Building bridges between cultures
These days, we encounter different cultures in every profession, whether kindergarten teacher, university lecturer, business manager or nurse. In order to work effectively with people from different cultures, intercultural competence is required. Christa Uehlinger is a cultural mentor and a lecturer on the subject of intercultural communication at the FHS St.Gallen, where she teaches students how to build bridges between different cultures. In this interview, she talks about what intercultural competence is and how students can acquire it. And she reveals the best way to behave in a foreign environment.
Christa, you have just spent four months in the USA. You’ll already be familiar with the country and its people from your many visits. So as an intercultural coach, there’s probably nothing else that can surprise you, is there?
Christa Uehlinger: Actually, there is. I again learned some new things this time round. Intercultural competence isn’t just something you can learn in a webinar. It’s a lifelong learning process that involves a lot of self-reflection. You drill down deeper and deeper into the different cultural layers.
What does your work as an intercultural coach entail?
Uehlinger: We are all shaped by our culture. This is reflected in how we behave, think and communicate. An intercultural coach helps people to understand where others come from and how they are defined by their culture. They can then use this understanding to work together more effectively. When you don’t really understand this cultural imprint, that’s when misunderstandings arise. It’s about building bridges to deal with differences and similarities. I always compare it to a dance. There’s a lot of potential here. I help people to recognise and make the most of this potential.
Can you provide an example?
Uehlinger: I once coached someone from Switzerland who served on a Japanese board of directors. He didn’t understand what his colleagues did. And they felt the same. We first performed an intercultural assessment to determine his level of intercultural competence. This gave me a starting point as the coach. The coaching then consisted of inputs and advice. The goal was to enable him to come up with his own solutions. We worked a lot on his own culture and combined it with inputs relating to Japanese culture. Only when you start to discover your own culture – much of which tends to be unknown – do you become better at recognising the differences and similarities. Thanks to the coaching, he became a very good bridge builder and put his cultural potential to use successfully in his daily business life.
And how do you teach the students intercultural competence?
Uehlinger: For our international projects, we have developed our own process aimed at enabling students to use culture to achieve better results. The intercultural mentoring starts with a preparatory task to get the students ready for their intercultural training. In the training itself, they receive cultural inputs, analyse the culture of the team, carry out team-building exercises, and develop rules for working together. The aim is to raise awareness of the cultural differences that exist within the team. The students must also spend time together away from the project, so they can get to know each other on a more personal level. Having lunch together in the canteen doesn’t count. In the mid-project assignment, the students think about how they are finding the work in the team, how integrated they feel, etc. In the team coaching, the mentors help the students to find solutions and improve the intercultural work. The final assignment is about reflecting on what has been learned and applying it in practice.
You were a Rooney Scholar at Robert Morris University when the JUSP project teams met there for Final Week. What was your role?
Uehlinger: Final Week is primarily about carrying out an intercultural debriefing for the project. About reflecting upon the experiences in the various project phases from a cultural perspective and deriving insights from them.
Students majoring in International Management learn intercultural competence from the third semester onwards.
Uehlinger: Here, too, we take a process-oriented approach. In the third semester, students learn the basics of intercultural communication, which they continue applying right up until the end of their studies. This is followed by an exchange semester. As shown by research, specific action is needed in order to become more interculturally competent. Spending time in another country is not enough alone. Our students therefore attend the Pre-Departure Workshop before leaving for their semester abroad. In this workshop, they prepare themselves for the host culture and the potential culture shock, as well as defining their personal goals and covering intercultural learning strategies.
And what happens during their exchange semester?
Uehlinger: The students spend around half of it assessing their current situation, reviewing their goals, reflecting on their experiences from a cultural perspective and preparing for their return. Once back in Switzerland, they write an exchange report, which contains further intercultural questions. Our experiences of this continuous reflection process are positive. In the final semester, the students learn more about globalisation and culture in the module GREL, Global Relations. They also complete an international real-life student consulting project. This integrated approach is unique in Switzerland.
And how satisfied are you with your students?
Uehlinger: It’s always exciting to watch them develop. The Intercultural Development Inventory helps us to track their progress. The students complete this assessment in the third and last semesters. It enables both us and them to see how their intercultural sensitivity is coming along. We can proudly say that this approach is effective.
Intercultural competence is needed everywhere. That’s what you write in your essay. Are different types of intercultural competence needed for different professions?
Uehlinger: No, it’s a basic skill for dealing with foreign people. However, the consequences are different. In business, an interculturally incompetent approach can lead to financial losses; in the care sector, the patient’s condition may deteriorate; and in the education sector, it could interfere with the learning process. Intercultural competence describes the ability to deal with people from other cultures in an appreciative, considerate and effective way. There is value in doing so.
How do we change as a person when we develop intercultural competence?
Uehlinger: Since it’s a lifelong learning process, we don’t develop it overnight. Over time, we discover more and more nuances and become more comfortable dealing with other cultures. An important personal step is to observe closely and try not to judge as much. Of course, we never fully succeed in doing so. But we do notice when we begin to value others, and we can then check if they feel the same. In my experience, most people have the best intentions when working together. But because of their different cultural imprints, these good intentions can quickly lead to misunderstandings, since the other person perceives the same situation differently. One example is short or long emails. After a while, an American might only write one or two sentences, with no ‘Dear’ at the beginning or ‘Regards’ at the end. The first time this happened, I was a little taken aback. I wondered what was going on, until I realised that it’s actually quite normal to him. My own emotional reactions are an important indicator that my own culture – and thus my comfort zone in which I know how the world works – is being challenged.
What is the biggest challenge faced in developing intercultural competence?
Uehlinger: Realising that it isn’t possible to learn intercultural competence by conventional means. It’s a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes. The aim is to move from an often ethnocentric attitude (“my culture is the only right one”) to an ethnorelative attitude (“I realise that your culture is just as complex as mine”). No culture is better or worse than the other, it’s just different. I think the ability to be present – for oneself and for others – is one of the most important aspects during the process.
In what sense?
Uehlinger: Being present means: listening, observing and really engaging with the other person or oneself. These are key aspects, as they enable us to pick up more and more cultural references. By observing our own reactions, we can learn about our own culture. That’s why, before they do an exchange, I advise my students to just sit there at first, stay quiet and observe what is happening in class. At least for the first two or three days. They can thereby begin to recognise how the new environment works, without putting their foot in it.
Uehlinger, Christa/Lampalzer, Hans/Schrackmann, René. Puzzling Intercultural Stories. 50 challenging intercultural brainteasers. Versus Verlag Zurich. ISBN 978-3-03909-183-6.
Uehlinger, Christa/Lampalzer, Hans/Schrackmann, René. Puzzling Intercultural Stories. 50 challenging intercultural brainteasers. Versus Verlag Zürich. ISBN 978-3-03909-183-6.
Uehlinger, Christa. Miteinander verschieden sein – interkulturelle Kompetenz als Schlüssel zur global vernetzten Welt, 2. Auflage, Versus Verlag Zürich. ISBN 978-3-03909-233-8.