Becoming more intercultural

Sharing reflected at Tallinn airport

Sharing reflected at Tallinn airport

My main takeaway from the recent SIETAR Congress in the wonderful city of Tallinn in Estonia:

Society is a human construct which needs active intervention and facilitation (orchestration) to survive.

Multiculturalism goes against ancient instincts based on tribalism, suspicion of the other etc in order to survive. So far, governments and other agencies have facilitated multiculturalism but have failed to heed the inherent conflict this can lead to. This leaves an important and on-going role for interculturalists to facilitate mutual understanding. Like gardening, this is a job that is never complete.
Extremely good news for the many intercultural trainers who were gathered in Tallinn then!
This need for active intervention was also reflected in the few talks on student mobility where the consensus was that it is not enough to send students abroad. They must be prepared, supported and provoked to engage with the local community. So again, we need an active facilitation process. In this context I presented the preliminary results from our experience in the UniKey project trying to activate foreign interns to explore the entrepreneurial mindset which we all need now just to hang on to our jobs.
Lest you are now thinking in terms of national cultures, another common theme at SIETAR was the importance of dealing with the people in the room as individuals rather than as Germans, Indians or Brasilians. This could be done with the aid of diagnostic tools such as the Diversity Icebreaker or some more generic tool such as root cause analysis (RCA).
One thing that surprised me in a session on building an intercultural training course was learning that trainers in Russia would probably be unwilling to share experiences, hints and tips because of competitive pressures. This surprised me on two levels: the first being that we had just learned about the very successful sharing weekends run in Poland for trainers, so there is a precedent, and the other being that I am used to the incredible sharing culture of the English as a Foreign Language teaching community. Perhaps this was an opinion not based on experience.
One keynote which attracted a great deal of attention focused on the journey of a Vietnamese woman through the currently troubled Middle East. Phuong-Mai Nguyen had many insights but one which stood out for me, because it reflected something I heard in South Africa too, was about the need to pay attention to the men even as women are empowered. Phuong-Mai Nguyen attributed part of the problems in the Middle East to the negative feelings felt by the male population to their loss of authority and status, as the women gain theirs. Phuong-Mai Nguyen came with no solutions but it was a thought-provoking diagnosis.
This was just one example of when we were invited to turn our thinking upside down. Dichotomies were another theme of the conference and we were constantly challenged to see the other side, such as:
Do you offer a high salary in anticipation of excellent performance or
Do you offer a high salary after observing excellent performance?
Is business to make money?
Or is money to make business?
If people in different countries do things differently then does that mean that people in the same country do things the same?
So if people in the same country do things differently, could that mean that people in different countries do things the same way?
This suggests that a successful strategy may be to look for the common ground in a diverse group.
I’ll be exploring more issues from the Congress in my November podcast at Absolutely Intercultural.
Click to enlarge the image.

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