Three Ways to Break Down Intercultural Myths

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.

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.

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.

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.

What’s next?

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.

Extending Our Empathy

Have you ever heard somebody across the room laughing and smiled yourself, without knowing what inspired the original outburst of laughter? Do you sometimes cry while watching an emotional scene in a movie? The ability to empathize, to share and understand the feelings of others, comes easily and naturally to many of us. It is an important trait to be practiced daily especially in a globalized world where we encounter people who are somehow different from us on a daily basis.

Together with its commitment to provide enriching intercultural experiences to its program participants, AFS works on implementing its Educational Goals in the four major areas: personal, interpersonal, intercultural and global. These goals help us achieve our mission, which is to work on establishing a peaceful and tolerant global society. Students who go on an exchange with AFS develop certain personal traits and skills which help them become global citizens. But on top of personal growth, during the exchange or afterwards, those touched by AFS programs also develop in the interpersonal realm. One of the important characteristics of this sphere is empathy.

Among major traits of a truly empathetic person is the ability to listen and be mindful of the needs of other people as well as the ability to use different perspectives in approaching problems and everyday situations. An empathetic person shows a deeper concern for and sensitivity to others and perceives and responds to the values, feelings, and realities of others. All of this leads to the ability to manage disagreements with others in an effective and respectful manner.

We invite you to watch the following video and learn more about empathy:

Embrace the other and take it to lunch

This week in the United States started by remembering the achievements and deeds of Martin Luther King, the great activist for civil rights and racial equality. Dr. King was also one of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureates for his non-violent methods. The speech that he delivered in 1963, now regarded as one of the most famous oratory pieces ever, “I have a dream” aimed to end racial segregation and inspire the acceptance of others.

We can also perceive “the other” as more than just belonging to another race – people get divided based on their cultural or social background, sexual orientation, age or political views. Student exchange programs, like the ones conducted by AFS, are designed to educate and increase the knowledge of everyone touched by them – the exchange students and host families themselves, but also the greater communities who get in touch with other cultures, such as schools, teachers or volunteers. This increased knowledge and sensitivity give rise to empathy and greater connections among different cultures, which help people accept those they previously considered as “the other” - as different and so of a potentially lesser value.

Have you thought about who that “other” is for you? Even if we don’t go to the extreme such as racial discrimination, we all have certain preconceptions about those who seem to be different and disagreeable to us. We share the following two videos with you as a source of reflection on what you can do today to reach out to those who represent “the other” for you:

Thandie Newton: Embracing otherness, embracing myself


Elizabeth Lesser: Take “the Other” to lunch


The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Outrospection” and Empathetic Thinking

Philosopher Roman Krznaric has coined the term “outrospection” to provide us with a new way to approach our relationships with others. Outrospection is a way to get to know oneself by developing relationships and empathetic thinking with others. Krznaric does not see empathy as a soft social concept used to connect with those who are dis-empowered, but rather as a discovery of oneself by “stepping outside ourselves and exploring the lives of other people and cultures”. In this way empathetic thinking is a pathway to expand your social influence, overcome stereotypes and barriers about those who are different and engage individuals in collective empathetic movements that can make change. Learn more about “outrospection” and empathetic thinking on Krznaric’s blog or by watching this RSA video in which his words are accompanied by drawings about this theory.

As you watch the video, you will hear about several ideas that are closely related to intercultural learning and the work that we do at AFS, such as overcoming stereotypes, affective and cognitive empathy, perspective-taking, worldview, beliefs, assumptions, attentive listening, two-way dialogues, etc.

“Highly empathetic people get beyond those labels by nurturing their curiosity about others. How can we might nurture our curiosity? How can we find inspiration?”