New Brain Study Illustrates Gender Differences

Top: male brain networks Bottom: female brain networks

Top: male brain networks • Bottom: female brain networks
Average findings from the University of Pennsylvania study
Images ©study authors

“At any given moment, a woman is likely to be using her whole brain while a man is using half of his. Men are more likely to be right-brained (more intuitive) or left-brained (more logical) than women.”
—Ruben Gur, neuropsychologist and one of the study authors

A just-published study of the brain functionality of 949 young people shows striking differences in brain wiring between men and women. The authors of the study suggest that male brains are biologically structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action (motor and spatial abilities), whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes (memory, social adeptness, multi-tasking).

The study of 428 males and 521 females aged 8-22 was conducted by ten colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They used a technique called “diffusion tensor imaging” (DTI), which scans the paths travelled by water molecules around the brain.

“The maps show us a stark difference in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others.”
—Ragini Verma, researcher

The story is making a big splash in the press and in social media. It is a notable study, however, the main interpretation the researchers and the media seem to be taking from the study is that gender differences are biologically determined. I found such a conclusion very puzzling, because the study results themselves show that differences in brain wiring are not congenital!

The study showed that boys and girls are born with similar connectivity, and that differences in brain pathways between the genders begin to manifest at about 13 years of age, and diverge even further at 17. The study authors attribute this to the time sex begins to become important in a person’s life. I suppose that means the time hormones begin to kick in? But, of course I wondered if the differences emerge during the teenage years because that is about the age that gender socialization really begins to manifest.

Then Kathryn Stillings, our editor, found this article by science writer of the year Robin McKie. Robin explains that the study’s findings actually disprove the authors’ interpretations and reinforce the view that gender differences are the result of acculturation.

“Yes, men and women probably do have differently wired brains, but there is little convincing evidence to suggest these variations are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Verma’s results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain’s wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.”
—Robin McKie, The Observer

I trust you’ll read the study and the various interpretations, and draw your own conclusions. Either way, via biological determinism, acculturation/socialization, or a mix of the two, Cultural Detective Women and Men is a terrific package that delves into gender differences in a practical, dynamic way. It combines beautifully with national, religious tradition or generational packages. We trust you will try it out in your work, to help ensure that the broadest spectrum of cognitive skills are accessed for innovation and effectiveness in our organizations and societies.

More on the New Brain Study

The study’s findings show that the dominant connections in the male cerebrum (top left image above) are within either the left or right hemisphere (blue lines), and the dominant connections for females are between hemispheres (bottom left image/orange lines).

In the cerebellum (right-hand images, lower part of brain) it is just the opposite: the average male brain shows connections between hemispheres while the average female brain has dominant connections within hemispheres.

“Forget right-brain or left-brain thinking. What may be more important from a gender standpoint is back-to-front or side-to-side thinking.”
—Stacey Burling, Philly.com

“The strong link with the cerebellum might make men more action oriented, better at tasks that require quick response time or an ‘I-see-and-then-I-do’ attitude. The side-to-side thinking likely boosts women’s memory and social skills and seems designed, the authors said, to combine analytical and intuitive thinking. Communication within the hemisphere facilitates connection between perception and coordinated action,” writes Stacey Burling in her online review of the study in philly.com. Women’s brains “more easily integrate the rational, logical, verbal mode of thinking and the more intuitive, spatial, holistic mode of thinking,” she quotes Gur as saying. “Women’s thinking is likely to be more contextual. Their brains are better connected between their decisions and their memories. For men, memories are memories. Decisions are decisions.”

It is noteworthy that DTI or diffusion tensor imaging provides only indirect measures of structural connectivity and is, therefore, different from the well validated microscopic techniques that show the real anatomy of axonal connections,” says Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “Images of the brain derived from diffusion tensor MRI should extreme caution.”

I am curious about the results we’d see of a similar brain study of people older than 22, as I feel we change significantly as we age. This point is echoed by Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg of Oxford University, who attacked the idea that brain connections should be considered as hard-wired. “Connections can change throughout life, in response to experience and learning.” Hopefully the next step of this work will include such a study.

Care to learn more? Click the link above to the abstract of the original study, or read this terrific article from The Atlantic.

Developmental Intercultural Competence Using Cultural Detective Online

CDO
Are you doing your best to develop cross-cultural effectiveness in your organization, and want better results? Quicker results? Longer lasting results? Or, maybe even just results—heightened productivity and satisfaction? Our clients have achieved amazing increases in cross-cultural effectiveness—their people improving two stages on the DMIS (the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity) in a few months, and customer satisfaction increasing 30%—using Cultural Detective developmentally. How did they do that?…

Index for This Post (jump ahead if you’d like)
The DMIS
The DMIS and Cultural Detective
How Customers Successfully Build Intercultural Competence
Additional Resources

Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity ©Dr. Milton J. Bennett, 1986 & 1993.

Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity ©Dr. Milton J. Bennett, 1986 & 1993.

The DMIS
Let me start by telling you about the DMIS. First published by Dr. Milton Bennett in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations in 1986, and more fully developed in Education for the Intercultural Experience in 1993, the DMIS has proven to be a key milestone in the intercultural field. It provides a roadmap for those of us who aim to develop intercultural competence.

A developmental model is a conceptual framework that helps us better understand a progressive process, as well as providing guides for continued development. Examples of a developmental model with which most parents are familiar are those charts that track the major milestones of an infant’s growth. Such models help us anticipate when our baby will smile, sit up, crawl, or distinguish right from wrong, and they can help us ready our children for their next big challenge. There are abilities our baby generally must develop (e.g., roll over) before being ready to accomplish tasks at a higher stage of development (e.g., crawl). At each stage, the baby needs to be appropriately encouraged, while also feeling safe enough to take the risk to try something new.

Similarly, the DMIS is a conceptual model of six stages of the development of intercultural sensitivity, from ethnocentrism to ethno-relativism. The IDI, or Intercultural Development Inventory, is a psychometric instrument that assesses one’s stage of development. Its origins are based in the DMIS, though it uses a slightly modified version of the model today, called the IDC (Intercultural Development Continuum). The DMIS and the IDI enable us to track where we are in the development of our intercultural sensitivity, and ready ourselves for enhanced sensitivity or effectiveness.

The DMIS and Cultural Detective
The beauty our clients have found in the Cultural Detective Method is that it challenges and supports, stretches and comforts, learners at each stage of their development of intercultural sensitivity. While the DMIS and IDI indicate where one is on the developmental continuum, Cultural Detective assists in the learning and development of the skills needed to succeed in cross-cultural interactions.

The process works organically. The designer must make the case for diversity and inclusion in developmentally appropriate ways, and debrief learning in ways that comfort and challenge the learners. However, the Cultural Detective (CD) Method itself need not vary, no matter the developmental stage. Learners, depending on their abilities, will naturally use the CD Method differently at different levels of development.

Let me give a couple of examples.
  • Learners in ethnocentric stages of development will easily and fairly quickly solve a Cultural Detective mystery—they will be eager to complete the Worksheet, solve the problem, give the participants in the critical incident advice on what they should have done differently. Facilitators will observe, however, that learners at earlier development stages will suggest Cultural Bridges that are naïve or unrealistic, though of course possible. They might suggest, for example, that “the Japanese person just needs to speak up more assertively,” or “the Mexican manager needs to be more considerate of others and trust that his and his company’s welfare will be looked after.” Both of these recommendations are within the realm of possibility, both are achievable by Japanese and Mexicans of certain personality types or personal discipline, but such Bridges are not realistic for the majority of people from those cultures. Learners in ethnocentric stages feel good that they are able to solve the problem, which encourages them to try another and, with practice, learn what really works and what doesn’t when teaming across cultures.
  • When completing that same Cultural Detective Worksheet, learners in ethno-relative stages of development will enjoy pairing Values, Beliefs and Cultural Sense with the Words and Actions they motivate. They will invest effort into discerning the commonalties, as well as the differences, between the participants in the critical incident. They will develop ways to build on shared interests, while also leveraging diverse opinions and abilities, so that all players more fully contribute and the organization or community benefits. They will, without prompting, compare themselves, their values and beliefs, to the players in the incident—constantly learning, discovering, and refining their self-understanding. They will, in an organic way, explore and cultivate their cultural (or multicultural) identities, their understanding of and empathy for others, and their abilities to collaborate across cultures.

Thus, in a very natural way, learners at all stages of development receive the support as well as the challenge they need to continue their developmental journey towards intercultural sensitivity. There is very little stress on the facilitator to adapt the CD Method for the learner’s level of development, freeing the facilitator to focus effort on answering questions and dealing with resistance in ways that are both appropriately challenging and supportive to the learner.

And such a flexible process can be a blessing when we work with groups from mixed developmental levels. I often compare the Cultural Detective Method to the Montessori approach, because learners at all developmental levels can gain from helping one another.

So, How Do Customers Do It? How Do They Successfully Build Competence?

1. Research shows the development of intercultural competence requires ongoing, structured learning. That is precisely what a subscription to Cultural Detective Online (CDO) provides. So, first, get a subscription. If you want to build competence in your team or organization, if you are an experienced interculturalist, or if you are new to the Diversity and Inclusion space, a CDO subscription is a small investment with huge potential. The subscription agreement allows you to project CDO contents onto a screen for group viewing in any work you personally deliver, as long as you explain to your learners that Cultural Detective Online is a tool that anyone can subscribe to. Our goal is to get these materials used!

2. USE the system, regularly. Cultural Detective Online isn’t an entertainment system; it isn’t passive; it won’t give you intercultural competence through osmosis or by using magic dust. (That’ll be version 2! Just kidding.) Log onto the system once a week, and spend 20-30 minutes debriefing a critical incident, and using Values Lenses to supplement what you see. Respond to the prompts asking you what you’ve learned. Review your notes.

3. After a few weeks using your subscription, once you feel comfortable and competent with the Cultural Detective Worksheet, upload your own incident. Choose something from your real life: perhaps an interaction with a family member, friend, or colleague that puzzled you. Once you write the brief story, link the participants in your incident (yourself and others) to the Values Lenses in the Cultural Detective Online system. Think about why you behaved the way you did, and reflect on the influence that national, gender, generational, and spiritual values had on your behavior. Think about these same influences on the other people in your incident.

4. Then, you can discuss the incident with the real people involved in the situation. Having worked through a CD Worksheet, you will be able to move beyond judgment in your discussion. You will have already thought through the possible positive intentions of the other person, so your dialogue will proceed constructively. You both can learn, and collectively develop strategies to collaborate, or cohabitate, more enjoyably.

5. If you are a team lead or an organizational facilitator, gather your learners together regularly (monthly, quarterly), to discuss what skills they are acquiring using the CD Online system, questions they have, and the challenges they’re experiencing in developing intercultural competence.

6. Remember, Cultural Detective need not stand alone; supplement the tool with your favorite activities: simulations, exercises, videos, role-plays, etc. The core Cultural Detective Method dovetails smoothly with just about any other intercultural tool or technique, because it is a process.

7. If you want to track your progress, be sure to use the IDI to get baseline measurements of participants in your group. I’d then recommend participants take the IDI again, after three months of structured learning using CDO. You will be amazed by the results!

8. Cultural Detective Online is a tool. It doesn’t replace skilled facilitation; it supplements and extends it. You may already use the MBTI, the IDI, dimensions models, etc., in the training or coaching you do. Add CD Online to your repertoire and you will be delighted at how it transforms what you are able to achieve with your learners.

9. Be sure to share your Cultural Effective success story with us, and get your organization some positive kudos!

Additional Resources
A few years ago, two very experienced and well-regarded intercultural facilitators, Heather Robinson and Laura Bathurst, wrote an article explaining what I’m talking about.

I am also happy to share with you one of the handouts I prepared for a session at a recent IDI Conference (be sure to scroll down to view all three pages). This handout is a table showing the needs for challenge and support at each stage of development, and explicates the ways in which the Cultural Detective Method meets those needs. You are most welcome to download and print this handout. Note that in the handout you will find the five stages of development that are currently used by the IDI (slightly different than those of the DMIS, above).

Please let us know how you have used Cultural Detective in your teaching and training to facilitate your learners’ intercultural development. I would also like to invite any researchers or graduate students who are interested in conducting research on this important topic to contact us.

How are You Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month ?

national-hispanic-heritage-month(or do you even know it is happening now?)

September 15th to October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month in the USA.

I’ve always been interested in the application of intercultural communication concepts to domestic diversity issues. Perhaps this has to do with where I was living when I first learned about intercultural theory—a racially mixed neighborhood where people of good intentions occasionally had minor misunderstandings.

Working with the Cultural Detective: Latino/Hispanic package renewed my interest in the link between USA diversity and intercultural, specifically about Hispanic issues and how they impact USA society today. Latinos are a vital and dynamic part of the country, yet many in the USA do not know much about the underlying values that may influence Hispanic world views and behavior.

The Pew Research Center recently published an article in their FactTank, “5 facts about Hispanics for Hispanic Heritage Month.” It inspired me to prepare the following short quiz, to see how much you know about Latinos and Hispanics in the USA. Check your answers in the original article.

QUIZ

1. More than half of the USA’s Hispanics live in three states. Which three?
    • New York
    • Florida
    • New Mexico
    • Arizona
    • California
    • Alabama
    • Texas

Latinos are moving to all parts of the USA, and are no longer only living in the areas where they have more traditionally settled. A comprehensive report by the Pew Research Center, based on analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, shows Hispanics residing in every state: Mapping the Latino Population, By State, County and City.

2. How much did the Latino population grow between 2000 and 2011?
    • 22%
    • 36.4%
    • 57%
    • 47.5%
    • 63.5%

Not only did the number of Hispanics grow tremendously between 2000 and 2011, Pew found that Hispanics account for more than half of the nation’s growth in the past decade. The human resource potential is enormous, and understanding the underlying values of this group will allow organizations and communities to be more inclusive and utilize these resources more effectively. Cultural Detective: Latino/ Hispanic explores the important core values that may guide behavior and influence decision-making among Hispanics.

3. The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” embrace a wide variety of backgrounds. What percentage of Hispanics/Latinos trace their heritage to Mexico?
    • One-half
    • Two-thirds
    • Three-quarters
    • Seven-eights

In the USA, people who trace their heritage to over 20 nations consider themselves to be (or are considered by others as) of Hispanic origin. Statistical information on the largest groups are examined in the Pew report, Diverse Origins: The Nation’s 14 Largest Hispanic-Origin Groups.

4. Over the last decade, college enrollment has increased among Latino high school graduates. Can you match the correct percentage of USA high school graduates who enrolled in college in 2012 with their ethnicity?
    • Hispanics                                                  • 45%
    • African-Americans                                    • 49%
    • White Americans                                       • 47%

What are the current educational trends? Latinos now make up one-quarter of all public school students in the USA, the rate of Hispanics dropping out of high school continues to fall, and more young Latinos than ever are preparing to go to college. In fact, among recent high school grads, Hispanic college enrollment rate surpasses that of whites.

5. According to the USA Census bureau, how many of the nearly 52 million Hispanics (age 5 and older) speak Spanish at home?
    • 47 million
    • 35 million
    • 25 million

Spanish is the most frequently spoken language other than English in USA homes, and it is also spoken among non-Hispanics. Among Latinos, most agree it is important for future generations to learn Spanish as well as English, even though a growing share of Latinos get their news in English.

As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s take a fresh look at our organizations and communities. Are structures and policies in place to facilitate the contributions of Hispanics? Do we respect a different point of view, and can we incorporate it to better our communities for all members? How can we get from “here” to “there”?

If you are looking for a resource that can be easily woven into existing training to learn about Latino/Hispanic culture, Cultural Detective: Latino/Hispanic is your answer! By exploring the core cultural values and using the Cultural Detective Method to analyze real-life situations, you can offer practical skills to build bridges within your workplace and community.

Dr. Carlos Cortés on Multicultural Identity

ForkhashiMany of you have probably heard of Young SIETAR, one of the most vibrant groups in our professional association. If not, you should—they are a terrific organization of not necessarily young professional from a variety of disciplines who share an interest in intercultural relations, and use virtual communication to interact with members around the world.

Dr. Carlos CortésYoung SIETAR recently offered a webinar with Dr. Carlos Cortés, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside, who is globally esteemed for his work on multiculturalism. He’s the general editor of the newly released Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia, and the author of many other excellent books. The webinar was moderated by the very capable and personable Melissa Hahn.

I really respect Carlos. He’s intelligent, he’s funny, and he speaks his truth regardless of context. We’ve shared several wonderful dinners in the home of a mutual friend, and I have enjoyed our collegial relationship as we have both been on the faculty of the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication for the past two decades. I’ve treasured every moment and learned a great deal.

Carlos said a few things in the public webinar that I was delighted to hear from a man of his experience and expertise. They are key components of the Cultural Detective (CD) Method, yet sometimes I feel that we are a solitary voice on the subject. It felt good to have someone else beating the drum for a change!

Carlos opened his presentation with a slide that Melissa had made, illustrating multicultural identity. A screen shot of that slide is below.

What is MC Identity?

©Melissa Hahn, used in the webinar by Dr. Carlos Cortés

Does the slide remind you of anything? If you are at all familiar with our Cultural Detective Method, I believe you’ll immediately think of two things. First, the image contained on the definitions page in every CD package:CultDiffsMap

This image that reminds us that none of us are one story. We have multiple layers of identity, we have been influenced by multiple cultural experiences, and we should never diminish ourselves or others by only acknowledging one layer.

Second, the slide may remind you of our graphic illustrating the layering of our Values Lenses, showing how complex we are as individuals. This is an approach we teach over and over again in our webinars and facilitator workshops using the following graphic:

LayeredLensesFinalCarlos explained that most intercultural instruments look primarily at nationality, and he supposes that this is because it’s the easiest: “low-hanging fruit.” He explained that while a multi-layered model is important, it’s also more difficult, and that is perhaps why no one has created one. I realized that we have one such model and process here, in our CD series, and I’ve failed to communicate that to Carlos!

The second point he made was in response to a question: “Is it easier if you have a clear identity for yourself before going overseas?” While most people I know would advocate such a linear development (self before other, or other before self), Carlos didn’t hesitate for a moment before stating, emphatically, “No!” He went on to explain that just understanding others is not enough, however, and that:

“We need a dialectic between understanding others and understanding self. I’m 79 and I’m still developing and understanding my identity.”

What an elegant, concise summary of the Cultural Detective Worksheet and the yin-yang nature of relationships! Many clients use our CD tools to understand others. Many use them to understand themselves. But every client ends up developing a better understanding of both self and others in an organic, dialectic process.

Carlos addressed a question about how can we help people develop their multicultural identities in positive ways. He returned to the topic of instruments, saying that he’s not against using them as long as they open us up to discussion and discovery, and help us to confront and expand our limitations, rather than boxing us in. That is exactly what CD is all about: dialogue, discovery, mutual learning and adaptation, then synergy and innovation.

Carlos talked about the need to discuss concrete things rather than generalities (a good example is the practical, real-life focus of Cultural Detective‘s critical incidents), and the need to hear from the voice of the people themselves (our Values Lenses use native language terms rather than global, externally imposed dimensions).

Some other highlights from Carlos’ talk include:
  1. The challenge of multicultural (or in CD parlance, Blended Culture) identity is that you don’t “slot into a silo”; you don’t seem to fit, and that causes fear in some people. You can start to feel that you give the “wrong” answer on every form, and that you an oddity in any system.
  2. Self-identity negotiation takes a long time. It may sound easy, to pick and choose the “best of” your multiple heritages, but even if you try to push “pieces” aside, they can creep back at the most inopportune times. Your multicultural identity is and will remain part of you. It’s not about reconciling identity; it’s about enjoying being multicultural.
  3. TCKs (third culture/blended culture kids) need two kinds of understanding about the journey they face. They need to feel comfortable with their multiple strands, and to understand that they don’t have to pick and choose among the various parts of their identity. Talking generalizations isn’t enough—specific examples help, e.g., how difficult it can be when you don’t fit a category on an application form.
  4. The only way to truly understand multicultural identity is to listen to people with that identity. They need to share their stories and we need to listen.
  5. There are three distinct yet intersecting concepts that many people confuse:
    • Heritage: Something we all have, the layout of our family tree.
    • Identity: This comes from within, though, of course, there are always others’ perceptions of our identity that help shape us.
    • Culture: You can self-identify with a culture, yet not participate in every aspect of the culture. For example, you can self-identify as Irish, but not speak Gaelic. Therefore, you are part of the culture, but not part of the Gaelic language portion of it.
  6. Carlos recounted his personal story. He was born of a mixed marriage (Catholic and Jew, Mexican and US America). The more his parents pushed him to learn their two differing cultures, to “choose sides,” so to speak, the more they actually pushed him to develop an integrated multicultural identity.
  7. Research on multicultural identity is nearly non-existent. It’s an open topic for young people. The information currently exists in separate disciplines: racial identity, disability, etc. We need people to write their stories, hundreds of them, and study them. Carlos has studied multiculturalism for 40 years, yet he learned more by writing his autobiography (Rose Hill: An Intermarriage Before Its Time, Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2012).
  8. Every time we enter a new cultural milieu, it’s a growth opportunity in which we can deepen and expand our understanding of who we are in a new context.
  9. Regarding national identity and social fragmentation worldwide, Carlos said that the solution to fragmentation is that a common identity/culture is needed along with space for people to have alternative sub-groups/diversity.
  10. For those looking for good resources on this topic, he highly recommends Bill Cross’ Shades of Black and Stephen Murphy Shigamatsu’s work on Asian-American identity, When Half is Whole.

As you can tell by my enthusiastic review, the webinar was a delight. Young SIETAR has loaded the recording if you’d care to listen to the entire one hour discussion. Carlos tells me he’s also happy to have you write him directly.

What does multicultural identity mean to you? What are its challenges? And its benefits? What strategies have you used to help yourself or others develop constructive Blended Culture identities? Do Carlos’ ideas mesh with your experience?

El valor de las habilidades interculturales en el trabajo

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.”

Video producido por Cultural Detective, Dianne Hofner Saphiere. Traducido al español por Nathaly Moreno.

Nuestro resumen sobre este estudio, escrito en inglés. Versión del video en inglés. Link al estudio original.

Research Findings: The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace


IC Skills importance
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.

THE BUSINESS VALUE OF INTERCULTURAL SKILLS
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.

define%22interculturalskills

The terms employers use to define intercultural skills
Source: Telephone/face-to-face surveys of public sector, private sector and NGO employers responsible for employment decisions. Base: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2012: Global (n=367).

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

valuedskills

Graphic © the original report, with yellow highlights added by Cultural Detective.

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.

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.”

mean-kitty

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.

attaturk

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?

Oakland1976

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:

medium

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.

google

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.

FlowPoem

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.