About george simons

International Consultant, Trainer, Developer of diversophy game series, author in the Cultural Detective series. Specializing in intercultural communication, negotiation and influence skills. Member conseil d'administration of SIETAR France. Practicing poet.

Book Review: Global Dexterity


Molinsky, Andy, Harvard Business Review Press. 2013.
ISBN10:1422187276, ISBN13:9781422187272

When it comes to cultural competence, there are some big gaps between knowing about, knowing how to, and actually developing and applying the skills to manage self in real situations. Andy Molinsky, in his new book, Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, has provided us with a methodology for bridging into the third and most critical of these steps. His choice of the word “dexterity” in the title of the book is well chosen to express the fact that we become effective when we have learned how to develop “muscle memory” to respond to real situations in intercultural management and in life, when on strange turf. It is about translating knowledge into behavior and acquiring the habits that make us good at it.

The insights Molinsky provides are not so much about how cultures differ, though the stories he tells make the reader fully aware of the dynamics of these differences. Certainly, one must know and recognize difference, but the book’s key insights are more about how we function wholistically in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Global Dexterity is a workbook, and the work is up to the user.

Molinsky helps us identify our own “culture code” and that of others — differences in what he calls prototypical thinking and behavior, which may belong to people, to a place or a situation, or to all three at a given moment. In other words, the “detective” work of sniffing out the rules for what is seen as appropriate behavior in a specific cultural setting. The now online Cultural Detective, though not explicitly mentioned in Molinsky’s book, is a good tool for this work. Also, “culture code” as used here should not be limited to the Jungian approach for decoding cultural discourse developed by Clotaire Rapaille, for those familiar with it, though that is also a relevant form of investigation.

Since the variations in code can be almost infinite and therefore paralyzing when it comes to seeking out the right approach to a culture, Molinsky insists we not look for a single “right” behavior, but for a “zone of appropriateness,” a range within which to operate successfully in each culture. He then provides a practical navigational framework for looking into what is most likely to differ as we face situations in this zone. He asks us to pay attention to the relative measures of how direct, enthusiastic, assertive, self promoting and disclosing our behaviors are in comparison with those of the other party. These measures are, admittedly, not exhaustive, but are likely to give us the solid return on our investment of time used to understand and adapt our behavior.

Once aware of the culture code and the zones of appropriateness, the question is how can one stretch one’s comfort zone to overlap with the appropriateness zone of the other’s cultural code. Of course this can be a two way street, but in any case one must diagnose the situation, customize one’s behavior options to fit or bridge the gap, and, ultimately, integrate the customized behavior to the point that it feels right and can become the “new normal” for the situations it fits.

The author identifies three psychological challenges along the way, and he provides a process for dealing with them. First, he uses the word authenticity to speak of the challenge raised by conflict with values and beliefs. Secondly comes competence — does one have the know-how and skill to actually perform the new behavior? The final challenge is dealing with resentment — even if one can perform the behavior, will he or she feel embittered about having to do so?

The helpful metaphor in discussing these challenges is “acting.” An actor needs to learn a new role for a specific part of a drama. Here too, mastering the role needs to be seen as positive acquisition, the realization of potential, rather than as a loss or suppression of self. Today’s language teachers realize this when they no longer speak of “accent reduction” but rather of “accent acquisition.” The search for “authenticity” (the real me) unfortunately is wed to US pop psychology. Objecting, “It’s just not me,” is often an obstacle or an excuse for avoiding the discomfort involved in widening one’s repertoire. Thus, the theater metaphor is particularly useful here. In learning and practicing new skills, it is okay to say, “No, it’s not me…yet…”

So how does one make adopting new paradigm or behavior acceptable to the old self? Besides thinking of it as theater, one can enhance the recognition and acceptance of new behavior by calling on one’s own inner diversity to change one’s perceptions, viz., by aligning the new behavior with one’s goals, weaving it in with other personal or cultural values, or by working to understand and accept the other culture’s logic. If this automatically sounds like rationalistic deviation from what one holds as norms, it must be remembered that we regularly play one value against another in making changes and decisions, and that cultures themselves have both conflicting and complementary discourse to help us navigate life. The author again offers us process, “workbook” pages, for applying this alignment process.

None of this adaptation is likely to occur simply by knowing about differences, and it is here that Molinsky has most to offer to intercultural pedagogy and pedagogues. Few people can incoporate new and alien behaviors spontaneously. It takes practice, practice, paractice, and it is this feature that is most neglected in current intercultural praxis. Gone are the days when a trainer had four or five days to offer participants enough hands-on exercises to try out and then integrate new behaviors in a process of familiarization, rehearsal, and “dress rehearsal” or application to real situations. The reader will have to do this on his or her own, so the author provides pages, tools and questions to facilitate this. There is a potential here for online learning that should be pursued, and Molinsky’s approaches would combine extremely well with a subscription to the Cultural Detective Online tool to provide the ongoing, structured learning needed.

Inevitably, Molinsky points out, we are awash in trial and error, in the challenge of experiential learning. So, he offers further help. There are tips on how to increase one’s chances of being forgiven one’s mistakes, how to look for a cultural model to pattern oneself after, or even how to find a mentor who understands you and your culture well enough to provide feedback, information and support.

What happens, however, when absolutes collide, when ethical standards will be violated if one adapts behavior and accepts practices that are beyond the pale? Here is where the “without losing yourself in the process” line of the book’s title most comes into play. Our creativity for building options is challenged. Humor, gentle insistence, and, if the stakes are not too high, simply contradicting the local norm in your behavior, are given as examples.

Molinsky concludes the book and sums up its import with five key takeaways that compare conventional attitudes about cultural adaptation with the realities that become actionable using the insights, the paradigms and the processes he proposes.

The book is well written and an easy read. The challenge comes if one truly uses the tools it provides to put adaptation into practice. This is incumbant on intercultural professionals who need to model it for their clientele and students. We need to play with Global Dexterity’s excellent start and take it further, lest the old adage, “Those who can do, do; those who can not do, teach!” be applied to preachers of cultural competence who fail to develop and practice “dexterity.”

Using Social Media to Rebrand Culture

What's the story...?

What’s the story…?

This is the sixth in a series. (#1#2#3#4 and #5 are here.)

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.

If the medium is the message, what is the cultural message of a new medium?


Once upon a time a carriage return returned the carriage and a folder was made of paper and we dialed the phone with a dial and mail needed a stamp. New media have changed all that though we still use the old words…

This is the fifth in a series (#1, #2, #3, #4 are here.)

If, as we have been discussing, the new media, and in particularly social networks, have been delivering such an enormous quantity of conversations into our mailboxes and our minds each day, it is important for us to look at the process of shaping the culture that is involved here. There are, I believe, two dimensions to look at. The first is what these media, as media, manifest about the cultures that create them, as well as what their own cultural message may be. The second is how can new media be used to shape discourse and create culture? We will discuss the first question today and the second in next week’s post.

When asking, “What is the cultural message of a new medium?” I am looking at the media through the lens that Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan offered us when he enunciated his famous dictum, “The medium is the message.” While we can look at the abundance of new media tools, platforms, and connections and ask about their role in connecting contemporary culture, it will be important for students of communication to have a careful look at each of the new media to determine what kind of message it sends simply by being what it is and working in the fashion it does.

Here are some of McLuhan’s distinctions that might provide starting points: for example, his distinction between hot and cool media in terms of its impact on the perceiver as well as the intentions of the sender. Generally speaking, hot media engage one or more senses rather completely and demand little interaction, while cool media require more participation to fill the gaps. What media and aspects of new media operate in one way or the other? Does this say something about the propensity to contribute or to lurk? This will require careful research and study, so I have to be satisfied with simply calling attention to this side of new media and their possible impacts on the users (the medium is the massage). I leave it up to experts in academic communication departments and think tanks to provide the workforce that will help us to understand what is happening to us as end-users of each medium and how their extensive use may shape culture.

McLuhan himself offered a model, which could be another starting point for steering our impressions and generating research about what a medium may actually do and how it affects cultural discourse and behavior. We can examine the media we are using and ask ourselves:


What changes when we use different forms of new media?

  1. What does it enhance, what is amplified, enlarged, intensified?
  2. What does it obsolesce, what drops in prominence or even disappears?
  3. What does it retrieve, what is recovered, brought back of what was previously lost or diminished?
  4. What does it reverse, what does it do when pushed to its limits?

Movement in any of these directions may affect the culture of the users, for example the mass availability of cell phones seems to have significantly increased frequency of communication in some cultures where people were inclined to be more taciturn in face to face situations. The documentary, McLuhan’s Wake, uses the cell phone as one example of these changes: the cell phone enhances the free use of the voice; it obsolesces the phone booth; it retrieves childhood yelling (to the point where we have coaches on the train that are “zen,” where cell phone conversations are forbidden); when pushed to its limits, it reverses freedom from the wire and becomes a virtual leash for those who cannot be without it. So the starting point for inquiry here is probably sharing your own experience with peers and across generations as to how your life has been affected, changed, as new media acquired more prominent places in your life and work. Such discussion should provide suggestions for more in-depth research.

How do new media emerge from culture?
McCluhan also observed, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” This should not surprise us as interculturalists, knowing that what we make in the world, scooters or cellphones, are products of our inner discourse. We make culture and culture makes us. When we’re talking about media, new or old, we are talking about ways we have projected our culture on reality. They are part of our culture.

So, the question is how, from what discourse, and from what need the development of new media tools and resources emerge. While the possibilities seem infinite, still what we create emerges from discourse we have about our needs and ourselves. Here’s an impossible question, but I find it fascinating to speculate on: what the Internet and new media would look like today, if their birth and infancy had occurred through the efforts of housewives rather than the exigencies of the 1950s military. How much to we have to feel threatened, in order to move forward?  Apparently quite a bit, at least given the prevailing expression of our primitive discourse.

Today’s dominant discourse, in the socially constructed global marketplace that we live in, is Darwinian, despite the niceties we would like to embellish it with. This is rooted in the more ancestral and primitive biological discourse of survival, which at its worst is Homo homini lupus—”Man is a wolf to [his fellow] man.” This, to say the least, is unfair to wolves. “Kill and eat!” Survival shapes the first layers of primitive discourse and the stories that it tells. If we accept some validity for Maslow’s hierarchy, we must sadly admit that much of the time decisions are made in its basement, out of real or fictive insecurity and fear for one’s existence. Despite our technology and ability to create abundance, we have not been able to significantly alter or transcend this urcultural discourse.

Consequently we live in a world where both primitive and high-tech slaughter, violence, and torture contribute to the opulence of the few and the deprivation of the many despite it being a place where, paradoxically, there is more than enough to go around. New media are enablers of war by drone and pinpoint assassination. To date social media have done little to change this culture of survival by violence, though they have already provided support to movements and counter movements, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Without a shift in our primitive conversations about survival, the best intended movements and revolutions ultimately re-create the problem that summoned them forth in the first place. Harold Robbins, in The Adventurers (later made into a rather bad film), shows us a cynical picture of how revolution follows on revolution as the starry-eyed thirst for justice, almost overnight, turns into the steely-eyed exercise of power. The novel is stereotypically set in Latin America, but as contemporary history is proving, it could be anywhere and everywhere.

So creating discourse and shaping culture on a deeper level is the perennial challenge facing humanity, even as our consciousness grows about how the internecine wars of tribes, nations and classes over resources now threatens the human race as a whole. Those who are comfortable enough, throw up their hands and say, “Well it’s just human nature.” Alternative discourses of faith and philosophy, aimed at turning “swords into plowshares,” are quickly appropriated by discourses of fear and power and used to set the people’s faiths against each other.  are fearful of cultural identity, of being labeled. This challenge of managing the larger social constructions of reality, what I have elsewhere called the “urcultures” has all too little been the focus of intercultural work and study, despite the fact that the kind of insight and tools needed to do this are more likely to be found in this field than in many others.

How new are our new media?
Do new media indeed bring something fresh to life or simply bring us more and faster same-old, same-old? Are they a “game changer,” a paradigm change or shift? Does the ease and abundance of communication change the shape of how we will think about ourselves or simply widen the channels for what we are already saying and doing or does it create a new dimension? Certainly given our understanding of the social construction of our realities, it’s we who are prone to bring the same-old, same-old to the construction and use of media, and we face each new development either with hope or horror, or both. There is strong tendency to look at new media as resources, goods, tools for power to be fought over, controlled, at the same time that we would like to see their accessibility is an enabler of democracy on a level not experienced before. If so, that would signal the arrival of a culture shift of significant proportions?

A SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research) colleague of mine in Argentina, Natalia Sarro, has raised the question in a recent blog post as to whether we possess our stories, or whether they possess us. I am sure that the answer is, both! One of the prevailing discourses in the contemporary self-development movement at the personal level is that we must change negative stories into positive ones, limiting ones into liberating ones. This is becoming a sacred, almost religious discourse in US culture, whence it is rapidly globalizing. It is, as so many values in the US, focused on the individual, premised on individual salvation. One comes to the altar to profess one’s faith, whether it be in God or in Mammon. Both deities are pretty popular these days.

How do new media connect us, when they also disconnect us from each other and from our past?
McLuhan’s analysis of the effects of media raises interesting questions from a cultural point of view. One of these is whether the new media are creating a new sense of community in the human family or enhancing individuation—or both. Is there anything inherent in them that leads in one direction or another? Again my suspicion is both, hesitatingly said, hoping that users and scholars will offer reflection and research on if and how this is taking place. To what degree are the human connections that new media create, “real” or rather, avoiding the essentialist tone of that question, what is the nature of the reality they construct, how does it function?

A few weeks ago I was on an extremely crowded bus for the usual half hour ride home, which in this case took an hour and a half. As the bus left the station, standing room only, just about everyone under 50 (including a few over 50 like myself) was connected to their iPhone, iPod or iPad. Almost no one was talking to anyone else. When the bus ground to a halt due to road construction and traffic obstructions, gradually people put their handheld devices away and began talking to each other, both to peers and across generations, asking questions, telling stories related to our common plight. “You had to be there.” In other words, when the bus was reduced to a stop-start, mostly stop, creep, we grounded ourselves in the physical present and connected face-to-face. Sure, there were a few phone calls of the, “Honey, I’m going to be late” kind, but the focus had shifted from the distant and virtual to the here and now as people came to the presence of warm flesh and blood. I suspect this is an example of how stress reverts our discourse to more primitive levels, in this case one of tribal solidarity.

Another tantalizing question, raised by the emergence of new media, is that of the permanence, or at least endurance of the discourse and the stories that we create with them. This is about culture, what a discourse produces, its art and its arts and its artists, its architecture and literature. Fame depends on both memory and forgetfulness. It requires we hold the memorable and create the discourse that preserves it; prevailing discourse also demands that we forget those in the crowd in favor of those who stand out from the crowd. The charm of the tiny old streets of now high-rise Singapore lives in fewer and fewer of our memories. No future archeology is likely to reconstruct it. So inevitable we ask, “What human factors are the new media rendering obsolete?”

If you Google “Madonna”, most of the 230 million hits have to do with the singer, Madonna Louise Ciccone. You have to get a search a lot more specifically to find mediaeval or Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary, which would have been the culturally obvious meaning of “Madonna” for many only a few decades ago.


Will new media build on or over the cultural past? Will they create their own memorable cultural icons or lead us to a cultural fragmentation where identity is transitory and incidental? Should we worry about this? Culture is a discourse that requires consensus to exist. If, as Dominique Wolton insists, “Communication is cohabitation,” what is the human domestic architecture of new media for how we share the planet? We will look at the possibilities of rebranding identities that these media offer in the next post.

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.

Culture’s Flow (#4 in a series)

writeshareIn 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.

The mix
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.

fullnotemptyFull, 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.

I am a creator and destroyer of worlds – and so are you! (#3 in a series)

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.

Blog 3.1

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.

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.

Blog 3.2

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. 

Blog 3.3Who creates?
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.

Blog 3.4We 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.

Culture’s Dynamic… What Are You Listening? (#2 in a series)


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.

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.”

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 10.28.47 AMTalking 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?

Dynamic culture
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?

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.

Unsolicited Review

coverAfAmI just had a chance to review the newly released Cultural Detective: African-American, by Kelli McCloud-Schingen and Patricia Coleman, as well as talk to the authors yesterday in the teleconference on the topic of “Black versus African-American.” Normally, I don’t review items in this series, not just because I’m the co-author of several, but because the formula for their success both in printed versions and now online hardly requires special notice for the individual items which now number well over 50.

However, in this case I think a word is necessary. Necessary, particularly because my suspicion is that most folks reading the title twill probably think largely in terms of diversity and inclusion, rather than in terms of culture. While these issues are at a certain point inseparable, one of the weak points of the diversity movement in the USA has been to imagine itself as intercultural, with little attention, and sometimes fear of dealing with the attitudes and values of targeted groups. There is still a lot of sensitivity here. Consequently when people, particularly outside the US, see publications focused on US minorities, they may think to dismiss them as some of the same-old, same-old diversity stuff.

That is not the case here. This is truly a work of intercultural significance, despite the fact that the participant guide runs to only about 30 pages. First of all, the introduction, slightly longer than the average instrument in this series is absolutely brilliant. It gives the user an overview that is rich, thoughtful, insightful, even for, perhaps particularly for US Americans who tend to see racial issues one at a time, without a sense of heritage and culture in their historical context. But it is certainly what outsiders need and should want to know in order to work well with African-Americans.

“Truly a work of intercultural significance!”
“Absolutely brilliant.”
“Rich, thoughtful, insightful.”
“Heritage and culture in historical context.”

For the many expats going from other parts of the world to the USA, there is usually a question of, “What should I know about… How should I behave around… What should I avoid when dealing with African-Americans?” This instrument helps you cut to the chase, not by offering “kiss, bow, and shake hands tips” but providing insight into the values, strengths, and sensitivities peculiar to a part of the US population who are still to a great degree consciously heirs of a trajectory anchored in slavery, passing through personal pain even while also arriving in corporate boardrooms and occupying the Oval Office. This is a solid cultural perspective on the discourse, on the story that leads to the core values of African-Americans today, in all their diversity, and in contexts where bias and discrimination are still possible obstacles to appreciating cultural identity.

So, if you are preparing expats to go to the USA, or if you are one, this is an important tool, and now one of several dealing with internal cultural dimensions of the very diverse USA, now available in the easily accessible online versions of Cultural Detective.


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


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.


©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.

Some Cultural Detective Training and Coaching Activities

Exploring how we value our own and each other’s cultural values–another step in CD sleuthing.

All too often we trainers are apportioned a less than useful amount of time for impacting the attitudes of our trainees. This affects our use of Cultural Detective as well as many other tools that we may choose or not choose to use under the pressure of diminished schedules.

When using Cultural Detective, I find it ever more important to differentiate what we do with the Values Lenses and the indigenous discourse that lies behind them from a lot of other intercultural training approaches that focus on dimensions and increasingly lead to stereotyping. When we speak about the values in Cultural Detective, it is important to remember that these have been developed through and by the inner language and feelings of the very members of those cultures that the instruments represent.

Nonetheless, when speaking of values, it is becoming increasingly common for us to have individual participants who question them, who do not identify with them, or who even dismiss them as stereotypes. Given that the best way of dealing with resistance in a pedagogical context (as well as many other contexts) may be to flow with it and direct its energies, I have developed a few approaches that I feel may help us in these somewhat challenging situations. I’ve described them as they might be used in a teaching or training context, but they may be adapted to individual and team coaching situations as well.

First, wherever possible, I use Cultural Detective: Self-Discovery, or at least an exercise or two from it, so that participants can at least claim some inheritance of cultural values and identify them as their own. This legitimizes the discussion of culture where it might be resisted. It usually overcomes or at least mitigates the participant’s temptation to see him or herself as acultural and the tendency to vaunt oneself as a global citizen, uncontaminated by inherited culture. This is not to deny, but to affirm the fact that TCKs and others like them may be digesting a smorgasbord of cultural influences as well as generating certain cultural features pertinent to their common experiences (explored in Cultural Detective: Blended Culture and CD Generational Harmony). Often elements of cultural identity are denied because they have caused pain in growing up and finding social inclusion. Once culture is legitimated as a topic of discussion and a relevant problematic for the individual being coached or the group being trained, other things become possible.

Here are some approaches that we use when one culture is trying to learn about another specific culture, as for example, when working with teams resulting from mergers and foreign acquisitions and installations. In such cases cultural conflicts and misunderstandings are often the elephant in the room, potentially touchy subjects. While Cultural Detective may be the ideal tool for pursuing understanding on both sides, it is not always a given that participants will spontaneously identify with the values of their own culture as they are presented in the Cultural Detective materials.

So, let’s say, for example, that we are dealing with German and US cultures, either in an organizational relationship or collaborative team. Daimler-Chrysler has already demonstrated that even a good bit of upfront diversity work and intercultural instruction may not be adequate to deal with our own deeply rooted values and our perceptions of others unless they are continually identified and addressed. Thus the Cultural Detective process must be mastered and practiced and in many cases facilitation must be applied on an ongoing basis until a functional collaborative culture is established. This can take quite a while.

Facing the possibility of denial of difference as well as the possibility of participants rejecting their own or the others’ cultural Values Lens as stereotypical or just plain wrong, here are a few strategies that I’ve found to be successful. Perhaps some of you have already discovered these on your own. If so, I would be interested in hearing your versions.

  1. Evaluating the strength of the discourse and the value that sums it up. I ask participants to study their own culture’s Lens and then rate on a scale of 0 to 5, weak to strong, their own sense of how they’ve personally appropriated and express in everyday words and actions each of the values described. Then I ask them to share this with their compatriots as well as with the representatives of the other culture who are participating with them. This is a matter of not only sharing their numerical rating of the values, but talking about how each cultural value expresses itself in their thinking and behavior, as well as what parts of it don’t seem to fit or which they don’t like to identify with. This may or may not resemble or relate to the “Negative Perceptions” found on the Lens itself.
  2. Identifying commonalities: Following this discussion, I ask the individuals of each culture to study the other culture’s Lens and to do two things. First, again on a scale of 0 to 5 to assess whether, and if so, the degree to which they identify with each of the cultural values of the other group as found on the lens. Then, secondly, and this is extremely important, to identify and jot down the keywords of their own inner conversation or discourse about the importance they accord to the values they seem to share and the ways in which they may practice each of them.  Thirdly, depending on the size of the group, ask them to share their results either individually, or to conduct a discussion within their same culture group and then have the groups report out their results to each other. Here is where the essential value is gained from seeing how people would express their appropriation of elements belonging to the other culture.
  3. How do we like to be treated? Given adequate time, here is another very valuable activity that could occur at this point, but might be even better to use after the group has resolved a critical incident or two. Ask each separate culture as a group to meet together to discuss and identify and list both the attitudes and kinds of treatment that they appreciate coming from the other culture, as well as those kinds of speech and behavior that they may find uncomfortable or even damaging to the collaborative and social relationship they are trying to create with each other. The previous activities at various points are likely to lead toward the identification and discussion of stereotypes, giving rise to another possibly useful activity. I have found that frequently trainers and teachers, perhaps out of a misguided sense of political correctness avoid the discussion of specific stereotypes or stereotypical expressions, missing a valuable learning opportunity.
  4. Investigating stereotypes: We’ve long accepted the fact that stereotypes contain a kernel of truth, but that the perspective with which they are expressed maybe overgeneralized and conducive to negative judgment. So, instead of dismissing stereotypes out of hand, we can use them as starting points for deeper discussion and further understanding. So, when stereotypes surface, I ask participants to discuss questions like the following ones:
    • What is the truth in them, however small? What do you think brought them about in the first place? What perpetuates them? What insights or cautions do they deliver to us? What is the discourse that we carry about self that makes them true for us when they are about us?
    • What exaggeration do they contain? What is the discourse that makes them noxious, conflictual, etc.? When are they likely to be painful or damaging? What limits do they place on our knowledge and our inquiry about others?

So, as I mentioned above these are some of the useful practices that I keep in my tool bag for enhancing the effectiveness of Cultural Detective.  It would be good to hear what others of you have developed or ways in which you view similar activities.