What are the myths and sayings we often hear about the diversity of the world and intercultural competence? How much do they help us learn about and navigate the interconnected world around us, and how much do they keep us from developing intercultural competencies? Janet Bennett, the famous interculturalist, explored these topics in a highly engaging and inspiring talk at the AFS Academy, a cross-disciplinary learning and training event which helps AFS volunteers and staff develop personally and professionally and be better able to work towards our mission of creating a more just and peaceful world.
This talk has given us food for thought by exploring three frequently used myths, and offering remedies for them. These myths fall into the category of minimizing cultural difference and incorrectly assuming too much similarity among people, while holding back our explorative spirits.
SUSPENDING JUDGEMENT IS KEY
In a desire to focus on similarities all of humanity shares and to avoid having to interact with difference, people often say, “It’s a small world after all”. However, it is precisely the diversity of the world that we need to engage with. Instead of assuming that our way is “normal” and assigning negative labels to anything outside of it, showing cultural humility and suspending judgement when faced with difference is the way to go.
FOCUS ON EMPATHY
The Golden Rule tells us to treat others the way we would like to be treated. This sounds pretty straightforward, right? The assumption is that we are all humans, so the way I do things must be the right way for you too. This rule actually does not apply in intercultural contexts, simply because it lacks the understanding and compassion for difference. Instead of assuming that your way is the best and only way to treat others, take a step back and be empathic to the other person. A very useful tool for empathy is the Platinum Rule: treat others the way THEY want to be treated.
NEVER STOP BEING CURIOUS
For true interculturalists, curiosity did not really kill the cat – actually, curiosity is a key means for enhancing intercultural competence. Being curious means not only asking a lot of questions about the world around you, but actually moving beyond that and fostering a sense of wonder and exploration for the unknown.
If today’s world is rife with safety concerns, inequalities and environmental degradation, we asked Janet for advice on where to go from here. The advice is clear: global competence has such long-term effects, especially for AFSers who participate in our intercultural exchange programs, that the work of interculturalists is more important than ever. While there is a crisis of intercultural cooperation today and the people seem to be less willing to work together and interact, intercultural competence remains and will be most needed in the next 5 or 10 years.
Janet Bennett is one of the most important players in the intercultural field – the director of the Intercultural Communication Institute and the person behind its famous Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC), an engaging and inclusive learning environment for hundreds of people working in education, training, business and consulting within the field of intercultural communication. Among other contributions to the field, Janet has edited the SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, the ultimate resource on cultural competence, cultural sensitivity, transcultural skills, diversity competence and much more.