Resoconto della conferenza del 1° seminario 2012

Saturday, 28th January 2012, Milan – George Simons

by Maura Di Mauro*

On January 28th, 2012, at the Spazio Sirin, in Milano, the first Sietar Italia seminar for this year took place, along with the yearly General Assembly. For this recurring annual event, that for Sietar Italia represents a moment in which to rethink its activities and not just a ritual, George Simons was invited to talk about “The Future of Interculture”**.

George Simons is, of course, one of leading figures in SIETAR Europa and a globally recognized expert on intercultural themes. He holds a doctorate from Claremont Graduate School in Psychology, has authored eight instruments in the Cultural Detective® series and has created or edited over fifty games in the Diversophy® series of training activities. George has coauthored “The Questions of Diversity”, the “Cultural Diversity Fieldbook” and the “Cultural Diversity Sourcebook”; his online collaboration has resulted in books on “EuroDiversity”, “Global Competence”, “Working Together”, “Putting Diversity to Work”, “Men & Women”, “Partners at Work” and “Transcultural Leadership”. He has been a member of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR) for over 20 years and serves as a member of its French and European governing boards.

Unfortunately, because of a train strike with unexpected last-minute complications, George Simons and his assistant, Katrin Volt, were unable to get to Milan for the January 28th event. But every cloud has a silver lining: the incident gave us the opportunity to organize on the spot a virtual conference call with George. Using Skype, a laptop with a webcam, and the slides that George emailed us a few minutes before his talk was to begin, and thanks to the well-known Simons’ ability to conduct virtual training sessions, we were able to offer the attendees of our annual event a presentation almost as good as one delivered in person. So George’s lecture on “The Future of Interculture” was in itself a testimony of where our field is heading: it’s going digital.

In order to heighten out awareness of trends in intercultural training and mediation, before talking about the future Simons conducted us through our distant past: Where does out field come from? Who were the first interculturalists? What goals did they have? Our history can tell us a lot about how diversity and intercultural issues have been perceived and managed.

Among those who, in their time, faced the task of managing diversity, Simons mentioned (citing examples from Amy Chua’s study, Day of Empire): Xerxes, the Emperor of Persia; Herodotus, the Greek historian; Empress Theodora, the feminist spouse of Justinian; Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb) who came from Tikrit (Irak) to became Sultan of Egypt; Frederick II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and “Stupor Mundi”; Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty in South Asia; Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary to India and Japan; Maria Teresa, Empress of Austria. In her book Chua shows, in fact, how the success of these empire builders and missionaries depended on their tolerance of minorities – a message that we interculturalists must convey to those we work with. Simons also reminded us of the Jesuits’ extraordinary ability to adapt to and participate in the cultures they visited.

The development of intercultural competence as a field of study and as a professional activity is, however, quite recent and may be dated from the 1960s. Indeed, from the second half of the 1950s, with the increase in cultural diversity in organizations and commerce (due to globalization) and in once-demographically-static societies (due to migration, relocation), the need for intercultural competence and synergy has become more evident. It is in these areas that most of us interculturalists, whether researchers and/or practitioners, are called upon to make our contribution.

During the period from 1970 to 90, thanks to the pioneering work of Hall, Hofstede and others, a modern framework was laid in the fields of the intercultural research and practice. As interculturalists we are indebted to the Giants in the past, indeed they allowed us to stand on their shoulders and see further than they could.
From the 1990s we can say that a different frameworks have been proposed to take into account the ever more complex issues of diversity, mobility, and globalization. In fact, these new phenomena require moving from the study of cultural values and orientation (as practiced by the “old guard”), to an ever more situational inquiry and focus, that better takes into account interpersonal and intercultural dynamics, the dynamics of hybridity and the management of glocality .

According to Simons, our different approaches as interculturalists are not only generational, but also due to the differences in the academic studies and professional activity that constitutes our background and to which we remain attached. One might say that the intercultural landscape is dotted with a large number of tribes, each living in their separate niche, mostly frequenting their own kind, while at the same time hunting and gathering from the same fields of intercultural discourse, both theoretical and practical, when addressing intercultural issues from their peculiar perspective. This heterogenity is both very enriching and very confusing.

Within our discipline, however, there prevails an overall Western, post-Enlightenment discourse, grounded in rationalism and empiricism, and in the scientific methodologies we use in our research and practice as diversity specialists, intercultural communicators, intercultural negotiators, transcultural leaders, management researchers, cultural intelligence evaluators, cultural coaches, cultural preservationists, cross-cultural marketers, ecoculturalists, cultural anthropologists, cultural historians, cultural linguists, cultural psychologists, intercultural psychologists, missionaries, and the list goes on and on.

The value dimensions of Hofstede and others are pretty much part of the essentialist view of culture which is rapidly losing ground in the face of the hybridity and contextual demands of the globalized world. Furthermore the essentialist view clashes with the modern need to decolonize culturally, not only politically, and to call into question the Procrustean Western intellectual models imposed on the rest of the world’s cultural experience.

For the above reasons, the future of intercultural competence lies in creating new models and tools based on the reorientation of values – values being the expression of the perceptions and ideals of the people we are attempting to relate to (rather than abstract assessments of their behavior on our part using ready-made schemata such as Hofstede’s dimensions).

Western rationalism, with its self-proclaimed intellectual and moral superiority, has created a mindset that tends to bleach cultures. From Procrustes to Occam’s Razor we have developed a fine sense of cutting off what doesn’t fit our image of an object. This is true even when we attempt to deal with intercultural understanding.
Which leads us, Simons went on, to the constructionist view of apprehending culture: “The collective memory is systematically unfaithful to the past in order to satisfy the needs of the present”, as R.A. Peterson said; in other words, we attempt to address the present by reconstructing the past as if it always existed in the way we now cast it.
And indeed, Simons continued, cultural identity is a self-made reality or, we might say, an illusion: authenticity and identity have no existence in themselves or in us, but exist only by virtue of acts of identification that we ourselves produce.
Even decolonization is a western mental construct, characterized by enlightenment, scientific method, empiricism, moral superiority, consumerism, the market economy and, of course, our civilizing imperative (by decolonizing we show ourselves to be truly civil).

Globalization, by making models universally accessible, has gone so far as to market diseases around the world – for example, anorexia, post-traumatic stress disease, schizophrenia, depression which, in our interconnected world, now exist in cultures that never had them before – not because they are contagious (they are not) but because local populations have acquired a new way of viewing “health”. Not only, but globalization leads us to identify more readily our urcultures: what underlies gender beyond all the single cultural expressions of gender, and the same with generation, science, religion, economy, marketing, etc. Urcultures go deeper than any single, clearly defined culture, and are the root of our social behavior.

But what is culture? Citing an anonymous humorist, Simons responded: “Hard to say, but of course I know it exists. How else could I explain the behavior of those I find incomprehensible?” When we talk about the influence of culture on a single person, we are attempting to describe a unique situation, a specific intersection of the matrices of a whole, contextualized, intercultural (and pluricultural) relationship, not a general scheme.

According to the Glocal Paradox, today we have to be able to function at two levels at the same time: local and glocal. The local works on us holistically, almost invisibly; the groups that we belong to, by attribution (and acceptation) or election (and ratification), determine “naturally” our role and place, obligations and duties, group loyalty, negotiable rules, personal relations and networking, as well as the hierarchy to respect. While the global level works on us by means of consciously stipulated social contracts: we construct our global identity through achievements, universal rules, well-defined functions, criteria of efficiency, even while remaining anonymous (as in much collaborative activity on the Internet); though this global identity we can seek autonomy, equality, universal rights, and further widely-held interests.

Simons then touched on the difficulties of dealing with cultural diversity and developing intercultural competence. How do we define the latter? Intercultural competence is a combination of (1.) the knowledge and the awareness of oneself as a cultural being (i.e., as a locus of core existential values expressed in attitudes, behavior and patterns of communication); (2.) similar knowledge and awareness of the other; (3.) the knowledge of how culture is constructed and deconstructed; (4.) the willingness, cognitive-emotional fitness, and technical ability to identify and to respond creatively to the cultural challenges and conflicts that arise, in ways that both respect and engage the other; (5.) the ability to create safe spaces in which to do this.

Authentic cultural encounters therefore challenge – and often clash with – the deepest aspects of our identity; this has led one intercultural theorist (Beneke) to define intercultural competence as “the ability to cope with one’s own cultural background in interaction with others.” Not a comfortable task, since changes – in this case, changes in our cherished perceptions and beliefs – rarely occur without suffering. Thus the overused metaphor of culture as an onion to be pealed away leaf after leaf is true to the extent that, in doing so, we inevitably shed a tear or two.

What, then, is the future of intercultural studies and practice? (1.) To empower people to participate in the construction of new worlds and new interactional possibilities, not simply to understand diversity, tolerate it and manage to work with it (the goal of much intercultural training today); (2.) to support people in the often painful process of change they embark upon when dealing with other cultures, helping them give voice to their emotions and contain their negative reactions in coping with diversity and thus in coping with their own culture. This kind of support will require a person-oriented and one-on-one training approach. To what use will we put, in the future, the tools of intercultural analysis and intervention we have developed so far? The value of most tools used for profiling and analysis will lie in the discussion phase of the empowerment process; they will provide the vocabulary to enable the people we work with to exchange their stories.

This was George Simons’ talk: stimuli, questions, reflections, rather than rules and certainties. Plus the intention to encourage us to establish new interconnections – virtual as well as face-to-face – in order to create new exchanges, new spaces, and a new culture of intercultural research and practice.


Click to download George Simons’s presentation



* Maura Di Mauro is an intercultural trainer, consultant and coach. Special thanks to Patrick Boylan, who has carefully read and correct the English version of this article.
** Last year, for the same event in Milan, Sietar Italia invited Milton Bennet to give the keynote presentation. Bennett discussed “What all interculturalists need to know: they are not cross-cultural psychologists, anthropologists, internationalists. A constructivist approach to interculturalism”.