Holland America Cruise Line Crew Member Attempts to Kill Passenger: A Potential Case of Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding

At Holland America Line, the safety of our guests is our highest priority, and we are shocked and deeply saddened by this incident,

Stein Kruse, President and CEO of Holland America Cruise Line

On a scene that could have been predicted in one of my favorite movies “Wall Street”[1], the cruise shipping industry has been outsourcing their manpower from emerging countries potentially because they can simply pay them less for the same type of service. According to Friedman, “The World is Flat”[2] and companies are quickly learning to take advantage of what was once the purview of only the top Fortune 100 companies, the ability to move their profits and expenses around the world in order to increase their profits. The idea is not new and it has been used for the last 40 years in the U.S. and other first world countries to offshore, right shore, and outsource manufacturing and services to other countries where labor costs or taxes could provide a company with a more favorable economic conditions, as part of a drive to increase the “return on the investment” for the organization shareholders. While the potential increases in ROI are easy to identify, outsourcing labor has as one of the unintended consequences the potential conflicts that can be caused by cross-cultural misunderstandings when people from different cultures interact on a regular basis, and this may be the cause of the latest mishap on the Holland America’s MS Nieuw Amsterdam.


Holland America Crew MemberIt was just reported in the news that a Holland America crew member Ketut Pujaysa, a 28 years old room service attendant on the Cruise Line Holland America, physically and sexually assaulted a 31 year old woman, and attempted to kill her because of what could have been considered in the U.S. a very minor offense. According to the published reports, the crew member attempted to strangle, and throw the passenger over the balcony into the ocean after he felt offended and disrespected by the woman. Speaking to the police Pujaysa told the authorities that when he attempted to deliver breakfast to the woman on her cabin, he knocked three times and he hear a woman scream “wait a minute, son of a bitch!” , and that she didn’t apologized when eventually she opened the door to get her breakfast delivered.


While we cannot condone the actions of the crew member, or justify them because of his perceived offense; this is a situation that can potentially be repeated on a daily basis on multinational companies all over the world. Today we interact on an almost daily basis with co-workers, customers, or even managers that come from a different culture and have completely different sets of values and behavioral traits, based on their individual cultural backgrounds. What is acceptable in one place, it may not be acceptable in another, or could be extremely offensive to others. We have all hear that you should never offer your left hand when shaking hands with people from the Middle East, or that you should carefully take the business card being offered by a Japanese; but rarely we are told why that is important. In many cases employees are simply given a 30 minute presentation about “Cultural Diversity”, and told some rules to follow, without explaining the reasons; or in the majority of the cases without even understanding if the new rules are actually disrespectful according to the employee’s own set of cultural beliefs.

A Potential Case of Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding

In the case of Holland America’s incident, the crew member felt offended by the words allegedly used by the passenger when he knocked at her door, and he felt that he had been disrespected potentially because of his  cultural background. At the same time potentially because of her cultural background, the passenger considered that the words used were either normal and expected between a customer and an employee, and that they were not “such a big deal”. Misunderstandings like this happen almost every day on a multinational – multicultural business environment, and in many cases could even substantially affect a company bottom line by causing the loss of contracts or the costs of lawsuits and punitive damages charged by the courts.


Cultural Dimensions - Indonesia-USWhen we look at the Holland America case, we can see two individuals from substantially different cultures attempting to communicate in an environment that is challenging by design. The passengers expect to be served to their most minimal desires, and being disrespected by a crew member in any way may be considered by them extremely offensive and deserving of their wrath (she ordered breakfast and he may have woke her up when he knocked on her door). On the other side, crew members are expected to be completely friendly and to meet every single explicit or even implicit expectation of the passengers with potentially little or no regards to their own set of expectations. Compounding the issue is the fact that both passenger and crew member are in a locked environment, with no possibility of avoiding each other for the duration of the trip, something not normally found on a regular hotel or another similar business.


Looking at the general cultural characteristics of both, the Indonesian crew member, and the American tourist, we can easily identify that there are certain indicators for a potential conflict between the two cultures. Looking at the chart, we can easily identify three areas of potential conflict between the two cultures in the areas of Power Distance (PDI), Individualism (IDV), and Restraint (IVR). On one side we have a culture that emphasizes order, harmony, and restraint (Indonesia), and on the other one a culture that is based on expectations of equality, personal choice, and indulgence (U.S.). When forced together and not properly educated on the cultural differences and the reasons for those differences, individuals from these two cultures can find themselves in situations like the Holland America one, where minor conflicts can quickly escalate into serious offenses.


What can you do in your organization to prevent issues like these?

Because one of the primary causes of these incidents is simply a cross-cultural misunderstandings, the first step that organizations need to take is to educate the members of their organizations on the fundamentals of cross-cultural interactions. Company executives, managers, and employees need to gain an understanding of the true reasons that drive an individual behavior, and understand that different does not necessarily means wrong or offensive. While many multinational organizations have already implemented cultural diversity trainings, in many cases these trainings do not take into consideration the actual expectations of other cultures; and fail to address the needs of their multicultural employees in favor of those of the organization headquarters. A true multinational-multicultural organization will quickly recognize that in order to be successful on a worldwide basis, they will need not only to expand their operations, but to also expand their cross-cultural awareness in order to have more satisfied employees and customers, the true basis of a company growth.


How can we help your organization?

With over 20 years of multinational expertise in operations, strategic business management and consulting, we can help you develop a comprehensive plan that can help you improve your company bottom line. From employee and management 360 evaluations and cross-cultural developmental seminars, to organizational design we can help you improve your organization’s performance and your success as an employee or as an executive. Contact us if you have any questions about cross-cultural organizational development, or if you will like to learn more about our services.


If you will like to learn more about Cross-Cultural Management strategies you can register for our FREE Seminar to be held in Miami on March 20th, 2014.


References and Related Articles

[1] Wall Street – Stone, 1987 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094291/

[2] The World is Flat – Friedman, 2005 http://www.thomaslfriedman.com/bookshelf/the-world-is-flat

[3] Holland America Line Cruise Ship Worker Sexually Assaulted Woman in Room: FBI Officials

[4] Crew member accused of attacking cruise passenger, trying to push her overboard 

About Jorge Mastrapa

Dr. Jorge Mastrapa is an international author, speaker, executive coach, and entrepreneur. His areas of expertise include cultural diversity, global leadership, organizational culture, and human capital management.

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