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Intercultural Competence

 
Intercultural Competence 
 
"Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong; they are conflicts between two rights."
Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel
 
With increasing globalization and the increased mobility of people around the world, cultural differences make their way more and more into the everyday life of many people.
 
However, many people are not properly prepared for this and as a result, projects fail where people of different cultures are not working well together, companies incur huge unforeseen costs due to failed assignments, the international development aid (besides other reasons) has burned incredible amounts of money and achieved very little, and many expatriats fail to adjust to new environments.  We have also observed that most difficulties that volunteers and interns face while being abroad can be attributed to cultural differences.
 
Intercultural Competence is too often restricted to superficial "rituals" such as greetings, eating etiquettes, clothing, etc. However, matters of Intercultural communication competency run much deeper - to the very mental programming of individuals, their core values and how those dictate their actions..
 

Why is intercultural understanding important?

 

For Volunteer Projects

 
A Case Study - Lisa, Volunteer in India
 
Lisa has just moved to India for her volunteering assignment with an NGO in Kerala. In her role as a volunteer, she reports to Uma, a middle-aged woman social worker who has been in the organisation since its inception. The NGO is run by Madhavan, an elderly gentleman in his sixties who is held in high regard and veneration among the employees of the NGO.
 
As a volunteer, Lisa's duty is to teach English to the underprivileged children, who are taken under the NGO's wings and given an education. Uma hands Lisa the curriculum on her first day on the job and explains to her how the children need to be taught, during what time and for what duration. This is Lisa's first time in a foreign country, outside of her home in London. She is excited and thrilled as she and her best friend, Benni has decided to go on this adventure together.
 
Lisa goes on her duty wholeheartedly, and sees that the children respond to her very well. They seem friendly and eager to learn and extremely curious about who she is and where she is from. Her colleagues seem very friendly too and invite her to join for lunches with them. She refuses during the first couple of days as she and Benni have plans to meet up for lunch and discuss the day so far; after all, they have just arrived and they need to look out for each other!
 
Through the first week, being a very earnest worker, Lisa realises that there are better ways of teaching the children, through which she might get better results. She tries to bring it up with Uma who seems very busy at the moment. Lisa decides to take it up with Madhavan who is at his office through the day. She greets Madhavan with the "namaste" that she has practised and proceeds to tell him her plan. Madhavan seems uninterested and brushes off her suggestions and asks her to talk to Uma. Through the conversation, she notices that Madhavan does not make eye contact with her and continues with his paperwork.
 
Perplexed by his reaction, Lisa proceeds to action out her plan to teach the children in a more "effective" manner. The following week, Uma calls Lisa into her office and seems very irate at her new teaching methods. She insists that Lisa should just follow instructions and not try to "be a hero". Now confused and a little upset, Lisa tries to talk to other colleagues who avoid her and seem to be talking behind her back. Meanwhile, the students seem difficult to control too, becoming increasingly unruly and unwilling to take instructions.
 
(Please note that this is a case that is created merely for the purpose of example.)
 
* What went wrong with Lisa's interactions with the locals?
* Why did Madhavan brush aside her inputs?
* Why was Uma upset by Lisa's initiative?
* Why did the students refuse to cooperate with her?
 
What in this case seems like an irredeemable situation is in fact, a mere cultural difference that 1) Lisa did not recognise and was not prepared for and 2) The locals did not appreciate.
 
These are common situations you may face when you travel to a culture that is very different from yours. What if there is a way that you can avoid these situations or better yet, understand these situations better when they occur so that you can take quick corrective action and thus, don't entirely jeopardise your volunteering stint?
 
This is why Intercultural Competence is important when you travel to a new country. What are the differences in your host country's attitudes to power, wealth, relationships, ambiguity, decisions related to future or basic desires or impulses, vis-a-vis your own? You may read up on greeting in the right way or eating with your hands or how to dress appropriately, but situations such as those mentioned in the case can throw you off guard and leave you perplexed and truly ruin your experience in a new culture.
 
Now let's look at what Lisa could have done better:
 
India is a country that values relationships that are beyond just immediate family and friends. In India, it is important for one to have a favourable relationship with colleagues, and those you meet on a regular basis. It was important for Lisa to acknowledge her colleagues by joining them for lunches right at the beginning, in order to earn their trust and friendship. This Collectivistic attitude of Indians can be confusing to most foreigners, as most in the west are programmed to look out only for their closest family and friends.
 
Lisa's interaction with Madhavan was a breach of hierarchy when you look at the Indian context of working (of course, this may change in the more urban parts of India and several corporates are trying to go past this norm). In typical Indian organizations, there is a definite hierarchy and the boss is very often considered a "godly" or "patriarchal" figure that those at the junior most level have almost no access to. Lisa should have taken her plans to Uma, whenever she found the time.
 
Uma, on the other hand has seen this initiative from Lisa as aggressive and lacking respect. Lisa was after all, her subordinate and should have consulted with her before taking decisions that questioned her authority and judgement. In India, employees or subordinates are expected to follow orders and not take the initiative to do things differently (This again, varies in urban and more corporate companies), whereas in most western countries, one takes ownership and initiative to achieve their task in the best possible manner.
 
The children, who are used to having a strict authoritative figure in front of the classroom (teachers in India are expected to be so), see that Lisa lacks authority and will not discipline them, and decide to misbehave. If Lisa had been aware of the hierarchy (or expectation for hierarchy in the classroom), she would have better handled the situation.
 
Her colleagues, who she did not make an effort to familiarise herself with, now talk behind her back about her "attitude" and her "boyfriend". People, especially in the rural parts of India, do not accept friendship between different sexes, as easily as those in the west. India being a restrained culture, boys and girls are expected not to mingle more than at an acceptable limit (thus, different entrances for men and women in public transportation, different sides of the classroom for seating, etc.). Lisa would have done well to introduce Benni to her colleagues or to wait till her colleagues knew her better before she overtly went for lunches with him.
 
Though this may seem like a drastic difference in culture and unacceptable to many, it is important to realise that in order to experience and truly enjoy a new cultural experience, one needs to look at different cultures with unprejudiced eyes and know that the reason why that culture fascinates you is because it is indeed different from your own! Getting culturally attuned with a professional trainer is thus very important to better understand these differences.

For Internships and Jobs Abroad

 
Case study - Alvin, an American intern in Japan
 
Alvin, 22, a student of marketing, from the US, is doing his 3 months internship in Tokyo at the Green Tea manufacturer "Edo-Maru". Besides green teas, the company also produces Green Tea Chocolate, for which they see potential for overseas sales. Alvin has learned basic Japanese before coming to Tokyo and he is also very proud of the fact that he has helped his friend in the US with marketing for a donut shop that is doing very well due to his exceptional marketing skills.
 
Edo-Maru's marketing team consists of 3 people that Alvin will work with, who are all in their 30s, - one man named Hiroyuki and two women named Miki and Saori - that he should support to market the Green Tea Chocolate abroad.
 
On his first day at the office in Tokyo, Alvin is given a long and detailed hand-over report which was written by the previous foreign intern and he is told that before he leaves, he should also write such a long and detailed hand-over report to the intern that would follow him. Alvin is surprised and thinks that the effort put into such a report is somewhat exaggerated and that he will need at least two weeks just to write it, a time he believes could be better spent in doing something more directly related to his marketing task. He is not accustomed to writing down things in a very detailed manner, as at his friend's donut shop, many things were just decided and done ad hoc. If something is not clear to him he prefers to simply ask his colleagues and his idea is to simply have a phone conversation with the following intern to explain to him or her what he did. In any case, he thinks that 3 months are more than enough to accomplish his task to boost sales of Edo Maru's Green Tea Chocolate abroad. He has already proven at the donut shop that he is the best when it comes to the marketing of sweets!
 
Saori asks Alvin to write a proposal and to do a presentation about his ideas on how to market the Green Tea Chocolate abroad. For reference, Saori also gives him a proposal that she wrote for another product. It is written in Japanese, but she briefly translates to him the contents. Again, Alvin is flabbergasted by the level of detail of the proposal, which contains a very long feasibility study, detailed descriptions of worst case scenarios with suggestions of how to solve them, and required insurances. He thinks this is unnecessary and if he has to write such thing, he cannot complete the task within his 3 month internship! Saori tells him that the deadline for his proposal is in 1 month, but before he starts writing it, he should outline his ideas to the 3 in his team so that Hiroyuki can discuss it with the Head of Marketing, who would then present it to the Sales Director. Alvin thinks that if so many people are involved in the concept, it can only get worse, but anyway, he is convinced that everyone will love his concept, because his ideas are always great and he has a proven track record!
 
At around 6pm Alvin thinks it's time to leave the office, as he wants to work out at the gym, but everyone else seems fully occupied with their work. He asks Hiroyuki when they will finish and Hiroyuki answers that he just got another email that he needs to sort out for the day. He can join them to have a beer and dinner when they finish today's tasks. Alvin never says no to a beer, so he decides to skip gym for a day. At 9pm Hiroyuki, Miki and Saori meet with 5 people from the company's other departments, including the sales director. They go to an Izakaya, a Japanese pub and order beer and a lot of food.
 
The bar has a very informal atmosphere and groups of "salarymen" ("Sararīman" - Japanese term for employed businessman) are loudly laughing. The sales director, who is 53 years old, is telling stories about how the company was when he started working there 30 years ago. The beer is brought and Alvin wants to serve himself, but Miki tells him she will serve him. Alvin realizes that nobody is serving himself or herself, but that others always do it for the people around them. He tells everyone that in America it is not like that. The group asks him whether he likes Japan and he answers that he likes some things about Japan such as Sushi, but that he doesn't like other things, particularly Japanese music, that he believes is not good. People seem not very happy about his comment. Miki tells the group that she has started participating in Yoga lessons at her Gym and that she really enjoys them. Alvin comments that he thinks that it is “nonsense to do Yoga at a gym where there is loud background noise and a lot of movement, because Yoga needs a tranquil and spiritual location”, and Miki seems personally attacked by his comment for a moment. Alvin doesn't understand this, because he thinks he was just talking about the best location for doing Yoga and not about Miki in particular. Anyway, everyone is still friendly to him and smiling. He also does not want to miss the opportunity and tells the sales director and everyone else proudly about the great success of the donuts shop in the US that he did the marketing for, and that everyone thought he did a great job! The sales director says that he is looking forward to seeing his contribution to the marketing task.
 
The sales director offers to pay the total bill for the whole group (around 20,000 Yen) but everyone else also offers to pay the total bill. In the end, the sales director agrees that everyone can contribute 1000 Yen, but Alvin doesn't have to, as he is only an intern.
 
During the following weeks, whenever something is not clear to him, Alvin asks Hiroyuki, Miki or Saori, even though the information might be found in the handover report. The three are always very patient with him and don't seem to bother, so he thinks it is no problem to ask them, and also to tell them how things are done in America in comparison to Japan. He has explained the outline of his concept to Hiroyuki, Miki and Saori, who, after some days, ask him to apply some changes. Alvin doesn't really like the requested changes and only includes some of them into the report. Also, he decides to reduce the feasibility study to one page to be able to finish the report on time. To enjoy Tokyo and do his gym workout, he usually leaves the office earlier than his colleagues, as they told him it is ok to do so.
 
A few days later, the internship agency that has arranged Alvin's internship wants to meet him and tells him that Edo-Maru are not happy with him and have asked them to find a solution.  
 
What went wrong? (Please also refer to Hofstede's Dimensions on the bottom of this page).
 
If Alvin had been culturally attuned to the Japanese way of working, he would have avoided some of the faux pas that he unwittingly committed.

The long, detailed handover report and what is expected in the concept proposal is a result of the extremely high “Uncertainty Avoidance” and “Pragmatism” that is characteristic of the Japanese culture.
 
Japan is one of the most uncertainty avoiding countries on earth. This is often attributed to the fact that Japan is constantly threatened by natural disasters from earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons to volcano eruptions. Under these circumstances Japanese learned to prepare themselves for any uncertain situation. This goes not only for the emergency plan and precautions for sudden natural disasters but also for every other aspects of society. Most Japanese, if they see a single cloud in the sky, won't leave their house without an umbrella. You could say that in Japan anything you do is prescribed for maximum predictability.

Japan is also one of the most Pragmatism oriented societies. Japanese see their life as a very short moment in a long history of mankind. Notion of the one and only almighty God is not familiar to Japanese, but people live their lives guided by virtues and practical good examples.
 
As a high Uncertainty Avoidance culture, the Japanese tend to be very rigid about rules and processes. They tend to be inflexible and do not make impromptu changes to an otherwise followed protocol. The Japanese Pragmatic approach tends to make them plan for the future – the report ensures that future interns can be kept informed to avoid that the intern has to ask too many questions to his superior. In Japan, people focus all the time in work and everyday life to reduce the amount of “trouble“ to others. This is an important virtue and if you don't follow it, your behavior is considered "selfish" (wagamama). The importance of this virtue can also be seen in the fact that Japanese seem to constantly apologize for every little thing, that doesn't seem worth to apologize for by someone from a less pragmatic culture.
 
Another dimension that comes into play here is the high “Masculinity” of Japanese culture. There is a great need to achieve and succeed, emphasis is on living to work.
 
Scoring high on these three dimensions makes the Japanese culture extremely unique and fascinating. It makes them high achievers, efficient and long term oriented. The United States scores significantly lower on two of these dimensions and considerably lower in Masculinity, and hence, Alvin’s inability to adjust.
 
Japan is also extremely “Collectivistic” when compared to the United States, which is the most “Individualistic” society in the world. Group harmony is more important than individual opinion in Japan, particularly in the bar atmosphere, which is aimed at bonding with the group, and when the topic is not "important". Two Japanese terms come into play here: "Honne" (True feelings and wishes) and "Tatemae" (Facade). “Honne” may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one's position and circumstances, and is often kept hidden, except with one's closest friends. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one's position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one's honne. These terms are equivalent to the common concept of public and private face which is a part of all Collectivistic cultures.
 
In Collectivistic cultures, “speaking one’s mind” is not appropriate. One’s communication style is adjusted in a way that does not offend the other. This is opposite in Individualistic cultures, where it is common to express one’s opinion openly – which is what Alvin did with criticising Japanese music and the fact that his colleague did Yoga in a gym.
 
Being a Masculine culture, staff stay long hours at the office to show everyone "that they have done their best" for the interest of the team. If someone does not deliver the work as expected AND seems to not have "done his/her best", it is considered very negatively. Alvin leaving early made his team feel like he was not part of their “group”. It is a Collectivistic trait that colleagues stay to show solidarity with everyone working hard. Japanese strongly identify with their team (Collectivism) and if someone fails within the group while having tried his/her best, he/she can still count on support from the group. In Japan, there is traditionally little competition within the team, but the competition is against other teams (Masculinity). Even at school, there are group competitions like “Red team vs. White team“. A comparatively higher “Power Distance” culture than the United States, the sales director is like a father to the team, and as he has a higher income, it is normal that he pays a higher share of the bill.
 
Japanese people don't like people who have "a big mouth" ("Ookuchi tataku"), overselling their skills. Japanese rather "undersell" their skills and experiences. “Big mouth“ is commonly attributed by Japanese to Westerners, particularly Americans. Applicants for internships in Japan should be advised not to exaggerate their skills in their CV. It is more appreciated if they can do a better work than what is expected from them than the other way round. This is because of Japan's high Uncertainty Avoidance – in such cultures, the admiration goes to the expert, not the talker. There is also the factor of Masculinity (achievement and being the best – not just saying you are) and Collectivism (team player) here.  
 
The Japanese team members will not directly criticize the intern (direct criticism does not exist in Japan – that is why they do not like TV programs such as “American Idol“). This is a Collectivistic trait. The signs of criticism are very subtle, so that Alvin doesn’t notice them.

For Business

This content will be available soon.
 

What does World Unite! offer in the field of intercultural training?

 
World Unite! cooperates with ITIM International, the training and consulting firm affiliated with the Hofstede Center for cultural studies, Helsinki.
 
 1. Hofstede Culture Compass
 
This service will be available soon
 
2. Intercultural Training Module for Groups
 
  • Beijing (China) - Living in China, Working with Chinese, Doing Business in China
  • Bangalore (India) - Living in India, Working with Indians, Doing Business in India
  • Cochabamba (Bolivia) - Living in Bolivia/Latin America, Working with Bolivians/Latin Americans, Doing Business in Bolivia/Latin America
 
Find details about these modules.
 
The Intercultural Competence Training module can be combined with Study Tours or Volunteering/Internship Assignments for groups. We customise this module according to the interest of the group.
 
3. Individual Coaching over Skype
 
We can organize training over Skype about a country of your interest with our in-house Intercultural Coach, Ms. Divya Susan.
 
 
Divya Susan 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Hofstede's 6D-Model of Culture

 
Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede defines culture as the collective programming of the human mind, which distinguishes one group of people from another. This programming influences patterns of thinking which are reflected in the meaning people attach to various aspects of life and which become crystallized in the institutions of a society.
 
Hofstede and his colleagues distinguish six main differentiators or dimensions in cultural differences. These 6 dimensions describe broadly, the way people related to power, interpersonal relationships, their core values, how they related to uncertainty, their outlook to the future and their response to natural impulses. The dimensions were discovered in Hofstede's research, carried out from 1967-1979, which surveyed 100,000 employees of IBM in 70 countries, and later refined by Hofstede and other researchers. Country scores from 0 to 100 were calculated for each country for each dimension. The dimensions and country scores were revalidated by several other studies, including 6 "large" studies carried out with other subgroups of society of the respective countries, coming to similar results.
 
Hofstede's dimensions make it possible to study a complex subject as culture, in a quantitative, definitive manner. However, please note that all statements related to culture only give a central tendency in a culture. For example, the general statement “A German is more punctual than an Indian” is not true, as there are surely many Indians who are more punctual than many Germans. However, comparing average country scores, it is certainly right to imply that “A typical German is more punctual than a typical Indian.” Culture in the 6 Dimension model only exists in comparison. A value for a particular dimension for a country would not be of any meaning, unless compared with the corresponding value for another country. But remember - when comparing cultures, there is no "better" or "worse" and no "right" and "wrong" - only different.
 
Take our Culture Compass survey to compare your scores with a country of your interest! Our detailed report will help you understand your mental programming better, in comparison with your host country, so that you can predict possible challenges and misunderstandings in your dealings with them depending on the purpose of your stay.
 
The 6 dimensions in detail:
 
Power distance index (PDI)
"Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally." Individuals in a society that exhibits a high degree of power distance accept hierarchies in which everyone has a place without the need for justification. Societies with low power distance seek to have equal distribution of power. Cultures that endorse low power distance expect and accept power relations that are more consultative or democratic.
 
Individualism (IDV) vs. collectivism
"The degree to which individuals are integrated into groups". In individualistic societies, the stress is put on personal achievements and individual rights. People are expected to stand up for themselves and their immediate family, and to choose their own affiliations. In contrast, in collectivist societies, individuals act predominantly as members of a lifelong and cohesive group which is used as a protection in exchange for unquestioning loyalty (note: "The word collectivism in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state").
 
Masculinity (MAS), vs. femininity
"The distribution of emotional roles between the genders". Masculine cultures' values are competitiveness, assertiveness, materialism, ambition and power, whereas feminine cultures place more value on relationships and quality of life. In masculine cultures, the differences between gender roles are more dramatic and less fluid than in feminine cultures where men and women have the same values emphasizing modesty and caring.
 
Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI)
"A society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity". It reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. People in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to be more emotional. They try to minimize the occurrence of unknown and unusual circumstances and to proceed with careful changes step by step planning and by implementing rules, laws and regulations. In contrast, low uncertainty avoidance cultures accept and feel comfortable in unstructured situations or changeable environments and try to have as few rules as possible. People in these cultures tend to be more pragmatic, they are more tolerant of change.
 
Pragmatism
This dimension describes how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future, and societies prioritise these two existential goals differently. Normative societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.
 
Indulgence versus restraint (IVR)
The extent to which members of a society try to control their desires and impulses. Whereas indulgent societies have a tendency to allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun, restrained societies have a conviction that such gratification needs to be curbed and regulated by strict norms.

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