“The Power of Storytelling in Intercultural Communication”
Many thanks to Joanna Sell, a certified Cultural Detective facilitator, for this terrific guest blog post. Be sure to check out her new intercultural storytelling blog at http://www.interculturalcompass.com/blog/.
It was early autumn when Martin, a German project leader, relocated to Mexico. At the beginning of his assignment he was very excited about the new challenge and curious about the host culture. His only concern was the fact that he was an introvert.
Every day before going to his company he threw a coin and “played heads or tails”. When he saw heads he would talk to the very first employee he encountered on his way. While seeing tails he would breath a sigh of relief that he did not have to “jump over his shadow” to practice small talk. Nobody knew about his habit and his team members were quite puzzled by his behavior, seeing that he did not talk to them as often as had their former leaders.
Pretty soon even those who had been very talkative at the beginning of Martin’s assignment limited their exchanges with him to the minimum. His assignment became challenging and Martin could not help feeling excluded, not only in the professional context but also in private life. Actually, he almost had no private life at all. Spending extra hours at work in the evening and during weekends resulted in isolation amidst a crowd of smiling faces in Mexico.
One late October morning, shortly after arriving at the office, Martin noticed a colorful skull made of sugar on top of his desk. He closed the door and slowly sat down. He remained frozen for half an hour or longer. He noticed that his colleagues barely spoke to him. Seeing the skull, he got terrified that they most probably wanted to get rid of him.
What happened next?
When Katrin Sihling—a dear colleague of mine from the Munich area who was raised by her Mexican mom and her German dad in South Germany—finished the story and asked that question, everyone in our group at Jena University smiled. Someone hurried with a possible explanation: “People in Mexico celebrate November 1st with parties to commemorate their ancestors and give one another sweet skulls to highlight the festive character of this feast”.
Listening to that explanation I sketched the following concluding scene in my head: Luckily, Elena, one of Martin’s team members, originally from Switzerland, entered his office and got concerned when she saw Martin’s pale face and absent gaze. When he indicated towards the skull without saying a word, she immediately noticed the cultural misunderstanding. It was she who had put the colorful sugar skull on his desk, as she did every year for all the people in their department. She explained the symbolic meaning of the sweet skull and asked Martin whether he wished to join the Mexican part of her family in celebrating El Dia de los Muertos.
That day both of them learned something new: not to take the world of obviousness (their world of obviousness) for granted, but to ask for new meanings instead.
The power of the storytelling approach in the intercultural context lies exactly in this attitude. Exchanging stories across cultures enhances curiosity and redirects attention from a focus on general, simplified assumptions and towards sense making and re-narrating the world of obviousness; that’s why the Cultural Detective Method is built around stories! Every critical incident in our series is a true story, sometimes a combination, involving real people in real situations.
“Culture is a set of stories that we enter” (Jerome Brunner) and exchanging facts and data about cultures without exchanging stories is a dead-end street.
“It is the stories we share with each other that help us to overcome cultural conflicts, cope with transition stress, and shape how we perceive the past and see the future. Thanks to an exchange of stories we become able to rethink our assumptions and change our behavior. Changing behaviors definitely requires mindfulness in order to recognize which behaviors are inappropriate and which are desirable in different cultural contexts.
To sum up why we need storytelling in the intercultural context, I would like to offer a short list (instead of a story) that includes the following issues:
- Storytelling suppports zooming in and out effects and, therefore, enables perspective change.
- Storytelling allows the discovery of cultural roots from multiple perspectives.
- Storytelling offers insights into the complexity of multicultural identities.
- Storytelling can be an eye-opener in new cultural surroundings.
- Storytelling adds the emotional layer to the cognitive level.
- Storytelling serves as a means of transmitting cultures.
- Storytelling deals with new stories of belonging.
- Storytelling initiates change processes.
- Storytelling serves as sensemaking.
- Storytelling moves hearts.
Sell, J. (2017): Storytelling for Intercultural Understanding and Intercultural Sensitivity Development in: Chlopczyk, J. (ed.) Beyond Storytelling. Springer Gabler, pp.234-235.
Made you curious? Please find more about the storytelling approach in the intercultural context with a focus on choice biographies and identities in flux, coping with the danger of a single story, new stories of belonging and a hands on compilation of storytelling methods that can be applied in intercultural programs in two of my chapters published in following books:
Sell, J. (2017): Storytelling for Intercultural Understanding and Intercultural Sensitivity Development in: Chlopczyk, J. (ed.) Beyond Storytelling. Springer Gabler.
Sell, J. (2017): Segel hoch und auf zu neuen Ufern – Eine Reise durch die Welt der Storytelling-Methoden im unterkulturellen Kontext in: Schach, A. (ed.) Storytelling. Geschichten in Text, Bild und Film, Springer Gabler.