Cross-Culture Communication – Chaos Narrowly Averted!

July, 2019

Several of my articles in the “4000-footer” series touched on the work that I’ve done across cultures. Here I want to share an anecdote that illustrates how things can (nearly) go awry, even when the cultures involved aren’t that different.

The story involves two people who pop up several times in the series.

Jean and I were living in Tuluá, Colombia, in the late 1980s.  Monique van’t Hek was my manager, a gifted and dedicated Dutch Field Director; I was her Assistant Director.  I learned a huge amount from Monique during those years, and from Leticia Escobar, who was Monique’s manager.  Leticia was Area Manager for Colombia and Ecuador, working from the Regional Office in Ecuador.  Both Monique and I deeply respected Leticia, relying on her judgement and looking forward to her regular visits.

(As you may have seen, I wrapped up the “4000-footer” series thanking some of the many people who helped me, influenced me, taught me, over the decades described in those articles; Monique and Leticia figure prominently in that group. Thank you Monique, and thank you, Leticia!)

At one point during those years, Monique and I were struggling to deal with one problematic local staff member.  “Roberto” (not his actual name) held a key position, leading the implementation of an important initiative. He was a smart and experienced professional but, sadly, he also had a major drinking problem, which was really getting in the way of his work, alienating him from our staff and resulting in poor performance.   After discussing the situation several times, it seemed best that Monique speak with Leticia about the situation, at an upcoming visit, and get her advice.  

At the end of that visit, Leticia and Monique had a private meeting.  I knew that the situation with “Roberto” would be discussed at that meeting so, after Leticia returned to Quito, I dropped by Monique’s office to see what had been decided.

“I’m really confused,” she said.  “It turns out that if we want to dismiss ‘Roberto’ we have to pay him $64,000!” 

This was a real shock : “Roberto” earned less than $1000 per month, and his severance pay wouldn’t amount to anything near that much… 

“What did Leticia actually say?” I asked, with a puzzled look on my face.

“Well, when I asked what she thought we should do, she just said ‘that’s the 64 thousand dollar question.’

Of course, I immediately realized what was happening.  In the 1950s, there was a popular American television game show, in which contestants were asked increasingly difficult questions, winning increasing amounts of money if they answered correctly.  It all culminated with the most-difficult question; if the contestant answered that final, nearly impossible question correctly, they would win $64,000.  

In the 1950s, $64,000 was a lot of money!  Over time, an idiomatic expression entered American culture: when a difficult question was raised, one way of responding was to say “that’s the $64,000 question” – meaning, “that’s a very difficult one!”

Imagine if I hadn’t been there to translate! – “Roberto” might have received a huge windfall!  Unluckily for him, I clarified things with Monique, who was rather relieved that we wouldn’t have to spend so much money if we decided that “Roberto” had to leave.

So, even across cultures as similar as Dutch and American, cross-cultural communications can go awry!  Imagine the complexity when working across verydifferent cultures!  This wasn’t the last time in my career that I would experience the eye-opening mysteries of working across cultures, but it was a good early lesson-learned about how very different cultures can be.


Check out my “4000-footer” series: 48 blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, and experiences along the way:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

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