Video sobre los resultados de un estudio realizado por The British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton e IPSOS Relaciones Públicas, basados en los aportes de un grupo de Gerentes de Recursos Humanos de 367 grandes empleadores en 9 países: Brasil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordania, SudAfrica, Emiratos Árabes Unidos, el Reino Unido y los Estados Unidos. “Los empleadores reconocen la importancia de las habilidades interculturales en el lugar de trabajo.”
Culture at Work: The value of intercultural skills in the workplace
—A survey conducted by the British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton and Ipsos Public Affairs, of HR managers at 367 large employers in nine countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US)
The Report’s Conclusions
“Our ability to engage successfully with other countries, organisations and people will depend to a large extent on whether we possess the necessary intercultural and foreign language skills to make fruitful connections, whether in trade and investment, charity/NGO programmes or as government and international organisations. This is fundamentally changing the way in which employers value and seek to develop intercultural skills in the workplace.”
“More and more business leaders are identifying real business value in employing staff with intercultural skills. These skills are vital, not just in smoothing international business transactions, but also in developing long term relationships with customers and suppliers. Increasingly they also play a key role within the workplace, enhancing team working, fostering creativity, improving communication and reducing conflict. All this translates into greater efficiency, stronger brand identity, enhanced reputation and ultimately impact on the bottom line.”
“Employers believe that intercultural skills are integral to the workplace.”
“A common challenge shared by employers around the world is finding employees with adequate intercultural skills. Given that the operating environments of all organisations is increasingly global, it comes as no surprise that employers need employees who can understand and adapt to different cultural contexts.”
What is the international reality in the workplace?
The research shows that employees in most large companies surveyed engage in extensive interaction across international borders.
More than two thirds of employers report that their employees engage frequently with colleagues outside of their country, and over half say that their employees engage frequently with partners and clients outside of their country.
Intercultural skills provide business value and help mitigate risk.
The research shows that HR managers associate intercultural skills with significant business benefits. Overall, the organisations surveyed are most interested in intercultural skills for the benefits they bring—benefits that carry significant monetary value to employers:
- Keeping teams running efficiently
- Good for reputation
- Bringing in new clients
- Building trust with clients
- Communicating with overseas partners
- Able to work with diverse colleagues
- Increased productivity
- Increased sales
Employers also see significant risk to their organisations when employees lack intercultural skills. Top risks that organisations surveyed are concerned about are:
- Miscommunication and conflict within teams
- Global reputational damage
- Los of clients
- Cultural insensitivity to clients/partners overseas
- Project mistakes
How do the organisations surveyed define “intercultural skills”?
The graphic below shows the words employers used, with size of the block equating to frequency of use.
In particular, employers highlight the following as important intercultural skills that they look for in job candidates:
- the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints
- demonstrating respect for others
- accepting different cultural contexts and viewpoints
- openness to new ideas and ways of thinking
- knowledge of a foreign language.
How employers rank different skills in terms of importance
How does the research indicate these skills are developed?
Most employers report encouraging their staff to develop intercultural skills through in-house training, meetings and events. However, employers also say that educational institutions could do more to equip students with intercultural skills.
The findings suggest that policy makers and education providers could do more to contribute to the development of a workforce with the necessary intercultural skills through interventions, such as prioritising:
- teaching communication skills
- offering foreign language classes
- availability of opportunities for students to gain international experience
- development of international research partnerships.
This research suggests that there is significant opportunity for employers, policy makers and education providers to work together to strengthen the development of intercultural skills to meet the needs of an increasingly global workforce.
Stories can be made to say what we want them to say. I went shopping this evening and, at the checkout, the cashier, seeing the bandage on my nose, asked what happened to me. To her horror, I explained it this way: “A couple days ago, I had an encounter with a young man, who had me held down and cut me with the blade that he had in his hand.”
Her reaction naturally changed to one of amusement and empathy, the moment I mentioned that the young man in question was my surgeon, and the immobilization was being strapped to the operating table! There is no untruth in the first story, but the discourse it calls forth depends on who the listener is, and evokes a substantially different discourse with the omission or addition of a few details. Had I told the same to my policeman neighbor, I’m sure a different automatic discourse would have sprung up for him, and he would have started to ask different questions, though, knowing him, I am sure he would have had a hearty, guys-will-be-guys laugh at the end. The key to the ultimate meaning of stories is intentionality. I was taking advantage of my strange appearance to lighten my pain and have a little fun. Understanding intentionality is the key to cultural competence, not just recognizing difference and learning to adapt behaviors to the situation.
How can new media be used to shape discourse and create culture?
We are forever telling stories, in old as well as new media. So, let’s move on from the question we discussed last time about what messages new-media themselves may bear. Let’s turn our attention to the second question, namely, how we use these media, deliberately or unconsciously to create, change or maintain certain forms of discourse as cultural building blocks. Can, for example, the interactivity of social media play an important role in reshaping cultural discourse and cultural identity? What has been done, accomplished, what is being done to create the stories that articulate today’s and tomorrow’s cultural realities?
Creating stories to do this is not new. We’ve created identity stories throughout history and we do it all the time. Recently a friend of mine sent me a photograph of mother dog instructing seven puppies, with a story which ends: “…and then the mean old kitty stole all of the doggie treats and ran down the street, and that is why we chase cats to this day.”
This doggy story is humorous, because it is so true. Patriots and dictators, oppressors and the oppressed each create their own story, not only of who they are but of how they are defined in reaction to others, usually seen as “the bad guys.” They expect mothers and teachers to pass it on. In the USA, when the Berlin wall came tumbling down and the Communist bloc shrank, after a brief period of euphoria, we started to need a real enemy to feel good about ourselves. There had to be some bad guys, some rustlers out there. Though it is not essential, identity myths pick up currency by emphasizing superiority, whether racial, moral, military or cultural as well as by identifying outside threats.
Branding a Nation
Nonetheless, to discuss what is being done, or what we might do with contemporary media in this respect, it might be instructive to look at a classical case of rebranding, not of a product, but of a nation, something that occurred at a time when mass media could largely be described in two words: newspaper and radio.
Dr. Hatice Sitki, a colleague in Australia, has done impressive work on the marketing and branding of national identity. If you think marketing is not relevant to cultural identity, think again. The whole idea of marketing is to create a discourse, which people take as their reality, a discourse that usually deals with them, sometimes with them as citizens, but more often today as consumers. Using a national example can tell us about commercial branding as well. What Hatice did was study the mythology, the brand, the discourse of Turkish identity, and connect it to the search for European identity, a topic that has been surfacing from time to time since the creation of the European Union—usually in times of stress, like the current financial crisis.
The most interesting part of Hatice’s work was the description of how Kemal Ataturk (literally so renamed as “Father of the Turks) selected from the myths the stories of origins and heroes that existed in Ottoman lore, and recombined them, rephrased them into a discourse, which gave a “real” national identity to Turks. There had been a tribal identity, an ethnic identity for Turks before this, but in the Ottoman Empire there was no sense of a specific Turkish nationality or citizenship. One belonged to the Empire. It was just that way.
So Hatice took a look at the marketing of identity not only historically, but also in terms of the future potential of marketing to the EU. She went on to explore how some of the current myths could be rebranded, so that the discourse about Turkey not being really European might be shifted, even integrated with the myths and discourse of European identity. After all, if one really looks at the Ottoman Empire in European history, it’s played a powerful role. It was frequently an ally of European countries against each other. World War I was only the tragic final act in this drama. Yet today Europeans are struggling with, “Can it be a part of Europe? “Can it join the European Union?” European resistance to the idea, among other factors, seems to be fueling a return to stronger Islamic identity after three quarters of a century of existence as a proud secular republic in the Islamic world.
When I first explored ideas about the flow of culture in a webinar addressed to a study group of the Project Management Institute, one of the participants from India remarked, “I think there’s a hidden morale in this presentation. At the PMI we need to understand the cultural difference, find common ground for all stakeholders to work as one.” How true, because if we think about image of the river, it’s carrying, integrating all these different waters, from all their different sources into one powerful flow toward the sea, and if we think of ourselves as collaborators in an organization, the diversity that our colleagues bring, whether personal, ethnic, or wherever it originates, as a resource.
The metaphor of the river is valid for understanding organizations as well as for exploring group and individual identity. Training multicultural teams to work in global environments, many of whom work almost entirely virtually, requires not only constant exploration of cultural discourse but efforts to shape a “third culture,” the agreed set of discourses by which team members will collaborate. Cultural Detective: Global Teamwork is an example of a tool that was developed by a virtual team to help teams identify and meet the key challenges of virtual collaboration. While such teams often have their own platforms, it is not uncommon for members to use social media to explore and solidify their connections with each other. In an academic context, it happens not infrequently that while students are provided with online tools by the university, many will eschew these for Facebook and other social media when they actually get down to working together on a common project, creating their group culture together on such sites. While we tend to think of deep culture as enduring and resurgent, we should not turn a blind eye to the functional but transitory cultures that are easily built as well as dismantled by new media tools. Even here it is a matter of sharing and shared discourse. If anything, impermanence may be a hallmark of much digital culture where the object of new media utterances is not to “build a monument more lasting than bronze” (Horace, Ode 3.30) but to learn habits that enrich the everyday with timely discourse for what we do to best meet our needs.
The river of discourse is a rich, rich resource. We need to know how to tap into its fullness. If not, the likelihood is what I described toward the end of the Culture’s Flow poem. It will flood over us, wash us away. I often think of colonialism and now rampant globalization as the human, cultural equivalent of burning down the rain forests. Most of us only see the destruction of environments from afar, but at the micro level what is going on is the extermination of species or discourse that will not return, resources that might play, in fact, very important roles in our well being.
We know that humans have created some very dangerous, even genocidal cultures, discourse about others that enables us to kill them en masse. Yet these realities and their consequences stem from our constructed discourse. Once we realize that we are enmeshed in all of these worlds of discourse, it asks us, how can we look at this, how should we look at what’s real, and, what’s really real may be simply our capacity to recognize different discourses for what they are, stories created in time to serve a purpose, hopefully to serve a good purpose, hopefully to help us succeed and survive in our environment. But so many of them have been dangerous; have been deadly, so it’s about getting the point that realities are ours to create.
What do new media bring to this challenge? A great freedom to question. Unparalleled contact with the diversity of others. A great liberty to seek out new discourses of identity. A vast universe of opportunities in which to discover, engage and enroll kindred souls. A limitless playground for new ideas and a place to grow up, space for our discourses to be questioned, to be reshaped, and to be created in unprecedented ways. The opportunity to create a critical mass of discourse that might just change some of the seemingly endless games we have been playing. The tools are there to shape our primitive discourses in ways that will humanely and constructively prevail. This will not happen by itself, nor will the media per se deliver this message. Rather it is we, the storytellers and our intentions, that will make a difference. Do new media guarantee change? Certainly, but not without risks. It is up to us, to our intentionality and our ability to share it that will determine the direction and results of that change.
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.
In the first three posts ( (#1 in the series, #2 in the series, #3 in the series), I have been hinting at a metaphor for culture that I will explicitly discuss in this post. Let me introduce it with a poem, Culture’s Flow.
Old conversations and new
Sometimes I ask my trainees or students to close their eyes and imagine culture as this river. Its source, high on a mountaintop, starts with the melting ice that flows from the glacial peaks where the old wisdom of our people and our history has been stored from time beyond memory. In our primeval stream of culture are stories that have been handed down for generations—they carve the deep river bed for the stream of the discourse that flows within us.
Fresh waters of discourse, tributaries join our river’s flow from other places, from others’ mountaintops, from forest-hidden springs and history-pooled rainstorms of experience. Our stream collects, incorporates, assimilates endless sources of discourse. We absorb conversations from face-to-face contact with each other, hear rumors from elsewhere. Especially today, we are inundated by electronic streams of discourse from all over the globe, pouring through virtual media, sometimes going viral. If you’re in social networks, you may get more stories, ideas, reflections, comments than you know what to do with. They overflow your banks. Little by little, and large by large, sometimes tiny imperceptible memes, sometimes by seeping flood, sometimes by tempest and tsunami, they join this river, widen and deepen it and increase its flow. There are stagnant backwaters and rich deltas.
Discourses intersect. Some join the deeper currents; others cause raging rapids and whirlpools of power and contradiction. We belong and contribute to all kinds of discourses. Everything from our nation to our favorite football team has its story, a discourse about who we are and what we are about. These discourses meet in us to create our culture, shape what we call our person and personality. They produce the endless conversation that we have with ourselves, as we noted last time. We group ourselves with others by the importance, the gravity, and the glue of what we see as our common discourse. The river is meant to nourish the land it cuts through.
When we talk about waters of ancestral glaciers for centuries, we could call them our “primitive conversations,” origins lost in time, those that we share. Then there are “prevailing conversations,” discourse in the air, on the airwaves in cyberspace, conversations that we hear and think about or just absorb, that reflect the cultural values of the specific contexts that we find ourselves in. Prevailing conversations may indeed seem different from the original ones, but then again, not always. Culture is enduring. Its discourses don’t go away, but they flow deeply and they intimately blend with the discourses of the current moment, carrying them along in the river’s course.
Forever old, forever new (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!)
When I was growing up, if you needed to take care of yourself, you went to the doctor and did what the doctor told you. A generation or so later, many of us got into natural foods, natural healing and healers. It looked like a cultural revolution. What didn’t change, but actually got stronger, was the discourse that ran, “I can control my health if I do all the right things.” It is a discourse related to, “I can control my life.” “I can control my career,” etc.”
I remember a European colleague once saying to me, “You Americans think if you do all the right stuff, you can live forever.” He didn’t share my strong US discourse of control, the belief that we are in charge, or think we should be. When I was younger, medical doctors were gods (maybe they still are in some places). Now there are prevailing discourses that tell us that we can diagnose our own problems, for example, through websites like WebMD. What happens when we discuss the problems with only relying on prevailing discourse in spite of older wisdom? While Internet information may help us ask good questions, self-diagnoses based on Internet searches can also go horribly wrong.
That is just one example of how, hearing the prevailing discourse, we may think it’s far afield from primitive wisdom. Yet looking carefully, we may find that it’s just a fresh way of expressing a more ancient discourse flowing from the river’s deep streams. Sometimes there are landslides and earthquakes, events so deep and moving that they may seem to dam up the river and alter its direction, but the power of water…
Seeing culture as a river with both ancient sources fresh inflows helps us see how streams of culture combine to create our reality. We are in a cultural flow. The metaphor allows us to visualize and acknowledge the strong streams and the mix, to accept and speak about both the endurance and the flexibility, the fluidity of culture.
Full, not empty
More importantly, this metaphor helps us imagine culture as inner fullness of stories and their discourse, replete with possibilities, not emptiness or alienation from our sources. Culture is forever flexible, forever moving, something that belongs to us, something that can irrigate our land and shape our landscape. Flow makes it invalid, impossible for me to stereotype or to label others or myself in fixed, inflexible ways, because we’re all part of the Flow.
Flow is everywhere, everything is flowing. We can see it, we can describe it, we hear its discourse and build our worlds with it. Yet, as the sixth century philosopher, Simplicius of Cicilia said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Why? The river has flowed on and you have changed as well. The challenge of viewing culture as a flowing river is that it requires us to accept that we have both inherited and that we continue to create, shape, dismantle, and destroy through the discourses that flow within us.
What can we do with this metaphor?
We can learn about ourselves and about the groups we are part of, identifying, reflecting on and taking ownership of our cultural streams. We can seek out our deepest discourse, the primitive undertows, as well as listen our prevailing self-talk and the chatter around us. We can ask what conversations are “primitive” and which are “prevailing.” What words and tones of our mother’s voice do we still hear, for example? For a humorous but confirming evidence of mother’s voice, listen to Anita Renfroe’s “The Mom Song.”
We can list or map our discourse and the courses it takes us on. I have often recommended using a personal journal for this—some years back I created a handbook on personal writing that is downloadable. When you wish to share, or explore a group’s cultural discourse, a personal or shared blog or a Facebook or LinkedIn group could focus on identifying the streams of identity we take part in. Colleagues and I developed a tool called the Cultural Detective: Self Discovery that provides some basic exercises for identifying our own or our organization’s core values, looking at how our discourse was and is being shaped by people and forces in our story. Mind mapping can be a resource for this. I use MindManager but there are quite a few software tools for this. Take a walk along your river and see what you can see…
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.
How We Construct Culture and Reality
In my previous posts (#1 in the series, #2 in the series), I stressed how important it is for us to develop a dynamic rather than a static view of culture. Today we will launch our boat on the river of culture and peer into its sometimes clear and often murky waters to come up with a better sense of what’s down there. We noticed last time how we are ever talking to ourselves. Everything we create is a result of this inner self-talk, this discourse, our listening. So the things that we call “culture,” in the broad sense of the word, arts, music, industry, all of these things are products of this the stories we tell ourselves, this dialogue that goes on within us and around us that helps us shape and break the rules by which we make and do things.
I grew up in the USA. My father was a second-generation immigrant, which often meant trying to be “more American than the Americans” because it wasn’t okay to be “too immigrant.” My father would say to me again and again, “You can be anybody you want to. It’s up to you.” “You have to take charge of your life.” “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Such maxims and counsel that were repeated over and over again in my family, during my education, among my peers, in the groups I belonged to, became my outlook, my world, the culture that still flows in me.
Some things we don’t ever forget. When it rains, I still hear my mother’s voice, “Take your rubbers with you.” If you saw the film Outsourced about the manager expatriated to India, you no doubt had a good howl at his conversation with his workers about the meaning of “rubbers”. (If you missed it, have a look.) Rubbers, in my case, were neither erasers nor condoms, but rubber overshoes. I don’t have any now and I haven’t had any in years, but I can still hear my mother’s voice…
Cultural discourse takes the form of memories, stories in our heads and hearts that guide us about how to act, what to think. They shape our attitudes, provide our norms. They are the raw material of our culture. Even if, and especially if these pass into the background of our minds and we no longer explicitly hear them, the ideas and feelings contained in these memories still resonate with us and lead us on.
How do we construct a dynamic definition of culture?
My very favorite definition of culture doesn’t come from a textbook. It comes from a children’s book called Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez. His is the most disarming definition of culture I’ve ever laid eyes on:
“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. So, if stories come to you, care for them, and learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That’s why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.”
Lopez furnishes us with a powerful, very powerful statement about how and why we create and pass on culture. Stories are told and retold in such a way as to shape us, giving us a common memory, common values and behavioral, even moral imperatives “for our own good.” Seeing culture this way, as adaptation to our environment, challenges our more static definitions.
Once upon a time, an anthropologist pitched tent in Borneo. Using an interpreter, he interviewed local people, looking for insight into the life and culture of the tribes native to the place. One day, questioning a local chieftain through the interpreter, the anthropologist couldn’t help noticing that the chieftain couldn’t take his eyes off a camp chair—you know, those seats with fold-up wooden frames. Nowadays, most have plastic or metal tubing, but a century ago they were simply canvas and wood. Finally, the anthropologist prompted the interpreter to ask about the chieftain’s fixation on the chair. The interpreter asked, “Why do you keep looking at the chair?” The chieftain replied quizzically, “Why do you stack your firewood that way?”
If you don’t have a use for something, you may not have a discourse for it. It may not even exist for you, or not exist in the way it exists for others. One of the critical tasks of living in a multicultural world is learning how to look at what we’ve never seen before, or have never seen in the fashion that is being presented to us. Things we’ve never “seen” before may not be physical artifacts. They may be feelings and perceptions. They may be opinions, judgments. They may even be colors – not every culture sees or names colors in the same way. We miss out on discourses that drive other people that would never drive us or might “drive us crazy!” These are not easy to discover, certainly not as obvious as puzzlement about a camping chair. Still, ask we must. We are embedded within a cultural discourse that we treat as real, but that is created by, as well as limited to what our own stories have to tell us.
In our times, realities, different from and deadly to each other, run rampant. Like it or not, we are challenged to understand our culture, other people’s culture, become familiar with the discourse that drives our behavior, our creativity, and perhaps brings us together in new and different ways and allows us to peacefully cohabit the planet.
So we must ask, where do our realities, where does this culture come from? Well, since culture is a conversation, since it’s discourse, it’s coming from you and me! It’s coming from everybody within earshot, from every handheld device connected to ours. Discourse requires people. It’s going on all the time, and, whether we intentionally listen to it or not, it seduces us with its themes and memes.
Sometimes, probably more often than we think, we deliberately attempt to create realities for ourselves and others. We work on shaping a reality that serves our purposes through the stories we tell in social media, traditional media, conversations with others, as we rehearse and repeat these stories in our own heads. We are as much the creators of these discourses of culture as GM and Volkswagen are designers and manufacturers of automobiles. Like the family car, some discourses can be very helpful and humane. Other discourses can be quite ugly. Like a fast set of wheels, you can use your inner discourse to rob a bank or save somebody’s life by rushing them to the emergency ward.
Roger Peterson, a US academic, is quoted saying this—and I like it:
“The collective memory [the discourse that we share] is systematically unfaithful to the past in order to satisfy the needs of the present. In other words, we attempt to address the present by reconstructing the past as if it always existed in the way we now adopt it.”
Through the stories we tell ourselves we produce a discourse. This discourse is the dynamic way we collectively create the cultural constructs that put our diverse realities, our cultures together. These constructs may be the bearers of mythology, fictional imagination, or as we all know too well, political propaganda. People are competing with their stories to create the realities they want for themselves and for others. For the sake of consistency and credibility we try to present our new story as the true and eternal story.
Enter the discourse of new media
How are new media affecting, constructing this flow? It is probably too early to tell, but certainly not too early to pay attention. For sure, they are being used both in traditional and novel ways. Certainly they have multiplied by a factor of Xx the sheer volume and range of participation within one generation. They can be the conveyors of the traditional discourse which we consider wisdom, discourses that certain of us would like to impart to the rest of us, philosophical and religious, or New Age ideals; at the same time they are also the tools of revolution and the conveyors of revolutionary values, often drawn from the same sources, but re-expressed and broadcast in nanoseconds in a volume that hitherto would have been deemed sorcery.
How do we sort out what is new and fresh from what is newly or freshly restated to fulfill a desire or to meet a contemporary challenge? The wish to “sort out” in some definitive way is perhaps a false aspiration, a question to which there is no answer, a cul-de-sac, whose alternative is ongoing reflection as an essential part of our reality construction process. In new media, as in any other media that we use to create reality by discourse, these fresh tools are appropriated to change and introduce the realities that its authors, consciously or unconsciously, wish to disseminate.
We all know that the Internet allows us to create reality ex nihilo. Fake user names create “people,” as do avatars of “aliens.” We even build virtual worlds that allow people to accept a second and a third and perhaps an infinite number of lives and realities. If you can imagine it, say it, you can be it. Yea, “Ye are gods.” Like the Jehovah of Genesis, we say, “Let there be…” And behold, there it is! And, if we are the ones who said it, we are also likely to proclaim that it is good. Like Shiva of old, I am the creator and destroyer of worlds – and so are you!
Charlatans, con men, name changers, shapeshifters and princes donning pauper’s clothing are not new to our human story. But the possibility and the temptation to creation on a quasi-divine level, and the consequences for doing so have never been so available and up for grabs. Even so, we like to imagine the world as somehow stable and static, at least in our desire to create something solid and lasting, even or perhaps especially in a virtual environment. Our human minds and hearts, even in intangible media, are inclined to treat our creations, our culture as real, not constructed.
John Lennon, a great interculturalist in my book, said “The more real you get, the more unreal the world gets.” The more you can get perspective on the discourse that flows around you, the better chance you have of seeing these things, not as useless or false, but for what they are, our attempts to construct things for benefit, for surviving and succeeding. We will look at this again as we seek a fresh cultural discourse to reshape our perspective. Meanwhile, how do you react to this fearful relativity of reality, or to the multiplicity of realities that new media have put at our disposal and which often invade our stability? What have you created as real for you? Are there real worlds, or only virtual ones…?
In Cultural Detective: Self Discovery® we offered some exercises to help you listen to your inner conversations and stories. These are only starting points. In this blog you will sometimes see pictures I have extracted from my past. This is not an exercise in nostalgia or ego promotion, but a suggestion that you might also explore the images and sounds of the past to bring the sources of your cultural discourse into focus.
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.
If how we talk about culture, as I mentioned in the last post, appears too static, it is not because culture itself is static. Its dynamism penetrates every corner of life. Why this paradox? Why? We need to look at culture not as an idea, but in action.
I can’t tell how many of you are having conversations with your partner, children, dog, or friends at the moment you are looking at this blog, but what I am sure of is that, even if you’re not talking to anybody, you are talking a mile a minute. Research suggests that even in a face-to-face conversation, people are speaking to themselves about eight times as fast as they talk to each other. In a tele-conversation you can mute the microphone but not your mind. This means that, even if you’re not talking to any friends, pets, or other things in your ambience at the moment, you’re talking to yourself—unless of course you’ve fallen asleep and may be dreaming. Sometimes we are totally with these inner conversations—we call it “daydreaming.”
Talking and listening
This is to say, with your inner chatter you’re asking yourself, “What’s this all about?” “What’s he saying?” “Is this useful to me?” “Do I understand this, or this, or this?” Your mind is proposing all kinds of things about what’s going on around and in you, “What am I hearing?” “What am I doing?” “What am I feeling?” Trying to make what we are sensing fit in with what we know. There are even those little conversations we mislabel as distractions, “What’ll I do tomorrow or this afternoon or have for lunch?” We’re always talking to ourselves. We can’t help it. It’s the way we are. Some of us may have learned to meditate to slow down or to quiet our inner voices at times, but they keep chattering on most of the time, whether you pay attention to them or not. What are you talking to yourself about at this moment?
What is this inner flow all about? It is what we call “listening.” I know that sounds crazy because we’ve all probably been taught that to listen, we should shut up, stop thinking and hear the other out. Well, you can’t do that very well. What really happens is that the mind is forever proposing theories about: What’s going on here? What am I reading, hearing? Do I have a second opinion? What should I do? Is this good bad, beautiful or ugly, worth my time? Should I go do something else? And so on and so forth.
Listening is that voice—I’m describing it simply as a voice, but the flow of listening contains pictures, imaginative scenarios and feelings of all kinds that come up in reaction to what’s going on around you and in you. Actively listening means engaging with these conversations, deciding which are focal, which should take priority, which ones we wish to avoid, pursue, take action on.
This is culture!
The conversations, the discourse that you listen to is what we call “culture.” In other words we have inherited, built, built upon, and shared such discourse all of our lives. Today I’m inviting you to take a look at it in this new and different way. Listening is culture speaking. It is at once process and content. We have inner conversations, discourses about all kinds of things, about our goals, about the people we are, whether we’re how we should be or not. We have basic discourses about such things as: What’s a man? What’s a woman? How to live out my masculinity, my femininity? We have discourses that come from where we are born, the gangs we hang out with, and discourses that prevail at a certain point in my generation, in your generation.
That discourse not only originates from outside of us, but also springs up from within, as our unconscious mind brings these strains together. With old conversations rubbing up against the new, sometimes helpful, sometimes contradictory, we are ever awash with fresh ideas in the wired, or should we start saying, “wireless” world that we live in.
A torrent of discourse
So today the culture that builds our inner listening is a flow of discourse coming from countless sources; we live in worlds that are continually shaped by these flows of discourse within us and around us. They are continually flowing over us and into us, following old channels and carving new paths. What was once a slower moving stream of discourse has now become a torrent with the explosive growth of social media and facile, inexpensive means of communication. It sometime seems that everyone is wired, everywhere, or, again replacing the aging terminology, it seems that “everyone is wireless everywhere!”
When I was a student at Notre Dame graduate school, I kept a notebook in my dorm room where I jotted down what I needed to research at the library. Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon I trekked across campus toward the arms of “Touchdown Jesus,” the mosaic mural that welcomed scholars to the Hesburgh Library, to satisfy my learning needs and humor my serendipity. Today I can Google and Wiki most information quicker than I can stand up and walk over to the bookcase where I know the exact book that holds my answers. In terms of sheer quantity, I suspect that, now as a septuagenarian, I am learning a hundred times more each day than I did as a collegian. Shivering in the wee hours of the winter morning, I Skype with heat-oppressed colleagues in Australia or friends in Indonesia without thinking it magic. Yesterday I bought a USB flash drive about the size of the first joint of my index finger, but large enough, I am told, to hold 32 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica I once owned. Go figure!
On the sociopolitical level, we see new media: Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, support the Occupy protests, the Arab Spring, and provide a conduit for wikileaks, all calling into question the way the culture of power is structured and exercised. Battlefields are managed from half a world away. On the commercial level we may feel helpless in the face of mind-bending electronic advertising, victims of strangers who can know everything about us, not just where but how we live, but our likes and dislikes, as well as the GPS coordinates of our smart phones at any given moment. Ought we call in the exorcist or take a digital sabbatical when our inner voices start to babble?
There is no end in sight. On one hand our identity seems diluted in the flow of discourse, sound bites and memes, while on the other hand we have powerful means to connect and coordinate our values and our actions to shape both the world we have inherited and this emergent electronic global village we now live in. Given this, we need a truly dynamic discourse about culture, not just a static definition that puts labels on what people have in common and do in similar ways, but one that enlightens us on the ways we share and influence, as well as misunderstand each other.
Please share some reflections on how you see your identity in this new context. What is changing? What is not? How are you and those about you connected, supported, or threatened by the discourse you share? What do you listen? What are the inner voices saying? What is culture telling you?
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.
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.
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?
During my recent and incredibly learning- and success-filled trip to Colombia, a client asked me to do a short presentation on the state of intercultural competence in Latin America. Such a small request, right (asked wryly and facetiously)? I live in México, but after four years I sure don’t count myself a culture-specific expert, and I am surely not qualified to speak for over half the hemisphere! So, what to do? Turn to an esteemed colleague’s expertise, of course. In this case, I turned to Adriana Medina (and her co-author, John Sinnigen).
The beauty of the source article I used, “Interculturality vs. Intercultural Competencies in Latin America,” is that the authors introduce facts and history we all know, but they put them into a context in such a way that makes total sense and creates new meaning. At least for me.
For example, one of their points is how Latin Americans have lived interculturality for hundreds of years if not longer: wars, imperialism and commerce between the many distinct indigenous cultures, then conquistadores, colonialism, slavery and intercontinental commerce. Intercultural competence on this stage is not some new import during the current age of global economic interdependence. Rather, Latin America’s gold, silver, emeralds and such were important to European economies beginning centuries ago. The authors’ point is, one of the valuable contributions that Latin American interculturalidad can add to the largely northern and western-originated notions of intercultural communication or intercultural competence is this: power, specifically power imbalances.
“Interculturality, the preferred term in Latin America, refers to a historic condition, a radical restructuring of the historically uneven relations of wealth and power that have existed between Europeans and their descendants and indigenous and other subordinated groups during the last half millennium. The aim is decolonization of institutions and the sociocultural fabric of the country.”
— A. Medina-López-Portillo and John H. Sinnigen, “Interculturality vs. Intercultural Competencies in Latin America,” chapter 13 in Deardorff 2009, Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence
- Is counter-hegemonic; focuses on the balance of power
- Starts with the needs of marginalized cultures (diverse indigenous movements from Mexico to Bolivia and Ecuador)
- Advocates mutual respect and economic and political equality rather than the acculturation of the oppressed
- Incorporates Andean/Amazonian concepts such as respect for Pachamama, good living, communitarian practices
- Multilingual integration
- Decades of dialogue leading to constitutional specificity
I want to thank this client for making this request of me, as it spurred me to learn more about a colleague’s work, and also to learn more about the work of Nestor García Canclini (more about his work in another blog post). I also want to thank Adri and John, whose work, I feel, is very important. I hope this might spur more of us to read, incorporate and build on their findings.
I have posted three PowerPoint slides summarizing this article, and you are welcome to download and use them if they might serve you. Please be sure to retain all source references, including the authors’ and Cultural Detective‘s. Together we can make a difference!
What do you think about the authors’ premises? How might we help the intercultural field to incorporate the Latin American perspective? How do you handle power differences in your work? I look forward to hearing from you!
Born and raised in Mexico City, Adriana Medina-López-Portillo is Assistant Professor of Intercultural Communication and Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages, Linguistics and Intercultural Communication at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She is an accomplished intercultural trainer, having designed and led workshops for higher education, not-for-profit, governmental, and corporate clients in the United States and abroad. Among her favorite appointments are training for The Scholar Ship, a transnational academic program housed on a passenger ship, and offering pre-departure and on site orientations for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. John Sinnigen is Prof. of Spanish and Intercultural Communication at UMBC. He is the co-editor of América para todos los americanos: prácticas interculturales (Mexico: UNAM, 2012).
Frequently and for many years I have cited Milton Rokeach’s The Open and Closed Mind when people ask me about intercultural competence. In this book he talks about the importance of holding beliefs tentatively and situationally instead of imposing them on or expecting them of others.
“A closed way of thinking could be associated with any ideology regardless of content. It includes an authoritarian outlook on life, an intolerance towards those with opposing beliefs, and a sufferance of those with similar beliefs.”
According to this line of thinking, open-minded people may hold their beliefs firmly and strongly, but they also respect others’ rights to believe something different. They believe their path is right for them, but they do not believe it is necessarily the one and only path for everyone on the planet. “It is not so much what you believe that counts, but how you believe,” Rokeach tells us.
In our current age of heightened religious and nationalistic fervor, “belief holding” or “permeability of beliefs” seems more important than ever. As do religious or spiritual beliefs as dimensions of culture and cross-cultural interaction.
In this context, today I read the headline, “Highly Religious Less Motivated by Compassion.” Oh dear. I read on to find out that it is the key finding of social psychologists at the University of California Berkeley, who have conducted three separate studies since 2004 on a largely US American sample.
“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help a person or not. The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”
Perhaps it is time for all of us who coach, train, or educate on the topic of intercultural communication to remember this important competence, which was first published back in 1960.