Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Cross-Culture: Key Words and Strategies

Published Date : Dec 27, 2017

From talks, presentations, and papers by Porntip Kanjananiyot
Executive Director, Thailand-United States Educational Foundation (TUSEF/Fulbright Thailand)

Compiled by Chotima Chaitiamwong
Outreach Officer, Thailand-United States Educational Foundation (TUSEF/Fulbright Thailand)


Throughout Fulbright Thailand’s history, we have been promoting cross-cultural understanding not only between Thais and Americans but also among individuals because of the fact that we are all different. Interestingly, after decades of cross-cultural campaign, we found that there are only few key words to promote mutual understanding.


The world is smaller but more complicated!

Before moving to the key words, we need to understand this simple truth. On the surface, the world is linked together with advanced technology, international business network, mobility of people, global media, and etc. Underneath, within and across nations, there are increasing societal gaps in terms of generations, genders, beliefs, professionals, and many more. In a family, we may have up to four generations living together, namely, Traditionalists– 65 up (before 1945), Baby boomers– 46-64 (1945-1964), X’ers 30-45 (1965-1978), and Y’ers/Millennials– 29 and younger(1979-2000). In a class, there could be representatives from all LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) groups. In an organization, staffs may practice various faiths and favor different political doctrines. Cross-cultural issues are, therefore, complicated…and often times sensitive.

Cultural differences then seem to be widened and deepened by times and the issue of cross-cultural understanding became on top agenda of governments, businesses, and education institutions. This emphasizes Fulbright vision and mission in fostering friendship across cultures. We do believe everything starts with mindset.

It is important and much easier to work first from our end. In order to ‘reset’ our mind for more tolerance, understanding, and, if possible, appreciation of different cultures, we suggest four useful key words as thinking baseline.

Key Words # 1: Pride and Prejudice!
It is a human nature that we have pride on ourselves/group and prejudice against others. It is a challenge to lessen or even eliminate our inherited bias. Being aware of the fact, however, could make us less judicial and more open – the very first and crucial step towards cross-cultural understanding.

Key Words # 2: Mirror Mirror!
Knowing ourselves is the best way to understand others because we can see with critical eyes the reasons of differences. The self-reflection necessarily includes views from other perspectives. How are ‘seniority’, ‘face-saving’, and ‘krengjai’ seen and practiced by Thais and by Americans? Likewise, how are ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, and assertiveness’ seen and practiced in Thai and American contexts? What are factors behind-the-scenes? How could we best adjust as Thais…and as Americans? The knowing-me-knowing-you approach helps us become more practical and more creative when dealing cross-culturally.

Key Words # 3 Salad Bowl
In cross-cultural situations, we, of course, have to adjust ourselves. Adjust – not change. We are living in a multicultural world or a salad bowl. We should not and must not change ourselves into someone else. In a salad bowl, tomato, tofu, onion, lettuce, and etc. coexist as their own selves, making the salad rich with a variety of ingredients, offering different flavors yet blended delicious taste. Life is a salad bowl. We have to learn how to live together harmoniously and benefit from the diversity to be happy.

Key Words # 4 Sabai Box (Comfort Zone)
Naturally, we feel uncomfortable and less confident when being in unfamiliar places or situations because our sabai box is too small or too big. What happens next is we do not know whether we behave properly or not. Fortunately, the sabai box is something adjustable. In different social situations, we may have to shrink it and forget some old habits at home. Better still, our sabai box may be adjusted into some new size and form, enabling us to have increased flexibility wherever we are.

Common Standards and Lintegration Skills
Across cultures, we believe there are some common standards – the practices and thinking that could be adopted internationally, what we wish to call “international culture”. The international culture could include issues on punctuality, “cell phone etiquettes”, sexual harassment, responsibility vs entitlement, and even such small matters as email writing and Facebook. Adjusting ourselves toward international culture is, in fact, to adjust our sabai boxes. The task is challenging and not easy. We need adequate information on cultural differences, be observant, and think critically in order to strike the balance. We are then able to link different ideas, to develop creativity, and to integrate it to our practices, be they professional or personal. These are supporting skills beyond cross-cultural management. Indeed, they are useful skills for work and life that Fulbright Thailand has encouraged during the recent years. We call them lintegration skill.


The 10 Strategies

No idea how to get started? We have 10 strategies that have proved to be useful for both Thais and Americans (and should be so for other nationalities).

  1. Acquire as much information as possible on cultural context(s) of the country you’re going to.
  2. Observe both verbal and nonverbal languages
  3. Ask when you are not certain while trying to avoid imposition on others
  4. Explore “Me” in different cultural contexts
  5. Give yourself time to adjust
  6. Accept and open that people can think differently
  7. Have a sense of humor
  8. Be patient for uncertainty/ something unpredictable
  9. Be positive. Every situation is a life lesson.
  10. Constantly develop your cross-cultural skills

Cross-cultural skills are difficult to train because cultures gradually change and the skills depend largely on individual mindset. We can attend thousand training programs without becoming much better if we cannot tackle the very basic human nature of pride and prejudice. Fulbright Thailand, therefore, encourages open-mindedness, self-awareness/assessment, critical thinking, curiosity for knowledge, and the thirst for challenges.


Check these out!

For more than a decade, we have gathered some thoughts on various aspects of cross cultures and found that, unbelievably, cross-cultural issues are subsets of almost everything! The following links are samples of our findings.

  1. Networking Starting with Learning about Context and Culture
  2. Cool Curriculum for Classy, Connected and Cultured Citizens: Rethinking Curriculum for Global Citizens
  3. Gen Gappers in Communication: Getting Wider and Wilder
  4. Managing M Exchange
  5. Education Exchange Excellence with “Lintegration”

The key words, the strategies, and the stories suggested here are more of “Knowledge Management” we have captured from our years of intercultural exposure. We will certainly keep learning and exploring the issues. Practice can be done through direct and indirect experiences (reading, watching, listening, etc.). The latter might yield less involvement effects but are easier to access and offer vast variety of samples.

Directly or indirectly, however, remember that practice makes perfect!