Intercultural Sensitivity is not Natural

Milton J. Bennett said that. He also co-created this model of intercultural sensitivity development:

Intercultural Sensitivity Development Model
Intercultural Sensitivity Development Model

To understand the model, take "cultural differences" as the operative words.

If you deny that there are cultural differences, you are in the first stage, aptly called "denial". In today's world of globalization and ubiquitous cellphone coverage, people who truly don't believe other cultural preference exist are few and far between.

Those who believe cultural differences exist, but think they're a load of bull might fall into the next stage, "defense". 'Yes, other people do things differently, but my way's the best.' Or, the flip-side, 'yes, I'm doing things my way but other cultures are way better.'

Once I acknowledge there are differences and that my way isn't the only one, it's easy to focus on what we all have in common. At the end of the day, we're all human, right? That would be "minimizing" cultural differences. Call it optimism, but this is the stage many expats are in when they're accepting an assignment. "Move to London? How hard could it be?!"

All three of these stages take my own culture as the reference point, which makes them ethnocentric.

Being effective abroad means I have to compare behaviors in that other culture to their cultural framework. Comparing the attitude to time in Spain to what I'm used to in Germany is futile. Apples and oranges.

Once I accept cultural differences as a natural point of order according to where I am, my reference system is ethnorelative. No judgment, just different. Location-specific.

When I go beyond my comfort zone and learn e.g. a new language or start behaving like the natives, I'm on my way to "adapting" to local customs. This doesn't mean I forget where I'm from or that I agree with or even like these new customs. I'm adapting, not adopting.

Accepting and adapting are conscious exercises that become easier over time and with practice. Eventually, there will be a feeling of integration, where the new behaviors start to come naturally. Good thing to keep in mind is this model describes a dynamic process. You can be in one stage for one culture, then move again and find yourself in another. You can move up and down levels in one day. Perhaps you haven't slept well, perhaps you're stressed and homesick, but dagnabit, today you'll close the curtains and create your own little hometown in your own four walls. Nothing like Grandma's cookies to help.

Where are you on the spectrum?


Image by Dawn Endico, Flickr, Creative Commons License.