Interculturalism

October 19, 2006

Attended a meeting of an engineering association as a panel member yesterday. Presentation and long discussion about “intercultural communication”. The speaker used Hofstedte’s 4 cultural dimensions – criteria to label a specific culture – apparently this is quite an old result based on a survey in the late 1970s:

  1. Individualism vs. collectivism
  2. Distance to power
  3. Avoidance of insecurity
  4. Maleness vs. femaleness

Especially the last point would have required a deeper analysis. However, the whole presentation appealed to the audience – perhaps because our thinking and feeling about culture is such a messy affair … so much written about it so little really clear.

This could partly be because we presently observe the emergence of a new global culture. A culture that is intensely collectivist, with a small power distance (think of the width of the gap between an employee and a boss, or between a regular bloke and a person with authority), with a low degree of avoidance of insecurity (which implies lack of risk aversion – or willingness to take risks), and of an overall female nature (implying that the progress, although fast, happens in bits and pieces, in a measured rather than a rushed way, and that it is largely based on relationships, not on status and things).

Now, I do a fair amount of intercultural coaching already – in many cases simply because I have been exposed to a lot more foreign influences than my clients – and that shows: the examples I use, the stories I tell, even the instruments and the whole approach to coaching (which, in my case, is pragmatic and Anglo-Saxon). At the same time, I do attract more clients with a similar experience background: they often have lived abroad, or the time abroad has been an important, formative time. I suppose that this aligns us – we speak more of the same language, and the wind of empathy blows more easily.

My greatest insight from last night: in intercultural coaching, people tend to focus on the differences, since this is where they might make mistakes. Instead, it would be more useful to focus away from the differences, and on the commonalities between one’s own and the other culture. The common ground is always there – it only has to be found and explored. Trust will follow.

A more modern source: I have not read him myself, but I have heard good things about the writings of Fons Trompenaars, an ex-colleague from Shell.

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