New Formats of Cross-Cultural Understanding
The way we see, understand, and engage with the world is closely related to our culture. Our way of making sense of things is framed by our values and beliefs that are constructed throughout life in coordination with others. With globalization, the world has become more interconnected and the field of cross-cultural understanding and cross-cultural communication has grown in an attempt to teach people how to understand and connect more effectively with different places and cultures of the world.
I facilitate courses and workshops on cross-cultural communication and it is always very difficult to show how our values and actions are the byproduct of our social interactions. Even though we know that our perceptions and behaviours are shaped by cultural differences, we are most often blinded to cultural differences because we take for granted the belief systems that seem “natural” to us. By the time we engage with others, our belief systems are well-formed inviting us to unwittingly essentialize our own way of living.
COVID has required us to question those cultural practices that we so often take for granted. It has positioned us to search for new ways of acting and new ways of understanding. New meanings and forms of life are emerging as the pandemic unfolds.
Since the world is suffering from and struggling with the same virus, one would imagine that regulations, universal does and don’ts such as social distancing, handwashing, masks would emerge. Interestingly enough, those regulations take a different shape in different cultures. The health guidelines that appear on paper from, for example, the World Health Organizatioin, are transformed into behaviours influenced by culture, politics, economy, etc.
Travelling during this period therefore is a challenge and also an opportunity to experience first-hand the formation of new habits, interactions and relations.
For me, it has been a living laboratory, learning cross-cultural communication in fresh new ways. Each country I enter demands that I quickly learn how to behave officially. Only after being introduced to the official health guidelines, I slowly become acquainted with the nuances of each country. Learning these nuanced forms of action can only emerge as I relate with the local population.
In Peru for example, from the moment you step into the plane heading to Lima, you must wear two masks. You learn that on spot. All of a sudden, a different form of action is required. Then, when you arrive in Lima, despite the two mask requirement throughout the country (and face shields on public transportation), you slowly learn how to navigate the nuances of daily life. As a foreigner, I made sure I complied with the requirements. As I started interacting with local people, they shared with me how one is to behave in Peru: You always bring two masks but, this doesn’t mean you need to wear them. You keep them in your pocket and, for some situations, you will be asked to put on the second one. Even the police follow this unwritten protocol.
Finally feeling secure in the local expectations vis a vis mask wearing, I headed to Colombia. The very moment I boarded the plane, I already saw the crew wearing just one mask. New behaviour to learn.
Having just landed in Colombia, I decided to go to restaurant for dinner. At the entrance, there was a rope closing the passage into the dining area. My understanding was that the restaurant was opened so I unhitched the rope and entered. I was stopped by the waiters who looked at me as if I was doing something illegal. I learned that I had to show my vaccination card before I could enter. I didn’t know that. I didn’t have it printed and didn’t have internet on my phone… trouble!
You also have differences in different parts of any country. In Bogotá, people are strict about wearing masks and asking for proof of vaccination. However, when I moved to the Caribbean region of the country, people did not care much about mask wearing or vaccination status. I did not see many people wearing masks and I was rarely asked for my vaccination card.
As an international educator, I cannot avoid observing and reflecting upon how the pandemic plays a role in cross-cultural communication and understanding. This pandemic is re-designing behaviour and re-creating ways of relating; new meanings are emerging. Some will be temporary, and others will likely remain. I often wonder if wearing masks will become a common occurrence world-wide, regardless of Covid.
As I am travelling the world right now, I need to learn and adapt quickly to newly created behaviour in each country I enter. I must adjust to a whole new set of regulations as well as cultural frameworks and ways of relating, formed by different cultural responses to the pandemic.
The pandemic has provided me with a natural experiment in cross-cultural understanding. It is a wonderful laboratory to see meaning and behaviour being created on the spot as the pandemic unfolds.
It has been a growing experience for me to see how the same situation — the same pandemic — is experienced differently in different countries. How the cultural, social, political, and economic aspects of the pandemic create different narratives of the virus itself and how to respond to it.
For myself, in addition to my own understanding (shaped by my own culture and context), I need to comply to the locality in which I am operating. And it is crazy to see (and experience) how, in the span of one day, I need to adapt to different rules and behaviours on the very same topic. Covid makes very clear to me the powerful role culture plays in meaning-making, particularly in the responses to uncertainty.
Lessons of communicating in a crisis. What can we learn from each other?
Of course, as an educator, I cannot escape thinking of learning experiences.
I see that the Covid-19 pandemic presents a situation where communication across culture is both urgent and critical. How can we explore intercultural dialogue when we are dealing with newly emerging responses?
Cross-cultural understanding is shaped by the dynamic and complex realities within which we are immersed and, most of the time, we are not aware of these influences. Through dialogue, we can negotiate a response about how to best behave in these moments. To this end, cross-cultural communication can have a significant role in developing a new global strategy, thereby contributing to the creation of a way of connecting, engaging, and making life possible in pandemic times.
My goal here is not to delimit exactly how we should live and interact. Rather, I believe in the power of cross-cultural interaction and how meaning is co-created as we engage. We can learn from this unfolding process.
From my travel experiences, I have come to reflect on how useful intercultural exchange during this crisis is. Cross-cultural engagement invites dialogues where participants can share lessons learned about dealing with the pandemic. This sharing could help create a way of living that makes sense to people. It is a way of living that is more reflective in the sense that people come to see the implications of their actions/meanings on others. Cross-cultural interaction creates relational responsibility for how we act and helps us avoid taken for granted, mechanical responses to a crisis.
We need to be mindful as this pandemic is far from ending. We need to start a dialogue that embraces multiple perspectives, including those held by groups or individuals with whom we disagree.
I am having the privilege to experience first-hand this multiplicity of understanding and ways of living. My initial reflections point to the potential of cross-cultural understanding and dialogue. Both contribute to and to have an impact on the pandemic, creating intercultural relations, global support, and solidarity.