Practicing Intercultural Competence at the Holidays

Dec 18, 2017

Winter break is almost here, and many of us will soon be gathering with family and friends to celebrate various holidays. These holiday gatherings can be a lot of fun, but they can also be stressful. One reason is because they oftentimes require us to engage with people with whom we don’t always see eye to eye.
I’d like to invite you to re-frame the holidays as an opportunity to practice intercultural competence, and perhaps build some bridges and promote peace in the process.
Two difficulties that even fairly interculturally competent people oftentimes have (see the July 2017 blog post for more information about developing intercultural competence) are applying their intercultural skills when engaging with people who have a more polarizing (“us” vs. “them”) approach to cultural differences and when engaging with close family or friends. Yet intercultural competence is relevant not just when traveling abroad or interacting with someone from a different country, but in any situation where you’re engaging across difference.
Most of us have been at a family gathering where someone makes some type of polarizing statement that sets us on edge (or worse). Or perhaps every time we see our father we are deeply frustrated by the fact he is not taking care of his health as we believe he should. What do we do in these situations?
Imagine for a moment that you are going abroad this coming semester—let’s say to Senegal—to conduct research or lead a group of students. No matter what your familiarity with the country, you’re likely expecting to encounter cultural differences. If you are a relatively interculturally competent person, you will approach the experience with curiosity, a desire to learn, and an understanding that these differences exist for a valid reason. You know that you see the world through a socially- and culturally-constructed lens, and that the Senegalese people you will engage with likely see the world through a different lens, which you ought to respect and seek to better understand if you want to be able to bridge the differences and promote peace.
What if we took that same mindset and applied those same skills when we’re at our next family gathering and, for example, Uncle Bob makes a negative comment about a politician or a cause we support? What if, instead of immediately reacting, we take a deep breath, notice our physical and emotional sensations, and attempt to suspend judgment for the time being? What if we instead get curious about the other person’s point of view and seek to understand, rather than refute? To empathize, rather than ignore? To practice compassion, rather than combat?
I’m not saying this is easy. I know from experience that it’s incredibly challenging.
That’s why intercultural competence requires practice. We are continually presented with opportunities to notice our judgments, to re-frame, to try to re-see from another perspective what we may feel we already see so clearly. To move toward difference—even difference that we don’t necessarily expect or like—instead of away from it. To build bridges. To promote peace and understanding. Not just with people across the ocean, but with people across the dining room table.
I invite you to join me, this holiday season, in practicing intercultural competence when and where it’s perhaps least expected. 
Happy Holidays!
P.S. I’d love to hear how it goes! Please share by adding a comment below.

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