mental strategies or habits that help them learn about new cultures quickly. Such mental habits can be adopted and practiced by anyone, at any level of military command. In the spirit of Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the primary intent of this article is to provide practical descriptions of these mental strategies, illustrated by operational examples and supported by the research literature. (3)

The seven mental habits organize around three metacognitive strategies--i.e., strategies for thinking about and reflecting on one's own thinking: adopting a cross-culturalist stance, seeking and extending cultural understanding, and applying cultural understanding to guide action. In the following, we will discuss each of the seven habits (see Figure 1) and how they relate to metacognitive awareness.

Adopting a Cross-Culturalist Stance

1. Know yourself and how you are different. Cross-cultural experts are aware that they see the world in a particular way because of their background, personal history, and culture. They anticipate that, in an interaction with someone who has a different background, the perspectives each person brings to the situation will likely not match. General Zinni, an exceptional warrior-diplomat and cross-cultural expert, noted in an interview:

   The natural instinct for us is to see a fact and
   interpret it in our context, and not to say, my
   understanding of this--my context might not
   be the right one to interpret this fact. And that
   may be the most significant thing--that fact,
   that act, that decision, or that response--how
   do you do the interpretation? That's the real
   cultural question. Do I do it through my
   prism, or do I try to understand another prism
   which will give me more clarity and [bring
   me] closer to truth?

Figure 1
The seven habits of highly effective warrior-diplomats.


Adopting a Cross-Culturalist Stance

1. Know yourself and how you're different

2. Know the value of (a little) cultural understanding

3. Frame intercultural experiences as opportunities to learn


Seeking and Extending Cultural Understanding

4. Pay attention to cultural surprises

5. Test your knowledge

6. Reflect on your experiences


Using Cultural Understanding to Guide Action

7. Adapt how and what you express

Recognizing this mismatch leads cross-cultural experts to explore commonalities and differences between themselves and the people within their area of operations. …

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