Building a Multicultural Community:

Finding common ground in a diverse world


-Terry R. Armstrong, Ph.D.

Human Development, Vol 25, No.4, 2004

Two contradictory forces struggle for dominance in the modern world – globalization or (homogenization) and cultural diversity. Survival, it appears, depends on building a bridge between the two. Unless we grasp an understanding of the “power of culture” and the “power of economic globalization” to discover a way to create a bridge uniting the two, we will be doomed to perpet­ual cultural wars. This is not only true in the world at large, but also within our own organizations, and even in the church itself.


As a community development organizer in the coffee-growing mountains of Colombia, I learned an important lesson. I had been working with a number of villages helping them build schools and a health center when some community leaders invited me to their village to help them build a bridge. The bridge would have short­ened their journey to the market by three hours during the dry sea­son and by many more hours during the rainy season. It seemed like a good project and, a bit naive, I eagerly accepted their invitation to see how I might help. Unluckily for me I took off in a tropical down­pour, and seven hours later I arrived at the small bamboo village, never so happy to have a bowl of hot sugar water and some rice. When the rain stopped they took me to the gorge where they planned on building the swinging bridge. The gorge was barely thirty feet wide and my Yankee ingenuity immediately went to work on devising a means for building the bridge.

“It should be no problem,” I assured them, and I told them I would speak with the departmental engineer to obtain some h­elp.

An old bare footed man spoke up. “Segnor,” he said, “before you go about planning how to build the bridge, why don’t you ask why it hasn’t yet been built?”

I was speechless. Indeed, if the bridge would save time, why hadn’t it already been built. My naiveté was about to get an entire village and me into trouble. I later found out that the reason there the gorge was because on one side there was a liberal village and on the other a conservative village. As an outsider I hadn’t realized that the pangs of the violence still burned deep. If the bridge had been built there would have been bloody warfare. The bridge had not been built, not because of technical reasons but because of social ones.

The peasant understood that the problem of having a bridge was not a simple technological one but rather a complex social and cultural problem. I saw the problem as a technological problem. I had framed the situation in terms of technology rather than in cross­-cultural terms. My mis-framing of the problem could have led to disastrous; results. I found that how we frame a problem can be helpful or disastrous.


The real culprit of my misdiagnosis in Colombia was my own ethnocentrism and lack of cross-cultural understanding. We the tendency to believe that others see the world the way we do. When we find out they don’t, we are shocked. I first became acutely aware of this phenomenon when President Kennedy stated that Khrushchev “really believed in Communism?’ I was just a teen-ager at the time, but I was shocked that what was obvious to me surprised President Kennedy. In fact, cultural violence due to cross-cultural misunderstanding has been around a long time, as any brief history of the world will quickly demonstrate. What is profoundly different is that we truly live in a “global village,” even though that is now a terribly worn-out term. Everyone knows about the power of the mass media and that it is with us to stay. Most have some idea of what globalization is, even if we don’t understand it. Further, we must not only understand cultural differences, but we also must learn how to live in a culturally pluralistic world and learn not only how to understand those who are different from us, but how to come to appreciate cultural differ­ences without losing our own cultural! consciousness.

In a study of cross-cultural differences between Western (U.S. and U.K.) and Indian companies, important differences were found that impact the ways Indians work with Westerners. Using psychologist Geert Hofstede’s widely accepted model of cultural dif­ferences, the study found that cultural differences are deep and complex and that it is easy to be fooled by superficial symbols of culture, such as world-wide adoption of such things as Compaq, Dell, New York Yankees baseball caps and Coke. This study was undertaken because of the increasing business partnerships between India and the West. The Indians had a very high “Power Distance score” as opposed to the low “Power Distance score” for their Western associates. This means that Indians are likely to have a greater tol­erance for hierarchical environments and are more likely to belong to cohesive “in-groups,” whereas the Westerners tend to resist groups, are individualistic and believe power should be shared. There was also a major difference in the way they deal with time, with Westerners operating with a short-term orientation compared with the long-term time horizon of Indians. Having such different orientations to both ‘power” and “time” can easily lead to conflicts between groups, even though they may have the same goals.

Common goals are important, but they are not enough. Too often we think that if we have the same goals we can achieve them together, but we may have very different means. And, then again, we may agree on means but not on goals. We must agree on means and goals, and this is not as easy as it may seem. Too often I’ve seen conflict within an organization that had the same goals and the same means, but the par­ticipants did not give them the same rank order. In fact, some of the bitterest conflicts I have been asked to mediate have been when goals and means were agreed upon but the parties had a different rank ordering. For example, one group’s “1” was the other group’s “10?’ They had not spent time discussing the differences, and thus each group felt that the other group was deliberately manipulating or sabotaging them, when in fact the problem was not one of goals or means but of values.


One of my most humiliating moments was when I discovered I was color-blind. As a teenager I had many arguments with my mother about the color of my clothes, the house, the car and what she wore. I even had run-ins with the police about red lights. Of course, I knew they were wrong and would become furious that others would pick on me about something of which I was absolutely certain. After returning from the Peace Corps I received a letter from the draft board asking me to show up for my Army physical. I wasn’t too excited about going but was absolutely shocked when the doctor told me I was color-blind. I realized that I had been wrong all those years when arguing with my mother and others in authority about color.

My perceptions were simply wrong. I saw the world differently than others did. Had I learned about my being color-blind earlier, the discovery may not have had such an impact on me, but I had been absolutely certain that I knew what was right and that they didn’t. Knowing that others see the world differently than I do has not only been humbling but also educational. It has helped me realize that there are many things besides color that others see differently than I. Others see a very different world than I do, and they may well be right, and I may well be wrong. This has not made me feel inferior or less of a person, but it has taught me that I must listen and try to understand what the other party sees. It has also made me realize that I may be correct and they may be wrong; but that doesn’t keep them from believing that they are correct and I am wrong. As I have dealt with people from many cultures over the years, this humility based on self-awareness of my color disorientation has proven invaluable.

Another perception problem I have had since childhood also drove home the point that others perceive the world differently than I do. While a teen-ager I decided to learn the Morse code using flash cards. When I went to take my ham radio test I discovered that I had learned the Morse code backwards. Neither my instructor nor I could figure out how I had learned the entire code backwards. Determined to get my ham radio license, I relearned the code using sound and wiped away my visual memory of the code. It took me a long time to relearn the code, but I’ve now been a radio operator for more than four decades and have come to enjoy conversations in Morse. The learning problem I discovered when I tested for the Morse code is called dyslexia. For me, dyslexia, combined with my color-blindness, led to humility and wisdom. I often wish those who are so certain about their world view could live in my world for just a few days.

We believe what we perceive. For us our percep­tions are true. Others believe in the same manner. They, too, believe that what they sec is true. The truth is in the eye of the beholder, but the lie is there, also. Wisdom begins with the realization that perception of the world and even of ourselves is fundamentally flawed. I pray daily that I see myself, and the world, through God’s eyes rather than mine.


Asked to mediate between a North American entrepreneur and an Arabic business venture, I learned a few more lessons about finding common ground in a diverse world. The American entrepreneur needed venture capital to expand his business, and the Arabic venture was looking for new technologies it could buy and use in the oil industry in the Middle East. I met with both parties separately in the United States, toured the facility and reviewed financial records. All our discussions and interactions followed traditional Business protocols, and I was given all the information I requested. A couple months later we met in the Middle East. Upon arrival I was met at the airport chauffeured everywhere. We met in a secluded urban location and touch negotiations went on for several days except for regularly schedule prayer periods.

The negotiations ended on a positive note financially, and both parties were happy with the results. I was exhausted from the ordeal. This was one of the toughest mediations I had experienced in my life. In relative terms this was not a complex transaction. It was a simple two-party negotiation in which both parties knew what they wanted, and it was in both parties’ interests “to make a deal”. Why, then, was it so difficult?

Upon much reflection and numerous mediations later, I realized that both parties needed and wanted the deal. However, there was very low trust between the two parties- and this was before September 11, 2001. After visitng the Middle East after 9/11, it is clear that trust there for the west is nearly non-existent.


Trust is not only essential to mediation, but also to all human relationships. Without some degree of trust, positive human relationships are virtually impossible. Trust, and you will be trusted. Certainly being the first one to trust is risky. It is important to know that trust is an act of risk-taking and, in some instances, can even get you killed. Trust is something that has to be built and maintained, and it can be destroyed quickly. Also, once it is destroyed it takes an enormous effort and a lot of time to rebuild.

Community building has a lot to do with building trust and creating an atmosphere in which everyone in the community feels safe. Even in a purely business negotiation that is primarily about exchanging goods, services, knowledge and money, trust is essential to carry out the transaction. And when one is trying to build a community in which traditions, sense of identi­ty and survival are central, trust building is paramount. In fact, I do not believe that anything is more impor­tant than trust. This is especially true when trying to create a multi-cultural community because of unknown and potentially threatening possibilities.


Without listening, understanding is impossible. Taking time to listen also communicates interest and respect. Beyond this, it helps build trust. Often I have listened to clients wander for hours; then, as we are about to wind down our conversation and I get up to leave, I am told to wait a minute. They have something they must tell me. I’ve learned that that is the golden moment. No matter what else I have to do I sit back down and listen. I do this because I’ve learned that this is the moment for which they have been waiting.

This lesson I first learned as a parent. When my children had important things to tell me it was always late at night after we had talked for hours. Just as I was failing asleep or begging out to go to bed, they would say, “Wait dad, I need to tell you something?’ It was after all the talking and all the listening that they were able to open up and share their deepest fears. When they first came home from school, they loved to talk about their day and their achievements. But only after hours of my listening did they bare their souls.

Corporate executives, church leaders and seasoned diplomats are no different. They will wait until they know you are really listening before they will tell you what you really need to hear, If you never listen, you will never hear what you must; thus, you proceed in ignorance, with often-disastrous results.

As a young management consultant I made a lot of money listening while I smoked my pipe and nodded my head. It was difficult to believe that people would pay me to listen to them tell me their problems. I don’t smoke a pipe anymore, but I still listen as people tell me their stories.

Everyone needs to be heard the powerless and the powerful the young and the oid, This became poignantly obvious while I was in training to be a hos­pital chaplain. One day while I was doing my rounds an elderly lady asked me to sit because she had something to tell me, Being polite I sat. She talked for hours about

her life, and it was a fascinating story. I only wish I had had a tape recorder that day. She told me about how she was the first woman in the state to be licensed as a pharmacist and about her three children who had been killed in World War II. She told me all about her husband and the problems and love they shared for many years before he died. After telling me her life story, she said, “Why am I telling you all this?”

“j don’t know,” I said, ‘It must be important?’

As tears came to her eyes she reached out her hand to mine. “Thank you, rabbi,” she said, “you are very kind.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t a rabbi. “It’s been a beautiful life,” I said.

She smiled and nodded her head.


Most of my work over the years has been in search of finding common ground amidst diversity. I do not want to give the impression that it is easy, or that all we need to do is trust and listen in order to get beyond our differences. I do not want to lead anyone to believe that all it takes is reframing the situation, or that everything in the world is situational.

Recently, I was asked to accompany a United States trade group to a South American country to help mediate inter-regional trade. As we were driving along the countryside on a nice paved road looking at small farms and villages, the American woman next to me com­plained about all the poverty in the country. However, the houses were painted; there was little trash on the roadside, and children were happily playing.

This was not poverty, as I knew it. I told her that the country was rather well-to-do, and I shared some of my experiences in various parts of the world where more than half the population lives by begging and life expectancy was in the thirties because of AIDS. She said, “If I have such a difficult time just riding a bus through this country, how can other Americans ever begin to grasp what the world is like?” This comment from a woman representing her country on a major trade tour was sad. It helped me realize how much must be done if we are to build a world in which people can live together peacefully.

Gaining cross-cultural understanding is essential for life in the modem world. It would be wonderful if we came to accept and love one another. I pray for that, but I would be satisfied if we came to see that our own understanding of others is limited at best and is actu­ally quite flawed. It will take a lot of patience and respect for the differences of others for the world to move forward in a positive way, but at no time in history has it been as important as now. Concerned Catholics must not only reach out to others. We must also pause and reflect on our own views and see how our cultural vision is very much a part of today’s prob­lems in the world. We must come to recognize our cultural dyslexia and cultural blindness and come to real­ize, unlike President Kennedy, that “they” really believe what “‘they” believe even when it seems pre­posterous to us. Even within our church we must listen to those who see things differently from us. Let us not be too quick to judge others of our faith. We may be wrong, and they may be right. Building a multi-cultur­al community must begin at home, within our family of believers, within our church.




Armstrong, T.R. “‘Why the Bridge Hasn’t Been Built and Other Profound Questions in Multicultural Organization Development, “ in Changing the Way We Manage Change, Edited by Ronald R. Sims. Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books, 2002.

Hall, E. Beyond Culture. Garden City, New York, Anchor, 1987.

Harris, P.R., R.T Moran and W.G. Stripp. Managing Cultural Differences, Fourth Edition. Houston, Texas, Guff Publishing Go., 1993

Hofstede, G. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2003.