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Boundary Spanners for Cross-Cultural Competence

Intercultural Encounters

The English Elchi [ambassador] had reached Tehran a few days before we arrived there, and his reception was as brilliant as it was possible for a dog of an unbeliever to expect from our blessed Prophet’s own lieutenant… The princes and noblemen were enjoined to send the ambassador presents, and a general command issued that he and his suite were the Shah’s guests, and that, on the pain of the royal anger, nothing but what was agreeable should be said to them.

All these attentions, one might suppose, would be more than sufficient to make infields contented with their lot; but, on the contrary, when the subject of etiquette came to be discussed, interminable difficulties seemed do arise. The Elchi was the most intractable of mortals. First, on the subject of sitting. On the day of his audience of the Shah, he would not sit on the ground, but insisted upon having a chair; then the chair was to be placed so far, and no farther, from the throne. In the second place, of shoes, he insisted upon keeping on his shoes, and not walking barefooted upon the pavement; and he would not even put on our red cloth stockings. Thirdly, with respect to hats: he announced his intention of pulling his off to make his bow to the king, although we assured him that it was an act of great indecorum to  uncover the head. And then, on the article of dress, a most violent dispute arose: at first, it was intimated that proper dresses should be sent to him and his suite, which would cover their persons (now too indecently exposed) so effectually that they might be fit to be seen by the king; but this proposal he rejected with derision. He said that he would appear before the Shah of Persia in the same dress he wore when before his own sovereign.

-James Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, 1824, Chapter LXXVII

James J. Morier (1780-1849) was a European, and The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan is a work of fiction. Morier, however, knew what he wrote about. He was born and raised in Ottoman Turkey as a son of the British consul at Constantinople (now Istanbul). Later on he spent altogether seven years as a British diplomat in Persia (present-day Iran). When Hajji Baba was translated into Persian, the readers refused to believe that it had been written by a foreigner. “Morier was by temperament an ideal traveler, reveling in the surprising interest of strange lands and peoples, and gifted with a humorous sympathy that enabled him to appreciate the motives actuating persons entirely dissimilar to himself,” to quote the editor of the 1923 version of his book. Morier obviously read and spoke Turkish and Persian. For all practical purposes he had become multicultural.

                                      From Cultures and Organizations. Software of the Mind, by Geert Hofstede,
                                        Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov (3rd ed).

                                           

In other words, James Morier could span a bridge between British and Persian culture. He was a boundary spanner, because he understood both sides and could articulate the difference. In British fashion, he used his skill to ridicule his own people, which was probably the best way to get his message across.

In today’s multi-national companies, boundary spanners are also badly needed. They can avert cross-cultural misunderstanding in the organization. For instance, they can help local employees understand incomprehensible requests from faraway headquarters to local employees. This could be about HR, about accounting, about data capture, or about research.

James Morier had lived in both cultures from birth, but he was a rare bird. We have to use traineeships, courses, exchanges and the like. These are investments with large payoffs.

Gert Jan Hofstede

                                                                                                         

Gert Jan Hofstede will talk about the capacities of boundary spanners and especially about how to raise one’s own boundary spanners.