The Derdians (Original)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Published by Lene Mogensen

Leadership and organisational consultant, trainer and coach.

One reply on “The Derdians (Original)”

  1. This is a copy of the original article. The discussion happens elsewhere though – after some time, the creator of the exercise chipped in, and we promoted the article to the frontpage again – head there to leave a comment, if you will! Cheers.

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