I, along with millions of others, watched newly elected President Barak Obama give his first interview since taking office. It made headlines around the world not just because it was his first interview but because he sat down with Arab TV station Al-Arabiya. President Obama talked about extending a hand of friendship and said Americans wanted to work with the Muslim world to find a solution. Yet, he also made it clear that America would hunt down terrorist organizations.
What stood out immediately in my mind was how many times he used the word “respect”. And I thought, “Wow, do we have a culturally competent president?” We have had many intelligent people representing our country; but when was the last time you heard someone talking about working together with “respect”? That word has tremendous meaning and impact in so many parts of the world. And it is something that we as Americans do not emphasize. And yet, it is something of tremendous importance in many cultures around the world and it needs to be verbalized both directly and indirectly. As Americans, we really needed to step back and say, “We respect you and we want to work together”. Words have tremendous symbolism and treating the other party in a “respectful” manner goes a very long way in the Muslim world (and in many other parts of the world). Saying we will “start by listening” and we are “ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest” will gain President Obama much good will in the world as he begins his term in office.
Being aware of the significance of language and symbolism is something that business leaders also need to be aware of in their interactions. It is important to develop awareness of the importance of these “niceties” and infuse them into your conversations. You will go a long way by developing this awareness and utilizing it in your interactions.
I am hopeful that President Obama’s example and his “extending our hands in friendship” will start us down a new path towards understanding and someday, peace. To me, this speech illustrates the power of being culturally competent in our new global world.