What Do You Mean?! I’ve Worked Abroad 20 Years and Score Low?!


Image from The Vegetarian Athlete

So many of you seemed to resonate with my blog post about intercultural fitness, Tweeting it, Scooping it and passing it around the social media networks, that I thought you might be interested in a short article I originally drafted back in 2005 that uses the metaphor of an athlete to explain intercultural competence.

Developmental Intercultural Competence and the Analogy of an Athlete

Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), first published in 1986, provides a well-regarded theory about the process people go through as they learn to make sense of the complexity of cross-cultural communication. In the late 1990s after much research, an assessment for measuring intercultural sensitivity based on the DMIS was developed. Version 3 of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) is currently in use by qualified practitioners. Owners and users of the IDI have in turn used their results to revamp the DMIS into the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC).

While such tools can be useful for measuring program effectiveness when used for pre- and post-testing, and can be hugely beneficial for individuals who want to improve their cross-cultural communication and collaboration, there are downsides. I’ve worked with career expatriates and global nomads, for example, who score quite low on the IDI. What this means is that the low-scorer may have a lot of experience, but has not yet engaged in systematic, structured sense-making of those decades of complex intercultural experience. I’ve also worked with quite a few individuals who value harmony as fitting in, and thus, on a scale that measures celebrating differences, they score comparatively low. Predictably, low scores can cause people to become focused on discrediting the instrument or rationalizing the assessment process, rather than on gaining benefit from what the results have to say.

To help learners focus on the guidance these tools can provide, I often use the analogy of an athlete. Just as athletes need multiple abilities to perform well, so do intercultural communicators. Both athletes and intercultural collaborators can use assessments to guide their performance improvement training.

Let’s say that the data on my athletic performance shows that I need increased flexibility. I dedicate several months to becoming more flexible, and then my coach tells me that I now need to shift my focus to building strength — of course while maintaining my flexibility. Months later, I may find that I need to refine my technique in order to make the most of my superior strength and flexibility. Or, I get injured, and I decide to add to my training a focus on my mental game: overcoming adversity, learning from mistakes, being fully present in the moment. Athletes thus focus on multiple abilities at different points throughout their careers in order to perform at their best.

In a similar way, the DMIS, IDI and IDC can be used to show us which issues we should focus on at a given point in time in order to maximally improve our intercultural performance. While developmental models and assessments are designed as measuring sticks or standards of comparison, their value for personal competence development is to highlight to us what competencies we should focus on building at each point in our careers in order to improve our overall performance.

Each of us has to balance the dynamic between comfort and stretch, challenge and support, growth and rest, in our own ways. Knowing what we are good at, as well as where we can improve, can help ensure we continue to develop. Using an assessment tool to gauge and target our intercultural development, in combination with a competence development tool such as Cultural Detective Online for ongoing, structured learning, is a powerful combination.

5 thoughts on “What Do You Mean?! I’ve Worked Abroad 20 Years and Score Low?!

  1. I use marathon runners to describe gaps between perceived and developmental orientations. You have to be able to see yourself as a marathoner to eventually run the race, but where you might be in terms of actual development is different. It takes a clear plan and lots of training and practice to get to where you see yourself.

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  2. Hi Dianne,
    The metaphor with the athlete is powerful. I also like the specific reference to marathon Susan McCuistion is using since I used to run semi-marathon.
    During pre-departure and post-arrival cultural workshops with expats, we often discuss personal leadership and how best to adapt to new business practices and expectations. That’s where I find your analogy is powerful. It’s a way to mentally “visualize” development through a clear example and then come back to the expats’ leadership skills development based on their perception and understanding of the differences between their old and new reality using, in addition, a set of diverse parameters.
    Again, it’s an alternative way for making people more aware of themselves and how to deal with the various cultural dimensions of their working and social life.
    Referring to the scores: though I never used the tools you refer to, other tools may also generate similar comments.Some of the people I met were well traveled but seemed to lack a structured way to get the best out of their experience, while others were at the start of their first assignment with little or no international exposure and paradoxically demonstrated a very clear understanding of how to adjust. To me, this also refers to people’s natural sensitivity to embrace differences: to sense, to understand, to accept and to handle cross-cultural diversity.
    Developing intercultural fitness demands permanent practice and a tremendous amount of self-criticism… at least that’s how I experience it. But it is so rewarding.

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  3. Pingback: Intercultural Blog Carnival: Expat Support: What We Need, and How to Deliver It | Expat Everyday Support Center

  4. Pingback: U. Michigan to assess students' 'cultural sensitivity levels' as part of diversity/inclusion plan - The College Fix

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