The Derdians (Revisited)

How to build bridges when the ones who need the bridges have a culture?

Originally published on March 6, 2006, but the discussion continues:
Now with a comment by Leonel J P Brug, the creator of the Derdians!

This is the first published article of a series on intercultural learning by Lene Mogensen from The Sparkle.

Photo Page @ Flickr

How many of you have ever heard about the country called Derdia? If you haven’t, just take a quick look at the training kit on intercultural learning, where the simulation game “The Derdians” is described here.

In “The Derdians” half of the group has to act as engineers, having to teach the other half – people from Derdia – how to build a bridge with paper, scotch and scissors.

Both the engineers and the Derdians get clear role-descriptions: The engineers are told by which criteria the bridge should be built, and that they should not build it themselves, but teach the Derdians so that they will be able to build bridges in the future. The Derdians on the other hand are instructed in their “cultural behaviour” — e.g. that they touch each other a lot, that they only accept a particular kind of greeting: a kiss on one shoulder, and thus get offended if somebody tries to shake their hand, that they always say yes, even when they mean no, and that they have a particular tradition and religion which prescribes which tools men and women respectively are allowed to touch.

The game is great fun but…

And how does this game look in action? Great fun! Everybody is having a great time. If you use this game as a trainer you will most likely hear laughter and see a group of participants deeply engaged in solving the task — and you will afterwards hear positive feedback: “What an interesting game — the highlight of the course!” Satisfied as a trainer? I am definitely not! Let’s take a closer look at intercultural learning as represented by the engineers meeting the Derdians.

Photo Page @ Flickr

The T-kit proposes that the trainer debriefs the game, writing up facts, feelings and interpretations and discusses to which degree we assume that other people think like we do, and interpret other people’s actions accordingly, and how cultural background influences the role you play. This will for sure lead to an interesting discussion about cultural difference, which we should respect and value. But something still seems to be missing.

Not so long ago I made a group play this game with the above mentioned results: “fun”, “interesting” etc. However, we departed from the above described debriefing and asked the group to describe the two different cultures. Not surprisingly the Derdians were characterised by touching, kissing on shoulders, hugging, sexual segregation, friendly, not liking work so much – behaving according to their culture. The engineers on the other hand were task-oriented, knowledgeable about bridges, delegated the work, able to teach and willing to try to understand others.

Photo Page @ Flickr

Through the discussion following the exercise it became clear for everyone that the “culture” of the engineers is more or less not-existing, according to the simulation game — they have science and knowledge, which they can use to teach the other group something about building the bridges. The Derdians on the other hand do have a “culture”, with such characteristics as kissing on shoulders, hugging, clear gender division etc., which actually complicates the mission of the engineers — namely to bring them knowledge and development. When the group was asked to place the two cultures geographically, there was large agreement: The engineers live up north and the Derdians to the south and east. Disagreement occurred however, when it had to be decided how far south — the northern-Europeans thought that Southern Europe was far enough, whereas the southern Europeans thought we had to go further south — somewhere in Africa. Through this discussion it becomes clear, that the simulation game says more about how Europeans look at other parts of the world/other cultures (sometimes how the majority looks at the minority), rather than actually showing cultural differences.

So back to the start: What is intercultural learning? An interesting discussion of this subject has been started by Gavan Titley’s paper on intercultural learning in DYS COE-activities (also found on this site here).

Culture is not a thing, it is a concept.

One of the conclusions is that culture is not a thing, we can characterise, define and almost touch — culture is a concept, which can be defined in indefinite ways. So which one do we choose? “The Derdians” seems to be clear on that point. As far as I can see the simulation game takes a concept of culture on board, which was prevalent in the 1950s-1970s, and which is heavily outdated.

The Derdians takes a heavily outdated concept on board.

Let me explain: Previously progress was viewed as a development from tradition to modernity. Culture was seen as a characteristic of “traditional societies”, whereas modern societies had “overcome their traditional/cultural beliefs” and were instead ruled by science, rationality and knowledge.

Culture was in this way a kind of “resistance to modernisation, which had to be overcome” (Titley, 2005, p. 12) — just like the engineers have to overcome the kissing and hugging of the Derdians to be able to build bridges. Of course this view of culture is based on a Euro-centric point of view — where the modern are “us” and the traditional are “the others”, who compared to “us” seem to lack something — our rationality and science.

Photo Page @ Flickr

But isn’t this ethnocentrism exactly what we were supposed to fight by intercultural learning?

Time has moved on, our understanding of culture has developed towards greater complexity, and my argument is that we need to base intercultural learning on another concept of culture if we truly want to fight intolerance, prejudices and discrimination. Taking a recognised game like “The Derdians” (but also other games like Albatros and Rafa Rafa) and using it in an unreflected way is very dangerous. Rather than tolerance I am afraid that the game reproduces stereotypes and arrogance of certain population groups or countries towards others. It reduces differences between groups or countries to culture, rather than bringing up a discussion of educational systems in the respective countries, of economic injustices etc.

Simulation exercises reproducing stereotypes are very dangerous.

This point will be discussed further in a series of articles on ICL on this website, which will try to exemplify (and show alternatives) to the critique that Gavan Titley has raised on current ICL practices. So make sure to visit this site again!

Post scriptum: At the above mentioned training the trainers recommended the participants to skip this game and find other means of stimulating intercultural learning. An important question is whether the trainers committed the same crime as they warned about by showing the “wrong example” to reach these points rather than its alternative. This question became very urgent, as many participants kept mentioning the game as a highlight, because it had been so much fun!

Summary of related links:
Training Kit 4 ‘Intercultural Learning’
The Derdians – Excerpt T-Kit 4
ICL is not enough
The Sparkle

Contact Lene by e-mail or share your thoughts with everyone and leave a comment below!

Comments

11 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Yael,

    “Culture is not a thing, it is a concept”. I simply could not agree more. The static manner in which so much of intercultural learning in practise treats culture is simply mind-boggling. A well known english proverb comes immediately to mind: Cutting off our noses to spite our faces! How can non-formal education help participants to develop attitudes of tolerance of ambiguity in relation to notions of identity, if the “cultures” we present in ICL activities are monolithic and unmediated. A more sophisticated approach to the treatment of culture is needed. Recently, I have had the opportunity to work with the presentation of culture in a historicised perspective – showing what it has meant through the ages, trends in scientitic thinking and political practises of governance. While this may seem a very didactical approach, when combined with interactive activities that allow participants to analyse which concept is most relevant to them, both in terms of the realities they live and in terms of an ideal they might wish to pursue, it has yielded some very interesting perspectives and results. I find it particularly interesting that participants are very qucikly able to personalise the perspective they find most able to identity with: identifying the way they think about culture and the way culture is treated in their context by government or society. These two so often contradict each other. Enter the intercultural dimension! It may not be experiential as such but it gets people thinking. Which for me is in the end the point of ICL: not to teach some nebulous and static notion of tolerating something that is different because tolerance is morally better!

  2. In the defense of “the Derdians”:
    I used this exercise for many years, resulting in lots of fun and good discussions. I have never thought in this context about the outdated approach to culture you proposed in the article. In my opinion, it is actually one of the strengths of the exercise, that the “Engineers” don’t get descriptions of their culture.
    In the debrief, I ask my participants to explain / share the rules and values of their “played” cultures. This is the point where the Derdians have it easy: they just tell the instructions which they were given. However, the discussion with the Engineers is much more interesting, because they have to explain all their actions and values behind them, even though they were “just behaving normal”. The point here is that they, of course, also have a culture – whatever they bring with them and what they create as a group – but because it is not made explicit it is hard to see it as such and hard to explain where does it comes from. From here we can have a discussion on awareness of our own cultural preferences, making ourselves understood/ explicit, what values are behind our behavior, etc..

    I believe intercultural learning starts with learning about ourselves as cultural beings. I think the Derdians is a good simulation of an intercultural encounter (at least for the Engineers). In a real life encounter you’ll never have instructions about how your own culture suppose to be.

  3. In a real life encounter you’ll never have instructions about how your own culture suppose to be.

    Is that really so? I remember many moments in which I was told what a German does, or doesn’t. And these moments were annoying and/or painful.

    Just a little side-note. Don’t want to distract the discussion…

  4. Of course, Andreas, you are right. There are plenty of “instructions”… what our parents tell us about how to behave, our “holy books” and traditions, what we learn in school, the laws… they all tell us aspects of our culture.
    I was referring to the fact that these “instructions” are mostly internalised: we know how to behave just as the Engineers do.

    In my experience in this exercise, Engineers will not spend any time discussing their “culture” they just go ahead and do things. They will treat the Derdians very often like a bunch of weirdos, and feel vastly superiour.This behaviour and lack of awareness are are some points I like to shine a light on in the debriefing…

  5. Ah now I understand better Nora, thanks for the clarification!

    I think the deconstruction of internalised behavioural superiority you are pointing at is exactly what Lene calls for.

    And the easiness with which this aspect is not only underrated in the T-Kit but also often ignored in practise remains, then, a valid point of criticism – does it not?

    Also: Can the debriefing you are describing really be done in 50 minutes, the time suggested in the training kit? It seems impossible to me…

  6. I have been reading the comments to my article with interest, and I agree that learning about our-selves as cultural beings is an important step in intercultural learning. Moreover I am happy to hear that some trainers are using this game consciously to reflect on awareness of own cultural behaviour and tendencies to meet others with arrogance.

    However, I am still not satisfied. First of all there is of course the point that Andreas mentions that the T-kit does not go this far in the proposed debriefing, and I wonder how the quality of the use of the exercise can then be ensured. But apart from that I am still worried about the side-effects of ridiculing “the other” and calling it culture, and about having to reflect about my own cultural behaviour in a very artificial simulation. That is why I have a strong wish to find alternative ways for intercultural learning.

    I could bring up a couple of extra points – e.g. the risk of leaving the participants with an increased awareness, but no tools to act differently, or the risk of blocking the learning of the participants, because they feel blamed for feeling superior – but I would rather get back to these points in later articles.

  7. This is a comment by Ulrich Hann from A’B’C Asian Business Consultants which ended up with this other entry by accident. I bring it over here where it supposedly belongs as well. Andreas

    I plan to use the Derdians in China in April. However I will work with 2 Chiense groups and make the engineers one Chinese group and the Derdians also as a Chinese group. We take this simulation game as a prelude to enter in conlfict management and central German & Chiense cultural standards as well as an exrecise for feed back. Even if stereotypes may enter we shall make the Chinese the experts and let them decide where they think that the Derdians may live.

  8. Georges Wagner,

    I would like to share an observation which shows the multi-layer complexity of the “Derdians” (and I do agree to the ethnocentric postcolonial unvisible ideology which must be reflected!)

    In an intercultural preparation training course for humanitarian aid workers we could experience the subconscious (in my opinion racist) representations about the Derdians the “Derdian” participants had. They behaved partly like African people (!) showing patterns and reproducing “rituals” which (still) are sometimes shown in movies like Tarzan and the unsupportable link to the “wild” was obvious. We used this to continue our learning process to tackle “whiteness” and deep racist conditioning which is continuing today via socialisation and the mass media. And even in so-called liberal or intercultural environments people are full and unaware of it.

    So this also means for me that if an intercultural exercise like the Derdians is not tackling in its evaluation racism and/or power relationships, a major point is missing.

    Georges Wagner

  9. Leonel J P Brug,

    I am the author of the Derdian game (original in Dutch named “De Derdianen”)My nationality Dutch ethnic I am Afro-American (Curacao born, Surinam father,Anguilla mother. My own cultural background and professional experience were important for the development of the Derdians. The game indeed relates to the 1950-1970s prevalent concept of culture. I developed the game to show a.o. the following.

    1) that its indeed an Eurocentric concept while the same communication processes can be seen in the interactions between two western (developed?) countries, when its about cooperation and transfer of knowledge between them. There are, sad to say, trainers who still think that the game can not be used in cases of western cultures dealing with each other. Training practice shows that this is absolutly not the case. An important learning point of the game is that it reduces the differences between groups and countries where in the case of North and South people tend to exagerate the cultural differences between the North and the South and at the same time tend to underestimate the differences within the North or western countries.

    2) To make trainees experience how now a days the old colonial and racist concept of culture differences (Civilised westerners – Halfway civilised Asians and Primitive Africans)still affects our ways of dealing with cultural differences. In relation to this I state that it is not the game that reproduces the stereotypes and arrogance. The game reveals what is already -unconscious- there (in the participants head and sorry to say, often also in the trainers’) An important experience and learnig point for those who are convinced that they are free from stereotype thinking in cross-cultural relations.

    3) There is no danger in reproducing stereotypes whitin the context of the game. The important learning point is how to deal with these stereotypes. First by accepting them as a “reality” and from there using them as the key to improve crosscultural/ international communication and cooperation.

    In the near future I will organise a workshop/masterclass for trainers on the the Derdian game and the constructive use of stereotypes as a key for better understanding.

  10. Lene O. Mogensen,

    I must say that I feel very honoured to get a comment on my article from the author of The Derdians.

    I am very pleased to hear some of the original thoughts behind the exercise. I did not know that the exercise was developed to let the participants experience colonial and racist concept of culture differences and through this reveal unconscious prejudices. I couldn’t agree more with your comment that we often (participants and trainers) have unconscious stereotypes guiding our behavior. My criticism of the exercise first of all goes on the way it is being represented and applied – rather than on your intentions with the exercise. Knowing these intentions, I think it must be frustrating for you too, to see how the exercise is being presented (e.g. through the Council of Europe and European Union) and widely applied without any reference to these very important learning goals (as the author you should maybe try to do something about it…? – they might listen to you)

    When that is said, I do however think that it can be dangerous to reproduce stereotypes – particularly because I think that many trainers do not reach the magic point of how to deal with them. Unfortunately the description of the debriefing of the exercise (in the T-kit) does not help the trainer here. This second objection to the exercise is linked to this and deals with the learning approach applied in the exercise. The exercise is based on experiential learning: The participants are assumed to learn from the experience of participating in an exercise, and through this form a new awareness. Action is expected to follow more or less automatically.

    However, as I see it the exercise creates awareness of what NOT to do, but not of what to do in stead. So if we learn from our experiences we have now learned what NOT to do, but have been left with no clue of how to behave differently. Furthermore I believe that all (or at least) most people have good reasons to do whatever they do (even when it is expressed in ways we disagree with), and the best starting point for development is recognition of these good reasons rather than disqualifying people by calling them prejudiced. Both points draw upon pedagogical developments within positive psychology and I would like to elaborate on them, but it will have to wait until by next articles are published on this page.

  11. It is interesting that the game does seem to have produced an approximation of the culture of real engineers:

    What are the limitations of an engineer’s perspective?