Cultural differences

There is no doubt that we need tools to deal with our multicultural realities. In my previous article I described some methods for raising awareness about how exclusion and oppression takes multiple forms – sometimes people from different “cultures” are subjected to oppression – and sometimes people suffer exclusion because their behaviour is explained with culture, or people suppress others by justifying their behaviour with culture.

Three steps to change behaviour? | Photo by Rohit Mattoo

Three steps to change behaviour? | Photo by Rohit Mattoo

Many training manuals say that there are three steps in changing behaviour. The first step is raising awareness, the second one is creating new skills, and the third one is getting into action. A brief review of most exercises, however, leaves me with the impression that most exercises focus on creating awareness, whereas the next steps are assumed to happen more or less automatically as long as the awareness has been raised.

Take simulation games and role plays – commonly used methods during intercultural learning. It is often said that they both stimulate awareness about cultural differences—by letting the participants encounter with a simulated different culture—and new skills as participants try to interact with this culture.

There is just one problem: in such games you normally get clear role-descriptions telling you how to act, what your values are, how you greet, how you communicate, what offends you etc. These role descriptions are often made in such a way that there is an inbuilt conflict in the simulation, and you can only overcome this conflict by being disobedient to the rules of the exercise – behaving differently than you are asked to.

Stop being
a Derdian!

So stop being a Derdian and stop following the rules of the Engineers (link to first two articles). How can you both stick to your ‘cultural stereotyped role’ and develop intercultural communication skills – when intercultural skills means that you have to cross the boundary of your habitual behaviour and try out new ways of communicating and acting, which normally means that you have to cross the boundary of your habitual behaviour?

The same issue occurs during many exercises on e.g. inclusive teamwork. Examples are games, where participants have to complete a puzzle nonverbally or deal with pieces of information missing (symbolised by for instance keeping back one of the pieces). The point drawn during debriefings is that everybody is important, that you should cooperate rather than compete, that you should share information etc.

Beyond awareness:
how to do it?

And so, fair enough, awareness of very important aspects of teamwork has been raised – but what is left out is how you cooperate, how you share information, how you learn as a team, how you make everyone feel as an important member of the team.

Participants are not trained on these skills – they are not given the alternative to possible shortcomings. During the exercise they have no chance to practice these skills, because it is an integrated part of the game that they are not allowed to talk and that they will never find that missing part.

I believe that such games can mainly create awareness, but can not develop skills. Does it matter, you might ask? Will people not automatically change behaviour if they are aware of the cultural differences and know that communicating in their usual way will not get them very far? Will they not next time remember, that they have to cooperate and share information? Can we not just assume that awareness automatically gets transferred into skills?

Why do wars continue?

Why do wars continue?

Well, I have doubts, and indeed both research and common sense actually show the opposite – otherwise why do smokers not just stop smoking despite knowing that smoking kills, why do people not just always use condoms despite knowing that HIV is contagious, and why do we not just stop discriminating each other despite having been told since WWII that this is very bad?!

These examples—as selective and controversial as they are—show that the issue is more complex and has many more layers: we do not only need knowledge and awareness, but real and feasible alternatives – we need skills and competences to act differently and a structure in which to do so.


Here is one of the many crucial questions we need to raise: What is polite intercultural communication? How does it sound? What do you say? When do you say it? And another: What does inclusion look like? What do people say, what do they do, how do they organise projects, what is the content of such projects etc? And we should not just be satisfied with the easy answers of “you have to be open-minded, tolerant and listen and respect and include everyone”. Continue asking: How does tolerance look? What do you do when you listen? What is an open mind? Do you need to be open in all cases (also when that means accepting things you would otherwise not accept? What are you going to include them in and how? Remember that including is including into something; e.g. an organisation, decision-making etc. – and not just doing something for somebody.

Practicing intercultural communication | Photo by Josh Fassbind

Practicing intercultural communication | Photo by Josh

And: participants need to have time and space to practice such tools! They need to get a chance to practice listening. They need to try out tools for facilitating participatory based decision.making (not just be aware of including everyone), tools for facilitating the creation of shared visions and goals, giving voice to everyone. They need to know how to oppose to discrimination in an assertive way and set limits to unreasonable behaviour, where culture might otherwise be called upon as an excuse. They need communication tools useful for conflict management and lobbying. Remember that empowering is empowering people to do something e.g. make decisions, manage challenges and conflicts, facilitate meetings, create political changes, and not just being aware of problems of feeling better after participating in an activity.

The question is whether this can be done in simulated surroundings where you are given a role to enact and told to follow artificial rules from the start. I believe not! I believe that skills and competences should be developed in relation to real-life cases and real challenges. I believe that it is more fruitful to train participants to draw on particular skills and to use particular tools; e.g. listening skills, facilitation skills, coaching skills, teambuilding skills, not through raising awareness about their potentials, but by letting them try these skills and tools – listen to each others challenges, facilitate group discussion, coach each other on each other’s real youth work challenges, and giving each other constructive feedback on the performance.

Another way is to use appreciative inquiry – a method looking at past best practices and projecting them into the future. I will get back to this method in my next article…

This is the fifth published article of our critical series on intercultural learning by Lene Mogensen from In Dialogue.{{1}} Start with The Derdians if you have missed the beginning.

[[1]]It was originally written in 2006, and has lost none of its potency.[[1]]