The birth of SIETAR-ITALIA and the growth of the concept of intercultural communication in Italy

originally published for the SIETAR-Europa Newsletter

 

It has taken a while but, at last, the Italian branch of SIETAR-Europa is about to be born. The official event is scheduled for June 22ndand 23rd in Milan after a year of groundwork undertaken first by a Promoting Committee made up of Elio Vera, Patrick Boylan and David Trickey, and then by a pro-tem Executive composed of the same people plus Milton Bennett, Ida Castiglioni, Ariella Cuk, Marco Muzzana, and Roberto Ruffino. Elio Vera is acting President.
Italy is by no means new to SIETAR initiatives. The very first SIETAR-Europa congress (after an organizational meeting held in Haarlem, The Netherlands, in 1991) was held at Colle Val d'Elsa in 1992 with Roberto Ruffino as coordinator; and the 8th SIETAR-Europa congress, coordinated by Ariella Cuk with the help of Ruffino and Boylan, was held in Trieste in 1999. In addition, Italians have served for years on the SIETAR-Europa board as “representatives at-large” (currently Elio Vera is filling the role) and have participated actively in various on-line communities of intercultural specialists, such as dialogin.com.
But somehow the pieces have, up to now, never come together. One reason is that there have been too few Italian intercultural specialists to reach a critical mass.
This lack is partially due to the relatively small demand for intercultural trainers in Italy. Most Italian companies are small-to-medium family-run affairs; owners believe that the family atmosphere in their enterprises will guarantee sufficient cohesion among their multicultural workforce (itself a novelty for Italy, which had the smallest non-national workforce in Europe up to 5 years ago). As for the need to learn intercultural communication (IC) for business dealings abroad or when launching joint ventures, a few large Italian enterprises, such as ENI and FIAT, do have a long-standing tradition in IC training. But the overwhelming majority of Italian top managers continue to be convinced that the typically Italian (read: “friendly and likeable”) personality of their representatives is all that it takes to smooth over any relationship. Of course, it was not enough to smooth over relations between Alitalia and KLM: these two companies divorced after a brief marriage in 2000 because of “incompatibility” (and the subsequent happy marriage between KLM and Air France suggests that the lack of adaptability was not on the part of the Dutch). After that disaster, the more perceptive Italian managers began to take interest in IC training for their staff.
Thus, given that most members of any SIETAR are trainers and given that trainers have been scarce in Italy up to now, interest in founding a SIETAR-Italia has therefore been scarce as well.
This is not to forget the small but important categories of academics and social workers present in SIETARs everywhere. Both categories are quite plentiful in Italy but until late have been interested almost exclusively in intercultural practices for managing the influx of immigrants, not in studying intercultural communicative competence, the dynamics of asymmetrical communication or the other linguistic and discoursal aspects of IC. The first chair of Intercultural Education(Francesco Susi's at the University of Rome I, “La Sapienza”) was in fact created to provide schoolteachers with the concepts needed to handle multicultural classes. SIETARian Ida Castiglioni teaches IC at the University of Milan “Bicocca” in a post-graduate program that deals with the Management of social services. Interculturando, one of the larger cooperatives working in the social services sector, gets most of its contracts from local school boards and local government agencies to help teachers and administrators cope with the special needs of a multicultural population. Of course, linguistic and discoursal phenomena are also discussed during lessons and training sessions; nonetheless, the focus remains on describing cultures and on developing “right attitudes” towards diversity.
Thus the work of academics in Italy like Patrick Boylan – who teach IC essentially as interpreting and reproducing another speaker's language – is a novelty, although by no means a recent one. Boylan has taught “English for Intercultural Communication”, first at Rome I and then at Rome III, since 1980; his Italian students learn to accommodate in English to speakers from any culture, guessing their interlocutor's mind set from linguistic and behavioral clues. But although Rome III now has an official curriculum in Languages for “Operators in Intercultural Communication”, the program still lacks specific courses on IC as such, and thus remains basically a degree course in linguistics. A wider range of subjects can be found in the “languages and IC” programs at the universities of Chieti (Pescara), Genova, L'Aquila, Siena (Arezzo) and Torino. Last month SIETARian David Katan of the University of Lecce, who also teaches English as IC, launched an academic journal to promote applied IC research, with particular emphasis on language-related issues such as communicative competence (Cultus, www.cultusjournal.compublished in English).

In a word, the view of interculturality as primarily a phenomenon of communication (in which verbal/non-verbal language is used not only to represent something or to do something, but above all to be something in a certain way) has begun to circulate in Italian academia. Nonetheless, most university teaching and research done in Italy today treats “interculturality” simply as a question of how to organize multicultural societies faced with the challenges of large-scale immigration.
An analogous situation reigns among social workers in Italy. These professionals are generally called in to mediate between institutions (schools, hospitals, government agencies...) and the immigrant population when culture clashes occur, or seem likely to. Their IC expertise is therefore seen as an ability to grasp the causes of such clashes and propose quick fixes that work. This is its “fire brigade function”. Their IC expertise is also seen as having a “preventive function”, aimed at defusing culture clashes before they arise: this involves, for example, using consciousness-raising techniques to get subjects at risk to relativise such constructs as “normality” and “diversity” and to unmask the underlying phobias and power-ploys at work. Not always, however, do Italian social workers use their IC expertise to bring about volitional (and not merely cognitive) change inthemselves, as well as in the subjects they are working with. And even less frequently do they do so by acquiring and using the loaded languages of their culturally-diverse subjects – and then getting the latter to do the same among each other. (NOTE: In acquiring another person's way of saying and seeing things, onedisplaces oneself into her/his linguistic and cultural world, therebyproducing a structural change in the relationship and eventually a “third space” permitting entente.)

Thus the non-business-related talks and workshops at SIETAR-Europa congresses, especially those that deal with such abstract constructs as volitional change,displacement and third spaces, do not seem sufficiently relevant to many social workers in Italy.  Besides, in-depth training of the kind that these words suggest takes considerable time, which few schools or agencies are willing to finance. Many social workers attempt it anyway, as much as possible; but they still need a number of quick fixes and recipes to hand out, so that subjects get something tangible to take home. And since SIETAR-Europa congresses offer few talks and workshops dedicated specifically to “immigrant problems” and their solutions (Jonathan Levy and SIETAR-France's recent initiatives are a happy exception), attendance from the social sector in Italy has been low.
So in this quasi void, how did SIETAR-Italia manage to start up? What got it going?
Late in 2006 SIETAR-Europa board member George Simons convinced Elio Vera to do an exploratory study of interest in Italy; Vera enlisted Patrick Boylan to send out a general call and at the first preliminary meeting in Milan on April 4th, 2007, in the offices of Massimiliano Santoro's Prospecta, eleven people showed up. No one had expected that many. By the fourth preliminary meeting in Rome on December 7th and 8th in the offices of Bob Ratto's Byron Language Development, attendance had doubled.
To stimulate interest in creating an association dedicated to raising professional standards, and not simply for networking, Boylan launched the idea of joint research projects and David Trickey supplied the theme: “Building trust in intercultural contexts (with specific reference to Italy)”. Trickey also accepted to demonstrate, during the following preliminary meetings, some of the TCO methods he uses to awaken trainees to issues of trust in multicultural contexts. (Given how jealous some trainers are of their techniques, this was in itself a lesson in trust).
As for the first research project, Boylan elaborated a series of parameters to be used in describing “intercultural incidents” involving trust that the members of SIETAR-Italia had witnessed or had been involved in. These would constitute a data base for use in handling future similar circumstances. For the second project, Trickey, aided by Mariana Crestani, elaborated a questionnaire to get the opinion of trainers in Italy and throughout the world as to the importance, in building trust, of certain parameters in particular. Boylan created a simple web page (at www.sietar-italia.org) where anyone can participate in these two research projects or, in any case, see the results as they develop.
Meanwhile Vera collected copies of Statues from various SIETARs and appointed a committee (Goffredo Diana, Peter Anderson, Paolo Viel) to draft a version for SIETAR-Italia. The statues should be ready for voting at the forthcoming meeting on April 5th and 6th at the headquarters of Ruffino's Intercultura in Colle Val D'Elsa. Dues will be collected to finance the legal constitution of SIETAR-Italia and a temporary treasurer will be appointed at the meeting.
Vera also embarked on a one-man PR campaign throughout Italy and abroad, to “put SIETAR-Italia on the map”; he also maintained an intense correspondence with his contacts. He investigated notary costs, procured the web site, arranged for meetings and got minutes made afterwards.
Finally Vera promoted interest in the SIETAR-Global congress (of which he is also an organizer) in Granada next October. He nominated a “Granada committee” (Patrizia Amenta, Marianna-Amy Crestani, Daniela De Gregorio, Giovanni Intilla) to write a paper as a contribution from SIETAR-Italia, using the preliminary findings of the research projects on trust. The initial draft of the paper will be presented at the Milan meeting of SIETAR-Italia in June, as part of the “official launch” ceremonies.
If all goes well, then, June 22nd in Milan marks the date! The gestation of SIETAR-Italia will have taken 444 days (which, according to Wikipedia, is exactly the gestation period for baby giraffes!). A long wait, indeed, but at least by then the infant will be strong and healthy. A festive christening is being planned and Vera has invited all the SIETAR-Europa board members to it. Some, however, have a problem about coming. If the christening were for a human baby, they could always show up with a bottle warmer or rattle. But what does one bring a giraffe?