Intercultural Work—Stuck in its own past? (#1 in a series)


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Dr. George Simons has long been researching the stories that make us who we are. In this series of blog posts he will be leading us in an examination of critical challenges that can lead us toward a fresh vision of culture. We will explore how we come to terms with our inner and shared identities and learn about how we construct the realities that shape our now and our future world.

Despite a tide swell in intercultural communication and worldwide immersion in social media, the current field of intercultural communication itself seems static. This blog post articulates five ways in which the field appears to be moving too slowly for the world around it.

1. Essentialism
The word used for the kind of intercultural intervention that leads in the direction of stereotyping is called “essentialism.” One tends to assume that a certain person must inevitably share certain cultural characteristics or behaviors if they come from a particular group, ethnicity or culture. Saying that I am from the USA or that I am German or Nigerian makes a whole mess of things stick to me as stereotypes. Of course, we do have cultural characteristics, but who has them, to what degree as well as when, how and where they’ll be expressed is what we don’t know, and is what we need to learn about each other as we work together. Moreover, we belong to multiple cultural circles that may define us in variable, even contradictory ways. Interculturalists loudly condemn stereotyping but seem less adept at escaping from delivering cultural information.

There may be benefits to identifying with a group despite or in some cases because of the stereotypes, though all too easily an identity is painfully imposed on us. A little story to illustrate this. Nordstrom is a big department store in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley. A young woman in my class at Loyola—let’s call her Yuko—told me how, when working there, a woman making a purchase asked, “Honey, where are you from?” (Yuko had identifiably Asian features in her face). The young woman said, “Oh I’m from right here in the Valley. The woman went on, “But where did your parents come from?” Yuko answered, “Oh, they came from the Valley, too.” The woman persisted, “But where did your grandparents come from?” Yuko answered, “Oh, they weren’t from the Valley, they were from Fresno [another California town].” In fact, Yuko’s Japanese-American family predated the many European immigrants that came at the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Essentialism looks at “difference” as “not belonging.” Yuko suffered this kind of pain repeatedly just because she didn’t look like “everybody else.”

2. Ignoring context
A lack of awareness of the social and particularly historical contexts is another way the intercultural thinking and practice can remain static. A lot of people’s feelings about those different from themselves is not simply a matter of their looking or sounding different, and may be anchored in a story of things that happened in the past. Remember, for example, when Yugoslavia disintegrated into smaller states, how politics called into popular sentiment old memories of “what they did to us” 50 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, and so on. These memories live in a culture and affect how we react to individuals in other groups. This is to say nothing of social context, particularly now. Since the financial crisis, we’ve been struggling, in a more conscious way than most of us have done in our lifetimes, with those who have and those who have not. This also provides subtext for our communication with each other.

Questions

©George Simons, blog.culturaldetective.com

3. Cultural denial
A lot of people I work with, particularly many younger people today, have or are encouraged to have an attitude that expresses itself as, “I don’t have a culture,” or “I’m a global person, a global citizen.” This suggests that prioritizing individualism, so strongly promoted in the West, makes it in a way shameful to be connected to our past, to have identifiable roots. This is true not simply of third culture kids (TCK’s), some of whom have been jetsetters while in the womb, but of others, and seems to be part of the educational process. All too many people, and not exclusively the young, have suffered by or are fearful of being labeled, of being stereotyped, as we mentioned above, or they feel a need to disassociate with what feels like the oppression of their origins, their family, religious faith or local context. Having cultural features seems a liability to them, a restriction of freedom. Inability to address this inclination is another point of stasis in intercultural work.

4. Implicit colonialism
An even bigger issue is a kind of lingering sense of better-than-thou-ness, and noblesse-oblige do-goodism that results in a kind of hidden chauvinism, a myopic view of other cultures that too easily infects intercultural efforts and holds them back. Part of this involves interculturalists’ need to come to grips with colonial history and its enduring effects in political and economic terms , not just hand wringing. We are fully aware of having a long history of European colonialism and US colonialism that doesn’t take other people’s cultural and environmental ownership seriously. So we come to enlighten them, to bring them progress, to bring globalization, of course to sell them our products. The need for cultural savvy makes it an important commodity today and this situation begs us to take a larger view. But even more important for intercultural professionals are discovery, exploration and treatment of the psychological residue of colonial thinking in themselves. Failing this, it is hard to imagine our efforts moving forward in the ways we like to think that we intend.

5. Dyadic dimensional thinking
Traditionally, in the boilerplate of the intercultural profession, we studied values in what are called “dimensions.” This was our starting point, something for which we are very grateful to the original researchers, people like Geert Hofstede and Edward Hall. In their observations and studies they raised questions and classified the answers. For example, they identified people as more or less “individualistic” or “collective,” “masculine” or “feminine,” “direct or indirect,” according to how people in different cultures reported their likely behavior given similar situations. Their work made us aware of the fact that there were areas of life in which different people had different ways. Yet, on the other hand, the resulting value labels were a product of Western academic mentality, an attempt to understand other people on our own terms rather than on theirs. This may have been the key to the antechamber of understanding, but leaves us standing in front of a second locked door.

In sum, five road blocks, often in combination with each other, that challenge intercultural thinking and practice. Will social media change our static habits? Perhaps so, because they regularly confront us with evidence from around the world, literally at our fingertips, that may challenge these notions. Yet confirmation bias, our ability to see only what we know or expect to see and make otherness fit into it, is likely to be operative in the online world as well. What think you?

This post originally appeared in the blog of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research and is provided with the assistance of its editor Anastacia Kurylo.

9 thoughts on “Intercultural Work—Stuck in its own past? (#1 in a series)

  1. I really appreciate your views Mr Simons, and I very much agree with the 5 road blocks and how you describe them.

    Do you have any suggestions or advice on how to overcome them; especially within institutions that are entrenched with these road blocks?

    Thank you for sharing your insight with us,
    Lisa

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    • Thanks for your interest and your question, Lisa. There is much, much more to come on the topic and I hope you will add your perceptions and opinions as we go forward. Institutions are held together by stories and it is to the creation of these stories that we will look. George

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  2. Hi there, from my experience I don’t think that social media will change a lot. Unless you really live in a country and are willing to let the ‘otherness’ penetrate you, you will not leave your pink glasses aside and might never see what makes other people different. I always wondered for example, why colleagues who travelled with me around the world, still had the same mindset even after having experienced so many different places… well, travelling and working with other people is not enough! Looking forward to reading more from you… Jenny

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  3. Thanks, Jenny,
    I suspect that you are right, given that we bring our old discourses to the new media we create. On the other hand I am still fascinated by Marshall McLuhan’s astute observation that “the medium is the message,” and am wondering and looking at what new media say to us and for us when we use them. Any thoughts on this…? I think the jury is going to be out a long time trying to discover what this enormous enhancement of connectivity will mean. We have already seen what it can do to some degree in the Arab Spring, and other organizational efforts.

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  4. Really great point of dyadic thinking – that is very linear concept, even if we integrate the idea that its not 2 option, but a scale. How would it look if we discussed this in more circular style of thinking models. We definitely need louder voices from our counterparts outside the US/European/Western ways of thinking.

    Regarding the social media platform, its a great way to keep us connected and also keep us in stereotypes. Id love to see more interculturalists using it to spread the positive benefits of this field.

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    • Good thought, Vanessa,
      Do you have some ideas about a strategy for using these media by interculturalists for more positive benefits? There is a lot out there in terms of blogs like this, our SIETAR Europa LinkedIn and SIETAR Facebook groups but these seem to be largely inter nos. On the other hand many of our colleagues have personal and professional sites explaining and marketing their services. What else do you see? Certainly if we learned to encourage those outside our Western ways we would all learn a lot.

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  5. Great article, George! I have lamented of late that we as a profession seem “stuck,” and this is a great summary. I particularly like point 5 and how it points to cultural generalizations as a monocultural mindset. It’s something I haven’t thought about before, and I like the shift of perspective it gave me. Thank you!

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