Mobilizing Essentialist Frameworks in Non-Essentialist Intercultural Training

Mobilizing Essentialist Frameworks in Non-Essentialist Intercultural Training

Jan Van Maele (KU Leuven, Belgium) and Annelies Messelink (Nuffic, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8128-4.ch007
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By and large, culture has been approached from two widely different perspectives in intercultural communication and training, generally known as essentialist and non-essentialist approaches. The chapter argues that a non-essentialist approach to training adopts a dynamic notion of culture and pays attention to the complex and multiple identities of the self and the other. This is realized (1) by considering all factors, in addition to culture, which might impact the interaction; (2) by including the full gamut of human interactions, not merely focusing on difference and problematic interactions; and (3) by putting personal experience at the center and aiming at raising self-awareness, instead of focusing mainly on “the other.” Taking the next step, the chapter argues how even cultural frameworks with origins in essentialist thinking can be applied in non-essentialist trainings as a heuristic device for articulating and jointly examining intercultural experiences. Two case studies of non-essentialist intercultural trainings conducted by the authors are discussed by way of illustration.
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Essentialist Approaches To Intercultural Training

Intercultural communication and training have long focused on gaining knowledge of specific target cultures (Abdallah-Pretceille, 2006; Dervin, 2006). In this approach it is assumed that cultural knowledge enables you to understand ‘the other’, allowing you to better adapt or converge towards the other’s needs and behavior. By providing culture-specific information and guidelines (Brislin & Pedersen, 1976), trainees are taught “to interact and adjust successfully with members of another culture” (Triandis, 1971, p.95). It is a characteristic of an essentialist approach to assume that we can optimize communication across cultures through cultural knowledge of the target culture. An essentialist approach allegedly captures the essence of cultures (most often, countries) by categorizing and comparing groups in terms of cultural dimensions or core values. Well-known examples of such dimensions include high- versus low-context communication (Hall, 1976), sequential versus synchronous time (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2012), and masculinity versus femininity (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010). Meyer’s (2015) ‘culture map’ is another recent example of a framework with an essentialist approach. The author presents eight dimensions that are stated to map the world’s cultures. As the author puts it: “the scales will enable you to decode how culture influences your own international collaboration” (Meyer, 2015, p.16). Each dimension is represented as a semantic scale with opposite values labeled at each end (p.16). Accordingly, positioning one culture relative to the other on these continuums is said to help avoid painful situations and improve one’s effectiveness in an international business context:

  • Communicating: low-context vs. high-context

  • Evaluating: direct vs. indirect negative feedback

  • Persuading: concept-first vs. application-first

  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical

  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down

  • Trusting: task- vs. relationship-based

  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation

  • Scheduling: linear vs. flexible time

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