An exploration of cultural competency and the skills that make it possible to live and work in foreign countries.
In this business book, Wittwer (Talking through Pictures, 2016, etc.) shares advice for understanding and fitting into new cultures, particularly in the context of international business relationships. The title comes from the book’s central metaphor: a monkey struggling to understand the behavior of zoo visitors outside its cage. The book examines not just how cultures differ around the world, but why, offering psychological, sociological, and ethnographic explanations of a population’s dominant behaviors. It also provides resources for responding to these behaviors while adapting to life in a new country. Wittwer’s expertise on the subject is drawn not only from his years as an international business executive, but also from his experience as a Swiss citizen who grew up in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. The text is informative and knowledgeable, drawing on anthropological and ethnographic research without getting caught up in excessive jargon. It explores some examples of cross-cultural misunderstandings at length, such as one in which an English teacher gets upset because her Arab pupils share answers to a test, while others serve as springboards to more general discussion. Wittwer has an eye for details that will specifically capture the attention of American readers: “I ate my first peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich at the age of 34 when on an expat assignment in America.” However, he also has a tendency to repeat examples, such as one regarding an African president’s favoritism toward his hometown, and linguists will take issue with his analysis of the quantity of Koyukon words for snow. But these minor shortcomings are outweighed by his competent, coherent explanations, which include resources for further reading.
A thorough, thoughtful look at cross-cultural understanding from an experienced expatriate author.