What on earth is an interculturalist?

„Hi, what do you do?“ is such a typical question that I should really have a standard elevator-pitch type of answer ready. Truth is that I am having a hard time painting the colorful picture of activities that fill my entrepreneurial day and call themselves „work“. The typical answers I receive when I tell people that I am an interculturalist fall into three categories:

  1. Oh, you mean culture,…like arts, theater, opera and that sort of stuff? Do you work with museums?
  2. So you mean, like, telling people how to give a business card to Chinese? You know there was this cool video about French table manners on Youtube, I can send that to you if you want.
  3. Huh? (followed by a blank stare)

Okay, so given that interculturalist isn’t really a word that has made it into the dictionary, it’s understandable that people draw a blank. Furthermore, if you look at the vast amount of definitions of “CULTURE”, how surprising can it be that everyone I talk to has a different interpretation. Ultimately, one of my goals is to make people understand that our realities are subjective. And that fits in nicely with everyone having a different definition of what culture is to them, right?

So, when I say that our realities are subjective, what I mean is that none of us look at the world and their present situation in the exact same way. We judge our lives and the interactions and encounters in them based on previous events, our value system and beliefs that we were taught or have acquired along the way. Naturally, someone like me (who spent the first developmental years of her life in a post-communist Polish culture, and then with 19 moved on her own to Germany and happend to live in 7 different countires & cities, till now) will have a different view on certain behaviors or actions than someone who grew up and lived in one city their whole life. But that is not to say that we should judge these interpretations without being mindful of our own reality.

All subjective realities are the ultimate truth to those that hold them!

Where do I come in? Well, I believe that many people in our increasingly connected world don’t have such an easy time acknowledging and accepting these differences in perception. Usually, we do tend to judge others and their behaviors based on our own cultural values and personal beliefs. There is a whole lot of exciting neuroscience research going on that shows how many of those biases (i.e., preferring one thing over the other, or discriminating a group) are unconscious and REALLY hard to change.

However, when we work with people from different cultures in a diverse team, or we’ve immersed ourselves in a new culture by taking the leap to live there (may that be for a short while or forever), we need to be careful about our ethnocentric viewpoints. And ethnocentric means what I just explained: you judge another culture based on your own cultural values.

What is normal to us might not be normal to others. In order to succeed in a culturally diverse team, we need to drop that defensiveness of trying to protect our own group (or culture), and start to listen and engage with other’s perspective. As an interculturalist, I guide people to get to that point, and beyond (this is only the beginning to becoming fit across cultures!).

Weltweit erfolgreich

© Denys Rudyi: fotolia.com

So, no, „what I do“ is not exactly telling people how to give business cards the right way. By learning behavioral scripts, you won’t understand the underlying reasons of WHY this has been done a certain way for centuries. And it also doesn’t take into account that cultures are not stagnant. Cultures change and evolve with the people in it. It would be pretty hard for us interculturalists to constantly be updating our knowledge of every culture of the world, right? Plus the internet would have replaced our profession already if that was the case. So, instead I believe it’s easier to give you the tools and understanding to do that work yourself. And how I do that defines my actual title: trainer, coach, consultant.

I know, it is difficult. How often have I found myself in situations where I think ‘those Germans are weird’ (I am a Polish living in Germany since 2003) and vice versa (!) ‘Polish are weird’ (after so many years having adapted and enjoying some of German behavior patterns much more than Polish and feeling sometimes like a stranger there) ?!  A lot! But instead of being frustrated, or annoyed, or storing it in my folder of “weird behavior abroad”, I try to do this:

  1. Wait a second! What they just did is not normal for my standards! (=being aware)
  2. Hmm, I wonder why they do that? (=staying open-minded and inquisitive)
  3. Let’s ask someone I know why they behave like that. What purpose does it serve, or which tradition lies beneath? (=learn pro-actively about the new culture)
  4. Huh, interesting. They have a point, even though I don’t fully agree./That actually makes a lot of sense now. Maybe I should be more patient before I become annoyed with them the next time (= incorporate new learning into my daily life)

Get me right, this doesn’t mean that you need to include all new values or traditions into your life. In my opinion, it’s a little bit like grocery shopping in a foreign country. When you arrive, you sort of try a lot of new food. Then you figure out which ones you like and you keep buying them and make them part of your nutrition. Others you cast aside. The big difference is this: You’ve tried them! So you know what they taste like. If you’ve never tried them, how can you make a judgement? Same with different cultures! If you don’t know anything about the reasons behind their behavior, don’t cast them aside.



Have fun experiencing the cultural differences!


Source: adapted from Susan Salzbrenner, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-earth-interculturalist-susan-salzbrenner