Navigating Culture: From Accidental Insults to Cultural Understanding

 In Centre News, Julia

‘Julia, can I speak to you in the other room?’

There was silence around the lunch table that I was sharing with my Brazilian host family at my host grandmother’s special birthday lunch. I looked down at the flowered tablecloth, confused and embarrassed, trying to figure out what had gone wrong in the conversation leading up to this uncomfortable pause. My host grandmother had asked a simple question, how I liked school, and I had answered as enthusiastically as I could with my brand new Portuguese language skills. ‘I really like school and my new friends, Grandmother!’ Now everyone was staring at me and looked angry! What had I done?

Almost everyone who has lived outside of the country they were born and raised in has a story like this, a moment of confusion and shock when you realize you’ve just committed a major faux pas, yet you have no idea what you did wrong. Cultural differences are almost guaranteed to make you uncomfortable at some point, but are you prepared to deal with them?

Two years ago, when the UPEACE Centre for Executive Education began collaboration on the European Commission-funded project ‘Erasmus Mundus Intercultural Competence (EMIC),’ I thought I was all set. I thought I had intercultural competence in the bag.

I mean, I should understand intercultural competence, right? I have spent over a decade of my life studying and working in different parts of Latin America. Over the years I’ve become an expert parrot, skilled in the imitation of accents, vocab words, dress and cultural norms. I’ve learned the importance of an open mind and the power of a smile, how the ability to laugh at yourself can help win over skeptical new acquaintances. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve come to understand the true complexity of culture, that cultural understanding is an on-going and continuous process, no matter what.

The EMIC project was born from a partnership between the University for Peace (Costa Rica), University of Porto (Portugal), University of Deusto (Spain) and Glasgow Caledonia University (London Campus) to examine the needs of Erasmus Mundus international students in Europe. After a baseline study, design of an intervention and a test run with students, the team developed a toolkit of open-source materials designed to foster intercultural competence. The program is now drawing to a close, and as we put the final touches on our Intercultural Competence Toolkit, this ongoing learning has been accentuated. Beyond the specific learning materials produced, my top 3 take-aways from the program are:

  1. Theory helps: No matter how much experiential practice you have maneuvering between cultures, there is a great deal of power in knowing and understanding a studied framework to help digest and process the differences the world throws at us.
  2. You can work on these things: Soft skills can be developed; A powerful moment for me came in hearing students reflect on the learning experience with the EMIC toolkit, and hearing more than one mention an empathy-building exercise in which you must literally sit in the chair of the person you have a conflict with and discuss from their side. We all know empathy is important, but how often do we truly take the time to practice it?
  3. Just keep at it: Intercultural competence is a lifelong process. Even the most practiced of border-jumpers can and should work consciously to continuously recognize and develop skills to keep improving.

Back to my moment of stunned silence at the Brazilian dinner table. When my host mother pulled me into the other room to talk to me, disapproval painted firmly on her face, she launched into a speech about language ‘we do and do not use in this house.’ Bewildered, I thought back on what I had said. ‘I really like school Grandmother.’ The word I used for emphasis, my version of a Portuguese ‘really,’ was slang. I’d heard it said in two ways, both of which appeared, to my non-native ears, to simply be ways to accentuate what you were saying. It turns out I had used the R-rated version, instead of the PG version.  I had brought extremely coarse and vulgar language to our family lunch table and aimed it directly at my host grandmother! No wonder everyone was upset!

My intercultural competence learning continues as I make my way through my seventh year living in Costa Rica. Working on the EMIC project has helped. Our final product is a toolkit that can be implemented with students facing new and challenging international circumstances – a game plan to help run a face-to-face learning workshop and a follow-up online portion to ensure reflection and continued learning. I know I could have used this workshop years ago to help me navigate and better understand my uncomfortable grandmother-cursing experience!

Think you might be interested in the toolkit? Watch the video for more information or download the toolkit to learn more!


Julia Delafield is the Co-Director of the UPEACE Centre for Executive Education.
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  • A U Udoh

    You are not alone in your experiences on intercultural competence in a foreign land irrespective of the number of years spent. I am having the same experiences right now despite having been in my host country for more than two decades. One could always be embarrassed on many occasions arising from differences in the use of even common words, gestures, signs, expressions, etc. It goes to show that, learning is a continuous process irrespective of age, time and place.

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