Our behaviors are communicated both verbally and nonverbally. Culturally intelligent leaders pay attention to both cues. Earley et al. 1 noted, “When we meet strangers from other cultures for the first time, their outward appearances and overt behaviors are the most immediately obvious features, not their hidden thoughts and feelings.” I experienced this when on my first trip from the United States to France.
In my mid-20s, I went to France with my family to visit my uncle on my mother’s side. As we boarded the flight and found our seats, my father and I had challenges finding an overhead space for our bags. Because we did not want to hold up the line of people who needed to pass us to get to their seats, we needed some assistance. I explained to my father in our native Hmong language that there were flight attendants who could assist us. Not too far from us, I spotted a flight attendant and said to my father, “I think he could help us.”
My father, who was distracted and gently being pushed to the side by much taller passengers making their way to their seats, could not see where the attendant was. I said, while pointing in the direction of the attendant, “Dad, he’s over there.” My father looked up and, at that same time, I looked over at the flight attendant. We made eye contact, and because the plane was bustling with passengers, rather than calling out for assistance, I signaled with my hands for him to come over to us.
The next thing I knew, the flight attendant came over. I was so ecstatic to see that he was going to help us that what he said took me by surprise. “In our country, we don’t point our fingers at other people. It’s rude.” Because his voice was loud, other passengers turned to look at what was going on. Completely embarrassed, I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” He replied curtly, “Don’t ever do this [points his finger at me] again.”
“Okay. Thanks for letting me know,” I responded with an apologetic tone. It was certainly not my intention to point directly at him, or to call him to us in that manner.
After settling in our seats with the plane on its way to France, I found myself getting emotional about the situation. He thinks I’m rude for pointing? He’s rude for not even letting me explain. Besides, I didn’tpoint my finger at him. I was just pointing in the direction he was standing. And, what’s his problem that he doesn’t know pointing fingers is also rude in America? Does he think I’m NOT from America?
I describe the emotions I felt as my “emotional hijack” moment, which is when the thalamus in the brain bypasses the “thinking brain” (cortex) and sends signals directly to the amygdala (emotional brain); I took out my journal and deconstructed the situation. It was my way to slow down and understand what happened; it was an opportunity to think through my thinking.
From this experience, I was reminded of the impact verbal and nonverbal communication has within intercultural interactions. And that, sometimes, the intention of your communication does not have the impact that you hoped for.