Dec320094:34 pm

Cross-cultural communication, cultural anthropology, and the Human Terrain System

I’m only now getting around to reading the November Atlantic (frequent WW readers already know of my obsession with the mag and its blogs), and one of its 27 brave new thinkers caught my attention: Montgomery McFate. Not only because her fantastic name reads like that of a Bond girl, but also because of the work she’s done as a cultural anthropologist recruited by the Pentagon to develop the Human Terrain System. HTS describes its goals as such:

The near-term focus of the HTS program is to improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed; however, in the long-term, HTS hopes to assist the US government in understanding foreign countries and regions prior to an engagement within that region.

The areas of cross-cultural communication, intercultural understanding, and cultural anthropology strike me as particularly ripe for talented, linguistically-skilled and culturally-nuanced people looking for an internationally-focused career —and as areas, as the HTS makes clear, where there is a lot of work to be done:

Iraqi drivers would unaccountably fail to stop when ordered to at checkpoints, and American soldiers, fearing a suicide bombing, would open fire—sometimes killing innocents. One possible reason was a devastatingly simple cultural confusion: the American gesture for “stop”—arm straight, palm out—means “welcome” in Iraq. “This and similar misunderstandings have deadly consequences,” McFate wrote in Joint Force Quarterly in 2005.

Luby Ismail, profiled in Working World the book, runs Connecting Cultures, which facilitates diversity training and cross-cultural awareness for a variety of clients (including the military). A good resource for those interested in cross-cultural work is the Intercultural Management Quarterly and its corresponding institute at American University run by Dr. Gary Weaver, a former professor of mine at AU and something of a legend in the cross-cultural communication field.

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