Understanding yourself better with intercultural learning

Intercultural Learning (ICL) helps us understand similarities and differences between cultures, and why people sometimes behave differently from us. At AFS, we believe that this understanding helps us build better intercultural friendships, thus resisting conflicts and taking us a step closer towards world peace. However, is intercultural learning only about moving towards the noble cause of world peace? Definitely not. It is also about self-development. This is the reason why one of the categories in AFS Educational Goals pyramid is “Personal values & skills”. Not only that, it is the base of the pyramid. Without developing personally, you cannot develop interpersonal, cultural and global skills.

Intercultural learning helps you better understand your own culture and your intercultural effectiveness.

There are various frameworks that help you understand your culture better. One of the most popular among them is given by Geert Hofstede, an influential Dutch organizational psychologist, who developed a theory to explain why people from different national cultures seem to behave and think differently from each other. He condensed his theory into six cultural dimensions – Power Distance Index (PDI), Individualism vs Collectivism (IDV), Masculinity vs Femininity (MAS), Uncertainty Avoidance Indicator (UAI), Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Normative Orientation (LTO), Indulgence vs Restraint (IND). These dimensions have any value between 0-100 on a continuum and help us understand “generally” where a national culture lies on these dimensions. For example, a culture with an individualism vs. collectivism score of 70 will be highly individualistic and members of this cultural group will tend to take decisions based more on their individual desires rather than a group’s consensus. A culture with an individualism vs. collectivism score of 30 would be the opposite. However, these dimensions are generalizations and not true for every person in that cultural group. Nevertheless, these dimensions are very useful for people to understand their tendency of behavior and the reason behind it. It also helps people understand if they are more of a typical member of the cultural group or an outlier. These dimensions are very useful in putting yourself into a culture’s perspective. There are assessments available based on these dimensions to help understand where you stand on these dimensions.

Similar to Hofstede’s dimensions, there are seven dimensions of culture given by management consultants Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.

It is interesting that ICL does not only give you an idea of your cultural dimensions but also your communication and conflict styles. Edward T. Hall, the author of The Silent Language, talks about how context affects the way we communicate and how much we take from our context is affected by our culture. He also talks about how our use of time and space is also affected by the culture we live in.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) given by researchers Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann is another interesting framework that helps us understand our conflict styles better.

Understanding these dimensions and styles helps us first be aware of our ways of behaving and reacting and then manage them appropriately in different situations and settings to get the best out of them.

The understanding of intercultural effectiveness can also be attained through various available frameworks. One of the most popular is the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) created by Milton J. Bennett as a framework to explain the reactions of people as they engage with cultural differences. Interestingly, Bennett observed that individuals deal with cultural differences in certain predictable ways, which can be divided into six developmental stages which build on the previous ones. The stages are Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance, Adaptation and Integration. So, the later stage you fall into, the more interculturally sensitive you are. Bennett also defines tasks that can help a person move up the stages.

Another framework that helps understand intercultural effectiveness is the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES) by the Kozai Group. The IES focuses on three dimensions of intercultural effectiveness – Continuous Learning, Interpersonal Engagement and Hardiness. These three dimensions are combined to generate an Overall Intercultural Effectiveness Score. This report includes analyses of the dimension scores, explanations of scoring profiles, and personal development planning for intercultural effectiveness.

These frameworks provide a good measure to know how far we still have to go to become truly interculturally effective.

All the above discussed frameworks and scales help us assess who we are in our cultures and how we fare in an intercultural world. This self-awareness helps us effectively reflect on our behaviors and actions during interpersonal and intercultural encounters and then be prepared to manage them better.

This post was written by , a board member of AFS India and the Qualified Trainer for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program.