Why Storytelling in the Intercultural Context?

storytellingStories are the cornerstone of the Cultural Detective Method, and we have written about them on this blog quite often. Today I am very pleased to share with you a guest blog post by Joanna Sell, storyteller extraordinaire. She will be leading a complimentary webinar for us on 6th December 2018. Register now!

You might be asking why storytelling in intercultural communication? This exact question marked the beginning of my journey towards the storytelling approach. When I was setting the sails, I had no idea where it would bring me. I simply knew that my clients in the business world, my students at the universities, and many people working across cultures desperately wanted golden recipes on how to behave in intercultural contexts. Does that sound familiar to you?

Following the motto, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” people wanted to hear do’s and don’ts for communicating and cooperating with the “inhabitants of Rome.” What struck me, mostly, was the fact that they were deeply convinced that such “ready-made recipes” existed or were useful.

On one hand they acknowledged the diversity of their own groups and said: “Well, our group is very diverse in terms of age, gender, professional background, and nationality, and it is clear that our setting is ‘colorful,’ but we are here to hear about ‘Rome and the Romans.'” I asked myself why was it so easy to talk about a mosaic of cultures in their own groups while also asking for do’s and don’ts lists for communicating with “the others.”

Everything changed once we exchanged stories. Suddenly, the beauty of diversity became tangible and the focus moved towards practicing perspective change, self-reflection regarding communication skills, and a clear shift from “autopilot modus” towards curiosity and acceptance of differing thinking patterns.

As an intercultural trainer and coach I was overwhelmed—and I experienced my own personal change, as well. I still provided input on doing business and working in teams in countries of my expertise, and I addressed the challenges and rewards of virtual leadership. However, I began to incorporate the experience and knowledge of the participants into my programs much more. Why? Because the narrative approach and various storytelling methods guided me to get to know my participants better, allowing me to better tailor the content to their needs.

Additionally, thanks to the exchange of stories, they got to know one another from a completely new perspective and were willing to share their experiences in an open manner. A setting of psychological safety and an atmosphere of trust were the most wonderful gifts most of us experienced during time spent together sharing stories. Discussions about establishing trust and designing a team charter took on completely new dynamics. When we talked about action plans at the end of the meeting, participants were much more committed to following through, as well as to risk story sharing in their professional contexts and to apply storytelling methods in their daily lives.

I gathered the list of the reasons that storytelling works so well in the intercultural context, and I welcome your ideas to add to my observations.

  • Storytelling allows discovering cultural roots from multiple perspectives.
  • Storytelling offers insights into complexity of multicultural identities.
  • Storytelling supports zooming in and out, i.e., perspective change.
  • Storytelling adds the emotional layer to the cognitive level.
  • Storytelling serves as means of transmitting cultures.
  • Storytelling deals with new stories of belonging.
  • Storytelling initiates change processes.
  • Storytelling moves hearts.

How Storytelling Affects the Brain

brainOnstorytelling OneSpot

I was recently tweeted this graphic, which research shows me is taken from a larger infographic on content marketing on OneSpot. https://www.onespot.com/blog/infographic-the-science-of-storytelling/

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of both teaching and entertainment. It is the way history was traditionally recorded, how values were inculcated, and how families and neighborhoods bonded.

Storytelling is the core around which Cultural Detective is based. While the Cultural Detective Method is grounded in extensive intercultural theory, using Cultural Detective for development, learning, conflict resolution or team building involves listening to, telling, reading, or otherwise interacting with stories, or, in detective parlance, incidents. The debut of Cultural Detective The Netherlands involved a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception in Amsterdam, during which professionals acted out critical incidents for those attending. Trainers have turned their training rooms into theaters, acting out the stories in the Cultural Detective series with the learners. Why so much emphasis on stories?Why?

Let’s start by watching my interview with Kelli McLoud-Schingen, one of our CD team members, who is a professional storyteller and actress, as well as a dynamite diversity practitioner and interculturalist.

Storytelling does, indeed, link the head, heart and mind—an integration that is key to the development of intercultural competence. Interestingly for those working across cultures, however, science is now finding that stories help us to better understand others’ intentions and relate to one another better! My experience has shown that stories can help us to develop empathy, particularly with those very different from ourselves.

“There was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.

Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions ‘theory of mind.’

Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”
—Dr. Raymond Mar, York University, Toronto

Furthermore, stories allow us to “practice,” even if in our own minds, how we might respond under various circumstances. Stories can “take us” to India, China or Brazil, and help us imagine ourselves in an interaction there, so that when we actually visit, it’s not as strange or confusing. Stories are a form of mental, rather than computerized, simulation.

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that ‘runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.’”
—Annie Murphy Paul, The New York Times, “Your Brain on Fiction”

Finally, analyzing stories enables the learner to look at real people in real situations, in all their complexity—personality, age, gender, ethnicity, religious tradition, nationality—rather than as one-dimensional generalizations or stereotypes.

If you have not yet subscribed to Cultural Detective Online, or attended one of our complimentary webinars, you are missing out on an incredibly robust and affordable tool that includes hundreds of stories to support your learning! We hope to see you there soon!