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  • Author Jim Morris

Intercultural sensitivity (Friendly vegetables by Jim Morris - part 1)

The polite Englishman, living in the Netherlands, wanting to end his written correspondence as the Dutch do by writing “met vriendelijke groeten” (which means “with friendly greetings”) unwittingly added one letter, ending his written correspondence “met vriendelijke groenten” which translates as “with friendly vegetables”. Luckily one of the recipients of this greeting alerted the Englishman to his mistake. 

Even if you have the best intentions to understand another culture, things can still get as mixed up as a plate of mixed vegetables. Welcome to this healthy and colorful book on intercultural communication.

Culture is something we all have and all experience. In this book we will outline some of the key areas of what culture is and how we arrive at our own opinions. What colors our judgement? Moreover, rather than introducing the dos and don’ts of different cultures we promote the development of four key competencies essential to effective communication across cultures. These can be assessed with the Intercultural Readiness Check.

The Intercultural Readiness Check 

The Intercultural Readiness Check (IRC) is a valid and reliable intercultural self-assessment tool. The (on-line) tool assesses the following four competences:

  1. Intercultural sensitivity Perception of different communication styles and interest in cultural norms and values
  2. Intercultural communication Flexibility in communicating with one or more individuals from another culture   
  3. Building commitment Ability to stimulate co-operation between people, to take the lead while keeping others on board, and to develop an effective network of relationships in a diverse cultural environment
  4. Managing uncertainty Ability to manage greater uncertainty of intercultural situations

This book may not make you a cultural chef de cuisine, but it will give you important insights on how to deal more effectively and perhaps creatively with intercultural situations.

These four competencies form the menu that will lead you through this book

Bon appétit!!

Before we continue, what is culture?

Culture comes from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate”. When the concept first emerged in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, it connoted a process of cultivation or improvement, as in agriculture or horticulture.

In the nineteenth century, it came to refer first to the betterment or refinement of the individual, especially through education, and then to the fulfillment of national aspirations or ideas. Culture is instilled in us at an early age. “A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it.” Our own culture is like water to the fish. It sustains us. We live and breathe through it.” (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997)

Hofstede defined culture as “The collective programming of the mind” whilst Adler concludes that “Culture consists of a shared, commonly held body of general beliefs and values, which define the “shoulds” and “oughts” of life for those who hold them.”

Culture can cut across national boundaries, as is the case with Jewish people. Cultures can also exist within nations, as is the case with Friesian communities in the Netherlands, and the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures in Malaysia.

Tip from Carl the Carrot: Hi, I’m Carl the Cultural Carrot. As you progress through this book you will find me cropping up in several articles to provide a golden tip on understanding culture. Useful bite size pieces of information which I hope you will find valuable.

The different layers of culture

The first “friendly vegetable” that we want to introduce you to is the onion. Culture like an onion has different layers, ranging from inner- core basic assumptions and values through outer-core attitudes, beliefs and social conventions to surface-level behavioral manifestations.

When we arrive in a new country we can look around at the architecture, the way people dress, the language they speak, and the food they eat. These are all visible signs of a culture: things which we can copy and areas where, if we do make a mistake, we will often be forgiven.

One layer deeper and yet often still visible to us consists of systems and institutions in the culture. Deeper layers reveal beliefs, attitudes and conventions which may still be accessible for you to learn and understand.

Finally, in the heart of culture (the innermost layer) lie the core values. Make a mistake here and it is unlikely that you will be forgiven. You can live in a country and learn to speak the language, dress in the same clothes and understand its rituals and ways of showing each other respect but you will always retain your core values and struggle to understand, let alone share, the core values of the other culture. These values are not visible to others or yourself. These are about how you perceive concepts such as right and wrong, good and evil, even what is beautiful and what is ugly.

Tip from Carl the Carrot: Understand that your core values could be very different to those of another culture. If you are not open to explore another culture there could be more tears than laughter which results in what is often called “culture shock”.

“Try before you D.I.E.”

This chapter is about perception. It explains how we all perceive the world around us differently due to a number of factors which will be explained later. It is these perceptions that shape and colour our individual thinking and judging. What we see is often just the tip of the iceberg. In both society and within organisations, it is important to understand the pitfalls of perception when it comes to culture.

As we saw with the “cultural onion”, there are elements of culture which are readily accessible and visible to others. However, culture is something which is instilled in you at a young age, creating core values which are often invisible to an onlooker.

Intercultural sensitivity teaches us in each intercultural situation to refrain from making fast judgement and first try to describe what one sees, check one’s interpretation with others. We link this to an exercise called “D.I.E.” which stands for Description, Interpretation and Evaluation.

Understanding the danger of judging and interpreting cultures is vital. We should refrain from drawing conclusions about someone before first checking our assumptions.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What did I actually see?
  • What was the other person’s intention behind what they did or said?

Tip from Carl the Carrot: Avoid the pitfall of jumping to conclusions. Being aware of stereotypes will mean you will not D.I.E. but survive your cultural experiences.

Personality, culture, human nature

Vincent van Gogh painted a famous picture called “The Potato Eaters”. Van Gogh said that he wanted to depict Dutch peasants as they really were: to convey the idea that they ate the potatoes with the same hands that they used to pick the potatoes and work the land.

Examples like van Gogh’s painting can begin to give people a clichéd and general idea or assumption of what a people or culture is like. Are the Dutch a bunch of potato eaters? Probably as much as the French must eat frogs legs or the Russians only drink vodka. We often follow our pre-conceived ideas about a culture which can lead to miscommunication and then mistrust.

It is sometimes too easy to think in stereotypes. “Well of course he would react like that he is an Italian after all!” Culture is just one part of how we should look at people. Culture influences people’s behavior, along with other factors such as personality and human nature. The following graph represents these three levels of uniqueness in human mental programming:


Tip from Carl the Carrot: Learn to look at the person and not make judgement based on their nationality.

“I Yam What I Yam”

Expanding on the three levels of uniqueness in human mental programming, when Popeye utters this famous catchphrase he is of course not talking about the vegetable yam, but affirming that he is who he is: a reference perhaps to his culture and a request for understanding.

Popeye is therefore saying “Don’t ask me to change but accept that I may be different from you.” Popeye is surrounded by mixed vegetables. His girlfriend is called Olive, he has an adopted baby called Sweet Pea, and he seeks solace and strength from spinach. Popeye is who he is, but like the rest of us one can argue that we are in one sense all multicultural. To help understand this, think about yourself and what elements contribute to defining who you are. Fa-mily, gender, ethnicity and religion can play a role in defining who we are, and can mean that within the same culture people can be very different.

Different people from different backgrounds from the same culture may represent cultural variations. These people might use language slightly differently and mean different things by it. This can be referred to as a subculture or counterculture if they show a strong opposition to the dominant culture.

Looking at the diagram below you can see some of the elements that make up our multicultural being.

Tip from Carl the Carrot: People are who they are. They are not all like you…even people from your own culture. Their otherness is comprised of many different elements.

This is chapter 1 from the book With friendly vegetables by Jim Morris. Read the next chapter here or download the book here.  


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