What Does Developing Intercultural Competence Have To Do with Grief?

photo-32Last week I was reminded of an important meta-perspective on culture.

I have always worked with culture…

…for more than twenty years, I have been teaching university language students about the importance of intercultural competence.

…with my private clients who are transitioning from college to whatever is next, the core of their job search and professional school application materials is always a story that goes like this:

1-understanding something new and developing new understandings of that experience

2-extracting a professional lesson from that experience, and

3-projecting onto a specific program or employer how you will apply that lesson to their benefit

In these ways, culture has always been fundamental to my work.  But it had been a long time since I gave much thought to the theories behind the development of intercultural competence.

Last week I was writing a book review essay for the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. The book I reviewed was the first single-authored volume on community service learning in foreign language programs: “Intersection of Service and Learning: Research and Practice in the Second Language Classroom” by Gregory Thompson.

In that book, Thompson discusses theories of the stages of intercultural sensitivity that surprisingly align well with the stages of grief, as if mourning the loss of our own unexamined cultures is part of developing intercultural competence:

  • denial, (can’t even recognize differences)
  • defense, (negative/judgmental association with difference, which is now recognized)
  • minimization, (equality appear in the form of “we are all the same”, but us/them dichotomy remains)
  • acceptance, (understanding of the contexts of different cultural norms leads to respect and positive associations)
  • adaptation, (able to view the world from the perspective of another culture) and
  • integration (becoming a cultural insider so that the new culture is the frame of reference used).

Here is one small example from my own experience. In my adult life, I have moved around a lot and, in each place, I try to appreciate what I have there.  When I lived in southern California, I jogged on Sunset Cliffs or the beaches of Coronado everyday. I knew I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life there so I wanted to appreciate all the natural beauty while I could.  When I moved to Chicago, I nearly teared up the first time I witnessed the skyline view from the lakeshore jogging trail–I marveled that I could get to it on foot. When I rode the L, I took in the views and told everyone who would listen that it felt like I was riding the Polar Express.  I couldn’t believe all the people who looked down at their phones and eReaders when they could be enjoying those views!

Now that I have reached the stage of integration (or at least adaptation), I find that I am nostalgic for all those things seeming new and magical.  I find myself looking down at my phone while I ride the L. I jog on the lakeshore trail without noticing the view of Navy Pier. I bemoan becoming jaded as I mourn the loss of my fresh, new, innocent outsider perspective.  And I gain intercultural competence.

Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they standout in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
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