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Is there such a thing as being too culturally sensitive?

By Breidi Truscott Roberts

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Breidi Truscott
I am pleased to fill a new role at International House as a dedicated staff person providing intercultural training to residents, the UC Berkeley campus and the external community. I work with people to increase their cultural self awareness and enhance their capacity to navigate different cultural orientations in their personal and professional lives. Different approaches to time is a subject that is often raised in workshops, as is the question of whether its possible to be too sensitive when interacting cross-culturally.

I-House ED Emeritus Joe Lurie recounts one such example from former residents in his post on the Cultural Detective website:

"A German male student and a Guatemalan female student have agreed to go out on an evening date beginning at 8pm. Both, wishing to make a good impression, decide to leverage their cross-cultural skills and sensitivity when dealing with approaches to time. The German fellow, normally stereotypically monochronic—8 means perhaps five to eight—arrives at 8:45 only to find the anxious, somewhat distressed Guatemalan woman saying, "Where have you been? I have been ready since 7:50 as I wanted to be sensitive to your cultural clock. Adopting each others' styles provoked an amusing disconnect—but in this case, not serious. They are married today."

An open discussion of customs, including how you relate to time, can prevent misunderstandings. In the story above the residents were trying to respect and adapt to what they thought were each others' cultural norms. I wouldn't say they were being too sensitive; they just needed more practice to get it right. Even though you might not always connect perfectly at first, it might just be "a matter of time" until you do.


Breidi has a Masters in Intercultural Relations from the School for International Training, is certified in Emotional Intelligence and Diversity instruction and the Cultural Detective methodology. A fellow at the Institute for Intercultural Communication's annual summer institute (SIIC), she serves on the Board of the Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR).