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.


  1. I so agree... even if it makes me unpopular when running those intercultural awareness seminars, because I refuse to generalise. But I find that certain social groups or professional groups are more culturally at ease with their counterparts in other countries than with their compatriots. Romanian businessman sending his son to Eton - is he going to have a similar worldview, attitude and beliefs to my peasant farmer Granma from the Carpathian mountains, or to the Middletons from Berkshire?
    But what can or should you do as an interculturalist if your audience or clients do not want in-depth?

  2. Hi Margit
    First time I read your blog (I must confess) and I find that I agree with a lot of things that you mention. To me btw as a citizen of the middle-east there is not much different between Sweden or Holland (with all due respect). But i think there is a cultural abyss between Europe and Saudi-Arabia for example or even Egypt. I enjoyed reading.

  3. I think that most nations have more unifying than divisory aspects - especially when it comes down to day to day, nitty-gritty living. We all (hopefully) want the best for our families and ourselves - I've yet to find otherwise :) Good post, Margit x

  4. Economic realities bring similar sights in poor areas of the US.

    I agree with your view on what true intercultural debates should encompass. Stereotypes have no place there.

  5. Thank you so much for this interesting and also entertaining article. You took the words right out of my mouth.
    Whenever we offer intercultural trainings to companies or organizations we emphasize how important it is to get a general intercultural understanding, rather than learning cliches about different nations. In fact a lot of companies still ask for bite-sized recipes on "how to do deal with the Chinese" etc.
    I also agree with sandaionescu. We also refuse to generalize in our trainings. Sometimes it is just difficult to convince the HR department from our approach. Feedback of our participants shows that we cannot be that wrong. Participants highly value the information and insights they get on culture, that they do not learn about specific differences only, but also learn to understand where is comes from.

  6. Ik ben het roerend eens met het bovenstaande, en het gaat inderdaad ook meer om sociale klasse dan daadwerkelijke culturele verschillen.

    Het is namelijk gek, dan als je op safari in Kenia bent, de Keniaan meer van Nederlandse politiek afweet dan ik. Waarom a priori verschil maken vanwege cultuur?

    Het kan zijn dat men elkaar soms niet helemaal begrijpt.....Maar dan komt het aspect respekt om de hoek kijken. Wie nieuwsgierig en open is naar de ander, komt veel verder dan degene die onderscheid maakt en door angst ( voor eigen falen ingegeven) gedreven.

    Ik vind het daarom fantastisch goed van de directeur die met ogenschijnlijk veel genoegen met de schoonmaker een praatje maakt. Daarentegen vind ik het ook leuk dat de schoonmaker zonder angst of ander onbehagen de directeur spreekt...niveauverschillen opheffend.

    De een is niet beter of slechter dan de ander..Daar moet het in de omgang om gaan.

  7. The organization I'm a member of (and, for full disclosure also now an employee.. that's how I found this post) focuses on teaching intercultural lessons through personal experiences.
    Staying in China for 2 months, and discussing cultural lessons and other topics with the Chinese members of the Foundation, who are also my friends, I think I got a significant insight - more than would normally be possible.
    I can say the same for my friendship with people from Germany and Chile - two countries I would know little about had it not been for personal friendships.

    (read my blog for one slightly off-topic experience from China)

  8. Ah! the most important part of my comment got deleted.
    The point I was trying to make was many intercultural trainers themselves don't have enough such experiences. Being able to avoid generalization means you need to understand complexities to an extent..... maybe the first step should be to invest in ensuring trainers have in-depth experiences.
    Investing in this learnt knowledge base is probably the easiest way to avoid generalizations - if you have discussed opinions and variations with many people, you would probably be more likely to put them across