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97. Group encounters across cultures. July 23, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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In the 1980s, the exchange organization I worked for very much discouraged exchange students from telephoning home. The same was true of my daughter’s summer camp. Since there was only the camp phone number — no cell phones back then — the camp controlled the telephone use. In both cases, it was firmly believed that the parents’ calls to their children interfered with the children’s adjustment abroad or to the camp. That is what years of experience had told them: You can’t fully participate in the social life and the culture here if you’re constantly communicating back home. From a research perspective, I both respect the wisdom of years of experience and doubt the validity of a conclusion that isn’t based on some firm data. But until someone randomly assigns some exchange students or campers to endless phone class back home while another randomly selected group has their cell phones confiscated and monitors the adjustment of those in each group, we may tend to rely on the wisdom of experience even as it becomes increasingly hard to control the contact back home. But how would such research about cell phone use define adjustment success? It would most certainly be a measure of the individual student or camper’s satisfaction, learning, and interaction with others.

Coming from a very individualistic society, and having worked for an exchange program that sent individual students abroad to live with a host family, it’s not surprising that I have usually thought of the cross-cultural experience in terms of the individual from one culture who comes in contact with another culture. But I realize that this approach really misses the point. It may be even more common for a group from one culture to come in contact with another culture, and it is in this situation where cross cultural navigational skills are surely tested since your individual behavior is always on display to your own group.

Thinking back to exchange students (or summer campers), it makes perfect sense that one of the most frequently reported outcomes of their experience is an increased sense of autonomy and independence. A common re-entry adjustment issue for exchange students is the fact that their friends and family back home have very little interest in understanding the intense experience they just had bonding with other people in another culture. How totally different their experience would be if they were not the lone explorers of this new and fascinating cultural space, but rather came to the experience along with their parents and siblings! Yet it could still be an enriching experience for the family.

Inserting a group from one culture into another culture, whether a study abroad group, a group of refugees, an ex-patriot family, or even a group of New York work colleagues headed on a business trip to California, is a seriously different experience from that of the solo sojourner or the foreign manager from the head office. It isn’t a question of limiting or controlling the level of contact with those back home — they are they with you, and the social and cultural context that you share will also be present constantly as the group navigates the cultural waters of the new culture.  It is not possible, or even desirable, to dismantle the social hierarchy of your home group because it is your group, not just you personally, that needs to shift to accommodate the demands of the other culture.

The goal in these cases is not typically to integrate individually into the other culture (though this may be the goal for some group study abroad programs).  Rather, the group will seek to maintain its own culture’s goals and interests, and to enrich the group with the experience and interaction with the other culture. If this is a peace-building encounter, it is especially important that the group maintains its integrity and identity. The leader cannot force cultural adaptations and concessions to the host culture that the group as a whole does not want nor understand. In some cases, one member of the group may serve as a linguistic or cultural translator, but that may not be the same individual who leads the group or makes decisions.

A group cultural exchange calls on the individual members to consider their own culture in the context of the host culture. I have no model for this, but I would look for an outcome in which group behaviors became more flexible, and the group as a whole became more aware of its cultural context while considering how to integrate new possible futures.

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