Wednesday, 9 March 2011

What's Wrong With Interculturalism

I'm well-aware of the double entendre of my headline, and accordingly the answers would have to be respectively "nothing" , or "quite a lot". Of course it is an important discipline. Cultural awareness is essential - for companies, for communication in a globalized world, for human beings trying to come to grips with a world where long-held beliefs have turned into dusty cliches.

Which brings me to my point: A lot of the current intercultural debate is still rooted in churning over depressing cliches about different nations. The "polite English" have allegedly got problems when dealing with "forthright Dutch". The chatty Swedes find the Finns a bit taciturn and so on, and so on. Soon we'll be dicussing how to deal with a passionate Italian when you're a cool cucumber from Minnesota. This may be fine for centuries of women's magazines and giggly hen night chats but is hardly worth the attention of a multi-disciplined approach towards culture and identity.

So why has it come to this? In my opinion, there are 2 reasons. First, the blogosphere. Where, and how would you generate more "comments" (the holy grail of blog posts) than by saying "provocative" things about a nation? Write about the fact you don't like haggis (oooh!) and hey presto, you've got 30 comments assuring you that it's the best thing on earth, and a vital part of Scottish culture. Hey, you've just become an interculturalist, discussing weighty matters of importance. NOT.

The second reason is that interculturalism has become a money-spinner. Offer "intercultural identity" classes to a company, and you'll be welcomed with open arms. If your course has anything to do with China, Chinese negotiating practices, eating habits etc. you'll be paid in gold. So professionally, there is very little incentive not to make the most of every little change that comes about through an international posting. From Freiburg to Strasbourg? (40km) Don't underestimate the difficulties! From Vaals to Aachen? (actually the same town divided by the Dutch/German border) - you'll be surprised, best take a course in intercultural education and learn that a bicycle is seen very differently there!

It is time interculturalism decided what it wants to be. One way is to stick in the world of folksy cliches and make - literally - a meal out of that. The other would be to incorporate contemporary reality into the field. Not- "oh, look so strange!" But- "why is that culture different?" More often than not, it's not nation character that makes the difference but very simply economic reality (I noticed this very sharply recently when I went to a German shopping centre in a poor area - prams, obesity, junk food habits etc. made it so much more similar to England than I had ever expected, but that's a point worth discussing separately.)

Interculturalism has to leave the prejudicial repetiton of outdated cliches behind, stop discussing them in a houswifely well-meaning context, and become focussed on reality. Gender roles, bi- and multi-lingualism, economic data, attitude to a nation's history (ancient and very receent!), leisure activities, the meaning of dress (here again, it is extremely important to leave cliches behind, no more "chic French women!"), the value of housing, of domesticity, the role of children and childhood... all those and a hundred other micro-trend analyses are what's needed in a truly meaningful intercultural debate - not the proliferation of outdated stereotypes.