The Cultural Synergist

Insights for the month with Dr Tom Verghese

The Cultural Synergist- Insights for the month


April 2022

Issue # 168

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Best Intentions...


This month’s newsletter is from guest contributor, Phoebe Tocco, who works with me at Cultural Synergies.

Hi, I’m Phoebe and I have been working with Dr Tom Verghese for a number of years in the cross culture, diversity, equity and inclusion space. Tom has invited me to be a guest contributor to The Cultural Synergist. This month I thought I would share a story about cross-culture and intentions.

I was considering recently, when in a situation that required working across cultures, how sometimes the best intentions can in fact create great discomfort and misunderstanding.

Many years ago, when I lived in Japan, a friend and I took a trip to the very north of Honshu Island to enjoy the mountains and do some snowboarding. We chose a traditional Japanese Inn (Ryokan) that was situated near the ski resort. At that time, foreigners visiting these types of places was still relatively rare and even booking it was quite challenging, however we both spoke Japanese quite well and were able to navigate the process.

After making our plans, the day finally arrived for our departure, and we headed to the snow. We had an incredible time snowboarding in the thick powdery snow and returned to the ryokan exhausted. We were more than ready for a hot bath in the mineral springs and the sumptuous dinner that Ryokan prepare which feature regional specialties.

After a quick bath to soothe our tired bodies, we headed down to the dining room feeling ravenous. We had communicated with the Ryokan that we only ate fish, so we were very surprised when our main course arrived, and it was a regional specialty that was comprised only of grilled mutton. We were somewhat confounded by the situation and called the server over to discuss the situation. We explained that we had informed the ryokan we only ate fish and that we had been told by the booking agent there would be an appropriate option for us. However somewhere along the way, there was a miscommunication and wanting to be the best hosts possible, which is very much a cultural trait of the Japanese, they thought they would offer us the specialty dish that the area was known for rather than giving us a choice.

Furthermore, they informed us that the chefs had all gone home and there was no other food available for us than what had been prepared. Given we were in the middle of the mountains our options were very limited and as we were very hungry, we had no other choice but to eat the dish. It was a difficult meal, and we felt much chagrin, as I presume did our hosts. We woke up feeling quite unwell with taste of mutton fat still on our palates.Fortunately, the breakfast was a more predictable affair, and we were able to enjoy that without feeling so uncomfortable.

Reflecting on the situation, it is interesting to consider that our hosts really believed, based on their own values, that they were honouring us as guests and had the best intention when making that choice for us. We on the other hand felt insulted that our request had been dismissed and that we were put in the situation where we had no other options. What then is the learning here? How could that situation have been avoided so a better outcome was achieved from a cross- cultural perspective?

Applying a Cultural Intelligence(CQ) lens, we could posit that, ‘checking’ is a good way for us to ensure we are on track when engaging across cultures. This means communicating and enquiring with the individuals and confirming that what you think is ok, actually is! It can be a great way of avoiding misunderstandings and discomfort on both sides and save both parties from humiliation and frustration. My sense is that this is a skill that goes beyond application in the culture space, as given that we all have differing individual cultures and ways of doing things – we need to ensure we are being open to and inclusive of ‘other ways’. This can translate to giving options and asking for preferences around ways of work for example. I feel very fortunate to have had these experiences in a culture that is so different to my own, it taught me many things which stay with me today and inform me in my work and everyday life.

What are your strategies to effectively engaging with people from other cultures?

Quote of the month:


“Many of us are striving to produce a blend of all the cultures which seems today to be in clash with one another. No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”

– Mahatma Gandhi



Book recommendation:



The 7 Gems Of Intercultural Creativity, Genein M. Letford

Creative thinking is now the skill most needed in the workforce however, creativity cannot thrive unless there is a culture of psychological safety and belonging. The framework of Intercultural Creativity creates this environment while developing creative thinking skills at the same time!

Genein does an amazing job showing how cultural competence is greatly tied to creative output. Using hilarious stories and brilliant analogies, she highlights the correlation between our ability to connect with people of different lived backgrounds and our creative potential.

The 7 Gems of Intercultural Creativity is a ground-breaking professional development concept that integrates cultural competence, which is needed for inclusion, and creative thinking development, which is needed for value creation, while at the same time supporting the mental and emotional wellness and creative potential of every leader and team member.