The Voices of War

36. Arjan Verdooren – “Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do”

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication


Today, I spoke with Arjan Verdooren, an intercultural communication consultant and lecturer. He is also the co-author, together with Dr Edwin Hoffman, of the book ‘Diversity Competence – Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do’, which is a deep dive into improving our individual and collective intercultural competence. Arjan has authored various other publications on intercultural communication, intercultural competence, cultural diversity, and multiculturalism. We touched on many topics, such as the origins of ‘studying’ culture; cultural relativism, universalism, and pluralism; meaning behind ‘cultures don’t meet, people do’; the TOPOI model; building rapport and how to reduce intercultural miscommunication.

Additional episodes that explore the importance of dialogue and communication are:

Full show notes:

My guest today is Arjan Verdooren, who has a background in communication studies and works as a consultant and lecturer in the field of intercultural communication and competence. He is associated with the Royal Tropical Institute, a knowledge centre in Amsterdam and until recently lectured at the Master in Communication program at the University of Gothenburg. He is the co-author, together with Dr Edwin Hoffman, of the book ‘Diversity Competence – Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do’, which is a deep dive into improving our individual and collective intercultural competence. Arjan has authored various other publications on intercultural communication, intercultural competence, cultural diversity, and multiculturalism.

Throughout the fifteen years he has spent in the field, he has consulted with various organisations ranging from state departments to multinationals and NGO’s on harnessing more effective international and intercultural cooperation. He is a frequent speaker on these topics and is someone who connects theory with practitioners facing intercultural situations every day in the field.  


Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Arjan’s entry into the field of intercultural communication
  • Where the idea of ‘culture’ come from
  • Cultural relativism, universalism, and pluralism
  • Dealing with ethical challenges of cultural relativism
  • Meaning behind ‘cultures don’t meet, people do’
  • Defining ‘culture’
  • The TOPOI model of communication
  • Cultural models as refence points
  • Power and utility of narratives we tell ourselves and others
  • Importance of building rapport
  • Focusing on why people do what they do
  • Use of TOPOI in a real-life setting
  • Best way to prepare for intercultural engagement

Listen to the podcast here


Arjan Verdooren – “Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do”

Over the past episodes, I have shared with you a few milestones that we have reached. We crossed 20,000 and are rapidly moving towards 25,000 downloads. According to Listen Notes, the Voices of War is still trending in the top 3% of all shows globally. If you haven’t yet given us a five-star rating or written a review, maybe consider doing that now. If easier, you can share this episode with your followers on social media. Let’s go and meet our next guest, a former colleague of mine and a dear friend, Arjan Verdooren.

My guest is Arjan Verdooren, who has a background in communication studies and works as a consultant and lecturer in the field of intercultural communication and competence. He’s associated with the Royal Tropical Institute, a knowledge centre in Amsterdam, and lectured at the Master in Communications Program at the University of Gothenburg. He’s the co-author together with Dr. Edwin Hoffman of the book, Diversity Competence: Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do, which is a deep dive into improving our individual and collective intercultural competence.

Arjan has authored various other publications on intercultural communication, intercultural competence, cultural diversity, and multiculturalism. Throughout the fifteen years he has spent in the field, he has consulted with various organisations ranging from state departments to multinationals and NGOs on harnessing more effective international and intercultural corporations. He’s a frequent speaker on these topics and is someone who connects theory with practitioners facing intercultural situations every day in the field. Arjan, it is a great pleasure to host you. Welcome to the show.

Thanks very much. It’s my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation. I have been looking forward greatly to this.

Full disclosure is in order as well. I have mentioned you and had discussions with you, and I have quoted you on this show at least 4 or 5 times, particularly as cultures don’t meet, people do. For my audience, Arjan and I were colleagues back at the University of Gothenburg. He’s been there for a fair bit longer than me. We were colleagues lecturing. I was particularly focused on interpersonal communication, and Arjan was on intercultural, but I certainly helped out on some of his lessons as well. We go some way back, and we have chewed over this topic many a time.

We do. It’s not the first time we have talked about it. That’s full disclosure, safe to say.

Maybe to get us started, what brought you into the field of culture and intercultural communication in the first place?

That’s always an interesting question and makes me wonder where to start. Since we started full disclosure, I go all the way back. It’s also my experience that many people working in this field have some personal background or motive on why they ended up there. As you may or may not have been able to tell by my name, I’m from the Netherlands, and for some reason, intercultural communication is quite big in the Netherlands. I don’t know why that is.

I was going to ask you that.

I grew up in Amsterdam, which for the record, according to many statistics, is the most multicultural city in the world measured by the amount of nationalities at least. I grew up in a mixed Dutch-Indonesian family. My father was born and raised in Indonesia. Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands for a very long time. Some audiences might know, especially the ones in Australia. I grew up in a suburb of Amsterdam, which has a bit of a reputation, you could say, comparable to The Bronx or Harlem and New York for being very multicultural and also known for a lot of big city problems. Despite their reputation, I had a very happy childhood there.

I grew up in an environment characterised by diversity back in the ‘80s before this was politicised. For me, this was the natural state. This was, for me, very normal. It took me a while when I grew up to realise this was not normal for many other people. There was a shift in the Netherlands, which happened in many European countries.

The shift in the Netherlands was very extreme, going from a general discourse politically and a general policy to a large extent for multiculturalism that saw this as something positive. I’m not saying this was always profound, but at least this was the official rhetoric, and then came September 11th. There have been analysts who have said there’s no country where the political shift has been as radical after September 11th as in the Netherlands.

We don’t have to dive deep for the reasons for that, but the discourse very much shifted from, “This is something positive, and we should cherish this. We need to acknowledge this is a problem. Multiculturalism has failed. Integration, or whatever it may be, has failed. We need to emphasise all the problems and the shadow sides of this situation.” At that point, I was graduating, and I realised deeply that both intellectually, but also personally, this was something that affected me because the reality under which I had grown up all of a sudden came under fire and was dramatised.

I was willing to discuss it on any level and acknowledged that there are challenges. It went in a direction that was very extreme. This is an us versus them scenario. To be honest, I found it intellectually and academically compelling, but it also personally affected me. It was when I was graduating and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. At that point, I didn’t have a clue. I think my best guess was to become a sports journalist because I liked football and journalism.

You are from the Netherlands, so that’s a given.

It’s another Amsterdam side of me. That came together, and I didn’t expect necessarily that I would work with it halfway through my career or something. I still be working with it, so here I am.

There’s one thing. I know you said we don’t have to deep dive into it, but I’m interested when you said that the Netherlands was the social discourse that shifted, most radically post-9/11. Without going too deep into it, especially given the location of the Netherlands in Europe and it is multicultural base, why was that the case?

To be honest, there are only guesses, but there are probably estimated guesses and less estimated guesses. Part of the reality is that it wasn’t as good as we like to think. The Netherlands has this image and a strong self-image of tolerance and diversity. It’s partly profound. As with any image, there is a performative aspect to it. Where we like to believe that of ourselves so much. We cherish this image despite that reality. It may not always meet that standard. Even historically, if we look back on that, there are many instances where you can say, “The Netherlands wasn’t as tolerant or that accepting of difference, or whatever you want to call it.” We mentioned the colonial past. There are many instances where that self-image was very flattering.

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication
Intercultural Communication: The Netherlands has a strong self-image of tolerance and diversity. It’s partly profound. But as with any image, there is a performative aspect to it.


Even though in other ways, it might be profound, but in other ways, it was way too self-flattering. I think that fell apart, so that’s part of it. One of the explanations is particularly September 11th and later, other events in the Netherlands mainly had to do with Islamism, radicalism, with jihadism. The Netherlands has a history of rebelling against religion as such. The Netherlands was the most religious country in Europe measured by church attendance in the early twentieth century. Almost completely sexualised, but strongly rebelled against that in the 1960s.

People felt they were suffocating in these small religious communities because there was also religious pluralism. The rest of it is the state religion. There were a lot of different conjugations and sub-currents of religion that were all accommodated, meaning that people who lived in these small religious communities felt they were suffocating and rebelled against it in the ‘60s. There was a strong secular, but I would even say anti-religious current.

This was a bit suppressed and at the same time, with this notion of multiculturalism and tolerance. Once September 11th happened, this occurred and gained momentum. There was no other Western country with a strong backlash. I’m talking about a violent backlash in terms of violence against mosques, Islamic shops, and Islamic schools. In the Netherlands, there are been a great number of incidents, which is something often unheard but that did happen.

I had no idea. That is interesting to hear that the ‘60s, which would then make sense, would at least in part explain why there are so many big names in the intercultural space that are from the Netherlands. If that was the push to rebel against these eco-chambers. Globally, that was also the growth of the idea of diversity. Also, culture finds its roots. Maybe I should ask you the question. Where does the idea of culture come from studying culture?

It’s what I like to talk about, which is a good bridge to the field of intercultural communication as well because it helps our understanding of some of the challenges if we know where that whole notion comes from. People didn’t come falling from the sky talking about culture. We weren’t born using that word. We learned it and it originates from somewhere. I’m not a historian but the most useful timeframe is to go back to the time of nation-building and the time of late colonialism, which coincided more or less. Until that point, the word culture was used, but it was used in a gradual sense in terms of you have more or less culture.

The culture was almost a synonym for civilisation. In the colonial system, there was this idea of the civilised and the less civilised, even the uncivilised. Part of that was known as the White man’s burden on the colonial powers. It was to civilise, half-civilise, and to some degree, uncivilise. There was a discussion of whether that was possible. The culture was something that you had to, more or lesser, a degree, and then enter a revolutionary group of people, which was the cultural anthropologists.

Early anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Malinowski, and these people in the time when there was discussion and some decolonisation movements started to happen. They started to study these groups that supposedly were uncultured and uncivilised, and they came to a literary revolutionary conclusion. It’s not that these people have less culture than we do. It’s just that they have an entirely different culture than we do.

They have a different system of meaning-making of their everyday lives, which is it’s as complex and as profound as ours, but it’s different. As we are used to seeing the world in our way, we don’t recognise this. We see them as uncivilised, but they are highly civilised in their way. I like to call this a revolutionary idea because if you take that to heart and you accept that, it means that you come to the conclusion that if that is the case, they have the right over their destiny. Who are we to try to civilise them? It was a very profound and a very revolutionary idea. If we look at the field of intercultural communication, many of our common sense and political discussions about culture. This is still how you view culture.

It’s something that people are capsulated into, defines who they are, defines their reality, and makes them profoundly different from us. To some degree, this idea is still useful, but more and more people, including myself, have started to say, “Fair enough. This was an important argument and revolutionary idea.” The world that we live in nowadays looks vastly different than that of the early anthropologists. We need to come to terms with the reality of that. On the one hand, it’s a useful concept, but we need to be aware of the pitfalls at the same time. It’s interesting. I didn’t think about this before, but it comes back to the discussion we had about multiculturalism.

Culture is something that people encapsulate into. It defines who they are, defines their reality, and makes them profoundly different from others. Click To Tweet

One of the things that failed or that made it difficult in the Netherlands was there was this push of this narrative of we need to accept these people because they have these entirely different cultures. What was known is we culturalised that situation, which everything is through the lens of cultural difference. It also meant that the moment that we associate this with problems and we see there are problems in multicultural societies, the inevitable conclusion is, “If we need to respect them for their difference or if these people cause problems, it’s also because of their cultures.”

We need to push back on that. We need to reject it, and to some degree, we even need to push it out. We need to wonder if that whole narrative, discourse, and story about culture. One of my main convictions is all ideas exist in a certain political and historical time, which we need to use to understand that idea. We need to understand how useful that is. We need to update our cultural concept to the current situation where people don’t live on different cultural islands or continents anymore. We live together either literally because we live on the same street or because we are connected through the internet and other affiliations throughout the world, much more deeply than we were many years ago.

If I’m understanding you correctly, it all started with cultural relativism. We realised that culture, as we come to understand it, is relative to the ecosystem within which it exists, or in fact, culture is the ecosystem that we find in a different place. While that is a noble recognition, and that afforded many of the victims of colonisation, a voice also has issues that come with it. Issues with cultural relativism in a globalised world are very difficult for us to stand by and say it’s okay that certain cultural practices come to be described. Female general mutilation is one, and we can accept that. It’s merely the culture. How do we deal with that? That’s the issue that you are alluding to. They were blending.

That’s a profound issue. It’s one of the issues we try to address in our books. I feel that the field of intercultural communication, strongly has its roots in this, as you very rightfully say, the notion of cultural relativism which you can summarise. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different. It has its merits, but as you say, also has its limitations because all of a sudden, we need to cooperate and coexist. It becomes a lot more difficult than to say, “I will let it go because that’s their culture.” It can even lead to this fight or flight reaction that we are seeing towards multicultural by saying, “If that’s their culture, then let them go back.” In our book, we try to distinguish between different thought frameworks or ideas about this notion of ethics, which is what it comes down to in intercultural affairs.

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication
Diversity competence: cultures don’t meet, people do

The first frame of reference will be what we call universalism, which is the notion that there is one system of thought, ideas, and norms, which is superior compared to others. It sounds bad and like we talked about before with colonialism but doesn’t need to be. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a universalistic system of thought. Universalism sometimes has a bad rep, but it has its merits if it’s something that we also project on our own with so-called culture.

We also agree that there’s an argument that gender equality should be a universal merit or value. We aspire to, which means that we can criticise groups for not living up to that. The boomerang comes back if we look at ourselves and say, “We are probably not perfect ourselves.” In that sense, universalism could work, but it very easily deteriorates into something we call monism. It means there’s one frame of reference and one set of ideas and norms, which is better and happens to be mine, and then you are right back at square one.

There’s a power dynamic deeply embedded within the idea of universalism. It’s my way and highway thing.

It can even become personalistic. It’s better for you to become more like me. Trust me on this. It becomes assimilationist or even colonialist. The White man’s burden was driven by that idea. It has its merits, but it has its strong pitfalls. Relativism came as a way to counter that. You need to see that in a time that makes people aware of profound differences in our experience, meaning-making systems, the symbols we use, and how we understand the world. It has the explicit notion that the way to deal with that is through acceptance and tolerance. As you said, female genital mutilation is the archetypical example of that maybe think that we can’t live with.

I will jump in there because this particular point will resonate with a lot of my audience. Every military member that has deployed to the Middle East, Afghanistan and places that function vastly differently from what we are used to in the Western world will come back or have a story where they have experienced that very idea of cultural relativism and how painful that is. Some even come back with moral injury because of it because they were put in a position where they were forced to observe something that in our culture would be abhorrent that children or women would be treated but in many ways, they couldn’t do anything.

Their hands were tied because it wasn’t their place to change people’s culture. This clash is real and experienced. I’m sure it’s not only soldiers but people in the development industry as well as the medical profession who go overseas to help. This is a real issue. This cultural activism, when you are faced with it there and then, can have a profound impact on someone. I wanted to double-click on that point because it’s an important piece of this idea of culture and how we live it.

That’s a very important concretisation of my point. Business sounds like a good idea until you are faced with something that you can’t accept. We need to accept everything until we can’t. When you get the fight-to-flight reaction, you even get this sense of self-criticism. You are like, “What should I have done?” I’m not saying there’s an easy way out of that. Let’s be completely honest about that. If your circle of influence is limited, that can be difficult. There are better possibilities to maintain a sense of self-integrity in those situations. I will get to that. One pitfall of relativism is you enter into a moral vacuum where you are not supposed to judge even if you feel you have to.

One pitfall of cultural relativism is that you enter into a moral vacuum where you're not supposed to judge even if you feel that you have to. Click To Tweet

The other point is if you take that to heart, it limits our ability to communicate and engage in dialogue. If the notion is at the end of the day, I can never understand what happens in that other system or moral universe. If that is not my moral universe, I can never understand it. How can I ever communicate with people? Why would I even engage? It almost discourages people from real interaction, dialogue, and conversations. I’m not saying there is no easy way out, but the choice is to say there is no easy way out, and let’s engage with that. That’s the system of pluralism that we advocate, which is merited by a Dutch philosopher. He already wrote about this in the ‘90s.

My reading list might be slightly biased. I’m guilty like anyone. Hardly anyone picked up on that because this discussion wasn’t as big as it is now. He was a very long winding philosophical analysis. I think it was his PhD. We tried to go beyond both universalism and relativism in a system called Pluralism. Pluralism is the system of dialogue that says there is no easy way out to assume that someone has the only and superior truth about reality. That’s a sense of arrogance that historically would be falsified every single time that we believe that we have the only truth about reality. Relativism is also a dead end for the reasons that we mentioned.

We need to surpass both of these systems. His system was a system of dialogue where this could only work if we adhere to what he called Super Cultural Norms, which is a dialogue in that everyone has at least a moral obligation to explain to others why they do what they do, and then explain it to themselves because we are applying to our own cultural beliefs. If we are confronting others, it makes us think. Even if we grow up with people, we are grown up with the idea that physically disciplining children is a great way to get ahead.

That makes sense if we have never seen anything else. If we are not confronted with people that have other ways, not only it should be a challenge to explain that to other people, but we need to explain it to ourselves while we do this. The other way is non-exclusion. There’s no reason to preventively limit people’s participation in an exchange. In other words, there can be no cultural or religious argument to exclude people because if we allow that then the whole thing will fall apart. We have cultural arguments to say, “I don’t accept women, people of colour, and people of other sexual orientations as my equals,” and then the whole system will fall apart.

Everyone can then use that argument in any situation. It is not to say it’s always easy but it means going into the muddy, dirty field of conversation, dialoguing, exchanging, and negotiating, and this is the most important thing, without a sense of superiority. Not because I think that my way is better, but because I think there may be basic human values that we can all aspire to that lead us ahead, which I’m not perfect either. What these basic human values are is something we continuously try to figure out. It’s not because I think female genital mutilation is not deplorable but because I think so or it doesn’t exist in my moral universe. If I think about it, it’s because it’s inflicting unnecessary pain on people. As a human being, it sounds like a bad idea.

That’s the key point. We now know objectively what’s good for the human animal. We have enough knowledge data points to know that it’s objectively good to live pain-free and having a higher quality of life where you are healthier is good for the human animal. Therefore, nutrition, water, and shelter. There is enough knowledge out there. It’s how we build that bridge with those who don’t necessarily have that knowledge. You keep mentioning the word dialogue because dialogue implies a win-win as opposed to a debate. You and I have certainly talked about this before.

The difference between a dialogue and debate is that the very point that debate is a winner takes all types of things whereas a dialogue is a win-win situation. To take it to the subtitle of your book, which is the quote that I have cited a number of times in papers that I have written, and I mentioned it all the time. I love it. It’s catchy. I teach this stuff and I open up with cultures that don’t meet, people do. It speaks to this very point, but I will throw it across to you to tell me a little bit about how you came up with that and what it means.

Thanks for the references, first of all.

I’m not even kidding. Anybody who’s been in any of my classes over the past years will certainly attest to me using that quote.

Cultures don't meet, people do. Click To Tweet

When we started thinking about titles, that was one of the first titles that we came up with because it’s also a one-liner that we have both used in our sessions so often. It’s interesting. In that context where you have learned to see culture in a certain way, it becomes such an eye-opener for people. On the one hand, you need to have that awareness that there are different realities. I think the main thing is that my reality is not the only reality.

For that, this notion of culture is very useful, but at the same time, the problem is that it limits our interaction and our capacity to truly connect and engage with others because this whole notion of meetings between cultures makes it sound very complicated and challenging. I’m not saying it’s not complicated and challenging, but the thing is you can’t communicate with the culture. In a way, cultures don’t exist. It’s an abstraction. As we said, it’s a concept we invented to analyse the social world. Most people now in social science would acknowledge that you can find culture in any group. It doesn’t only exist within national groups that have some magical cultural boundary. Why would that exist?

It’s the idea of imagined communities. That’s the Benedict Anderson. It’s exactly that. It only exists because we bring it into existence, the same as nations, flags, and borders. That makes sense.

Part of it is to see through that trick and to say, “At the end of the day, we might see things differently.” As I might as well with my neighbour happens to have the same nationality. We might see differently as well. There is a universal process of communication that we can always engage with, and we can always talk to someone. It might be challenging.

If we approach it as a meeting of cultures, it becomes this very heavy notion where people might even shy away. As you said before, I can’t change the culture. You can’t. You can talk to a person and, to some degree, influence and maybe change a person. When it comes to these very difficult situations that you sketched, you can’t change your whole population’s norms around gender relations or adult-child relations.

Maybe you can even change one person’s mind, but you can make them think. You can present them with an alternative without pushing your reality and then saying, “This is how we do it. You guys need to update.” Be curious about what they do and why they do it and explain maybe how you see things. We have a case in our book of two young interns who went to a school. I think it was in Bennett. They also witnessed that these very kind sweet colleagues that they worked with on a very regular basis violated the physical integrity of their students by super corporal punishment up until children were relying on the floor crying in pain. They couldn’t connect these two things of their sweet, helpful, supportive colleagues with this notion.

At least for the time that they were there, they addressed this without trying to sound superior, but trying to understand what they did, and also telling them what they saw. They said, “We see children that have all kinds of reasons, for example, why they are late. They live in very stressful and difficult circumstances come late and get flogged. We see that they are in pain and suffering. It’s very difficult for us to see this.” I’m not saying this was an easy conversation.

As I understand it, the principal of the school didn’t immediately say, “You are right. We never thought about this. Let’s change it.” At least they stepped away from corporal punishment for the time that these interns were there. We don’t know what happened afterwards. I’m not saying it was perfect ever after, but they made them think. If you don’t have the authority to change things, making people think is a good opportunity.

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication
Intercultural Communication: If you don’t have the authority to really change things, making people think is a really good opportunity.


It also brings to mind another point. This is this idea that we seem to have embraced of nation-building in our conflicts where we will go and instil democracy and human rights and so on without understanding the local context. Every human behaviour has a reason for existing. To unpack that as opposed to what you were saying, you don’t force your opinions on it. You need to understand firstly what’s driving this behaviour and where the roots are. This is certainly something I have addressed in this show with various guests. A prime example that always comes up is Afghanistan, where we embraced such black-and-white narratives of, “Anybody that’s shooting at us is Taliban. Anybody that smiles at us is on our side.”

I’m simplifying it but that was generally the narrative that we’d like to embrace. When you start peeling underneath that, there’s an entire ecosystem that exists of how power is shared, how beliefs and values influence, who’s who, and how the money flow will influence the environment. It’s something that we never understood, but this is all part of this ecosystem that we then slap a label on, and we call it culture. Maybe this is a good time to ask. How do you define culture? We need to zero in on that a little bit because there are so many definitions. It is one of those terms. How do you define culture? How do you view it?

That’s a good question, and as you said, there is a multitude of definitions. It’s safe to say that in social science, it’s one of the most controversial concepts to define. We use one definition in our book, which is honestly a summary of many other definitions, which is to say culture is a complex set of habits that characterise a social group.

Culture is a complex set of habits that characterize a social group. Habits can change, and so can culture. Click To Tweet

Why I like to call it that is because that implies it is not a thing. It’s not there’s culture lying around somewhere. You can draw a clear line around a group of people and say, “This is culture. It’s always been there. We will always be like this.” Many of those discussions, take away so many nuances around democracy and state nation-building that we need to understand what’s going on.

It also means it can apply to any group, and it can imply different levels. In Afghanistan, probably the culture. I’m anything but an Afghanistan expert. I feel very secure to say that there are probably strong regional differences in how people behave, how they live, and how they see the world. There are differences in different social levels between the upper class, the middle class, and the working class. There are still different religions and different religious news within Afghanistan. Another important point is if we see it as a complex set of habits, habits can change. There are famous pictures of Afghani women in the 1960s in Kabul working around in shorts and skirts.

There’s no timeless Afghan culture that was shot into Afghanistan at some point. It never changes and explains everything that happens. It’s a complex set of events that builds people’s perception of reality. Part of that is political developments that happened in the last decades. I won’t go into detail, and I’m not an expert. from what I know and my knowledge, there are global political events that made certain branches of religious interpretations dominant in Afghanistan that were not dominant before. That shaped people’s worldview. These got momentum. They have power, money, and weapons. What we are looking at now is the result of many of those developments. Again, I’m not an expert in Afghanistan, but because of the way that I look at culture, this is what I see.

I like the idea that it’s a complex set of habits. As you said, habits can change, but also habits are oftentimes non-conscious. You just do it. It’s a behaviour that’s developed over time. I think about myself as a formerly heavy smoker. It was a habit to smoke at certain events. In the morning with my coffee, I would have a cigarette. I wouldn’t even think about it. This is why we like your point about dialogue. Once you start identifying and mentioning to people, “The way you do things is different from the way we do it, I wonder why you do it.”

Even that simple question will ask someone to reflect on their behaviours that they might never have asked the question, “Why do we beat children for being late? Why do we flock to them? Is that necessary?” As you said, you might not change much, but there’s a chance that you will plant the seed of question. You create a sufficient bumper for someone to make them think of an alternative.

That’s how culture changed. Years ago in Australia, which is a progressive democracy, gay and lesbian marriage was a part dream. In some circles, it’s probably still an issue, but broadly speaking, it’s not even discussed. Culture morphs and changes. In the book, you have a particular model that you use. The TOPOI Model. What is the model? Describe the model.

I don’t like models myself. There is a model, but, at the same time, I have a lot of disclaimers about how to use models. In reality, it can still be helpful as a tool and in other ways. Many approaches to intercultural communication. I take their starting point in this history I sketched before. The anthropologists came up with the notion of cultural relativism and compared cultures to, as you call them, ecosystems as a whole, which is useful in a way, but unuseful in another way. As I said, if cultures don’t meet what people do, the chances of someone completely adhering to the cultural system that you associate them with are not that great.

Many of these well-known models that you have mentioned were developed by my fellow countrymen. There are nuances between these models but at least our starting point very often is to say that we are going to predict and analyse an interaction based on people’s national membership assuming that there is great coherence in the values, norms, and habits of the people within this group. We only have one episode so I’m not even going into the methodological or theoretical limitations of these models. We even look at it empirically.

We look at the actual data and take it at phase value, then people have done what is known as meta-analysis and looked at all the evidence of these models. They have seen it is possible to find patterns, values, habits, and norms based on this data in national groups. A) The differences between these countries are bigger than those between them. B) There are other collective memberships like education level, organisational membership, profession, or income that are better predictive of these values, norms, and habits than nationality.

The first one you said, I don’t want to gloss over that. The difference within a culture is oftentimes bigger than between cultures. Is that what you are saying?

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication
Intercultural Communication: The difference within a culture is oftentimes bigger than between cultures.


Let’s replace culture with nationality because if we use culture as a very broad concept, it can also refer to an organisation or professional group. On the level of nationality, which is what culture is normally associated with, at least in these models it is then even empirical. There are also lots of theoretical methodological criticism of these models. I used to be very critical, but I’m older now and I’m milder. Even if we acknowledge their merits, we have to see the criticism for what it is as well. Even if we take them at face value, the differences within national groups are bigger than between them.

Let’s say you are an Australian and you are going to interact with a person from China. You look up how you score as an Australian power distance, which is your sense of hierarchy. Presumably by this model, it’s very low and you meet a Chinese person and their association or interpretation of hierarchy is much higher. That may make sense in a collective sense, but on the individual level, that’s a very dangerous expectation or assumption to make. It’s because there are huge differences within these groups, bigger than between them. The chance of you meeting someone that completely conforms to the stereotype that could come forward from these models is even statistically quite small if we look at the evidence that these models are based on

That is why cultures do not meet, people do, right?

Thank you. Exactly.

I know I keep referring to it. I love it because when I deliver these lessons, it allows me to pin that up as the principal statement that I then will go to because the courses that I teach, a lot of them rely on person-to-person communication. What this allows me to then start peeling back on is we are all human. What are some of the fundamental humans? Oftentimes, we will go to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, even though there’s been some work done to refine Maslow’s thinking. He’s certainly never had a pyramid or we never pictured it as a pyramid depicted.

There are many of these theories.

It’s certainly a very helpful tool to set into context. Why do people do different things? What is driving this behaviour? As we said before, every behaviour, in whatever ecosystem, has its roots in a cause. If you can start peeling back on which particular need whether it’s a security need, the physiological, emotional, spiritual, or whatever type of need it meets.

Once we start understanding that, we can connect to that person as opposed to trying to view them through 6 dimensions, 7 dimensions, or whatever depending on which book we pick up and try to score them in there. Undoubtedly, all of us swim in that. It certainly leaves these traces. I always say to people, “It’s always good to have that knowledge in the back of your mind because that is the social context the person lives in or swims in. You can still touch the person or build a bridge.”

One thing I’d like to mention before I get to the model is how new culture is in our approach. It gives people a repertoire. It’s our frame of reference with which we go through the life of things that we are familiar with. That’s why you can see these patterns on a national level because they do form a frame of reference. As you call it, it’s our ecosystem. It’s what we are used to, but that doesn’t define or predict how we personally or individually act on those things. I may be used to people going camping and eating raw herring and because I’m a Dutch person, I hate both of these things but I’m familiar with them.

If you engage with me on the level of you probably do these things yourself, then it’s wrong. If you think it’s my frame of referencing, you create how I act on these things. That is a much better way. I’m not saying all of this knowledge is completely useless, but it’s a background for reflection and mainly to learn about ourselves and then to engage with people who are different.

Sorry for the long introduction, but that’s why the model comes in. What makes the model different is it doesn’t emphasise culture as such, but it emphasises communication. TOPOI is an acronym that stands for different levels where communication can get distorted, particularly in what we see as intercultural interactions. It goes for any interaction. It’s that we apply it to what we see as intercultural interactions.

That’s where the disclaimer is. Our intention is not to tell people you need to TOPOI every interaction now from beginning to end. It’s because that will slow down the natural spontaneous communicative competencies that you already have as a human being. As we said, to engage in dialogue and be aware of what you take for granted, which may not be taken for granted by the other person, and vice versa, you have different reference points and different social realities in which you live.

However, you can connect and try to understand each other. If communication breaks down, TOPOI is a tool to figure out where that might come from. You have these five levels or areas you can use as a scan. We also envision it as a lens to zoom in on a miscommunication or a communication breakdown and try to figure out what could I do to repair or improve that.

What does the acronym stand for?

TOPOI is incidentally or not completely incidentally for the places. It’s also the place where communication takes place and can break down. In a way, culture exists on all these levels, but may be more pronounced on some of them than on others. On every level and area, there are three reflective questions, which are, what am I doing that makes the other person act this way?

What is the other person doing that makes me act this way? What is happening in the social context that makes us act this way, which is what we call the Systems Theoretical Approach, which means that we assume communication is always flowing back and forth. It’s easy to say, “That person is acting that way because he or she’s like this, or they are like this.” We could also say, “Maybe I’m doing something that makes this person act this way.” I’m building up tension for the acronym.

Let’s say that I’m lecturing a class and I’m asking questions, and the class is completely silent. The easy way out is to think, “There’s something wrong with these students. Why aren’t they speaking up? They must be tired, lazy, uninterested, or stupid?” Which is our first intuition. This approach would force me to think, “What am I doing or not doing that stimulates them to answer the questions?”

The first question is how are they impacting me. Maybe they are doing something subconscious that makes me act in that way and makes them not invite me. There’s maybe something in the social context. Something happened in the news last night or student allowances got caught last night and they have something completely different than mine. It might be neither of our faults. We apply this on all five levels in the acronym.

The T stands for Tongue and has to do with everything in language. Something we often forget, aside from culture, there are linguistic differences between people, which impacts our understanding. We may speak in a lingua franca that neither of us has a high commander or one of us has a high commander. It impacts our communication whether we like it or not. I feel this every time. I speak to a British person, for example. They will use catchphrases and jokes I can’t come up with. We had a colleague that’s very empathetic in that sense, but if they speed up, I’m lost.

It’s a good point because it’s something for native English speakers, certainly in Australia. Something I have brought up a few times to bring awareness to it. In a coalition environment where English is the dominant language, there is a power differential that comes purely through the fluency with which one can command the dominant language. That brings power. You see those who don’t necessarily command the language as well, firstly lose confidence, but also, on the other side, from us as the dominant speakers, it’s very easy for us to ascribe less favourable traits to those people purely because they don’t speak the language. They are shy, not confident, stupid, or they have nothing to say.

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication
Intercultural Communication: In a coalition environment where English is the dominant language, there is a power differential that comes purely through the fluency with which one can command the dominant language that brings power.


It very easily conflates linguistic ability with intelligence. There are other things in a level of the tongue. It might be accents that play a role that we value differently. There are studies that would show that in a lecture held by someone with a native accent or a non-native accent. The intelligence of the speakers was rated differently. It affects us in certain ways. We might have different associations with words. What I mean by that line might be different than what you mean by that line. We might have a misunderstanding.

You think that line means do not cross this point in time. I think that line is an indication more or less by then or not. There is another language, which is nonverbal language, which is everything that we say without words. It is our intonation, our body language, the clothes we wear, the rooms we meet, and all these things might communicate something to the other person who is not communicating with you yet. It’s a very complex field, but an important field that’s often overlooked.

It’s having an awareness of that. Even an awareness of that is a massive head start. One of the other mistakes we often make is we try to study other people and cultures and identify their traits. We very rarely look in the mirror and ourselves. What are our vulnerabilities? What are our blind spots? What are our social norms, habits, heuristics, and behaviours that govern how we do things, how we speak, how is my accent perceived, or how is my body language perceived? We don’t have a right to judge or study someone else until we understand ourselves. Funnily enough, the moment you start understanding yourself, you will automatically develop more empathy for someone else.

We don't really have a right to judge or study someone else until we really understand ourselves. Click To Tweet

I couldn’t agree more.

The O in the acronym, what’s O stand for?

It stands for Order, which means our views and logic. Culture is somehow relevant in all these fields, but here, it’s the most explicit. This field very explicitly asks us how we view the world. What is the logic through which we view the world? What do we take for granted? What do we find normal in terms of hierarchy and how do we view time?

I’m fascinated by time because when you think of it, time doesn’t exist. It’s a human invention to coordinate. There is no such thing as time. We invented it. It makes it much easier to realise that what you see as time is different from what other people see as time. Notice people think what timeframe people have in mind and how they experience that is vastly different and how important it is.

There are other things. Gender relations are one thing, but one famous thing is what often goes under the flag of individualism and collectivism. I have some problems with those terms, but at least the notion of how much we cultivate. One way to think of culture is its cultivation. That comes from the Latin word cultura, which means to cultivate.

It is not to say that people in what we call individualistic societies are egoists and don’t think of other people. People in what we call collective societies, even if I don’t like those terms, don’t have any self-interest, but it’s what is cultivated in a group so we can cultivate which happens in what we call Western societies. We often cultivate a sense of self, individual path, individual development, individual responsibilities, and whatnot.

Other people might cultivate social harmony, belonging to a group, and fitting into a group. Without saying that they don’t have anything on the other side. It does shape our view of self and others, and perhaps our behaviour. I view personal development as very important and I feel very comfortable talking about that. For example, in a job interview. I assume if I’m interviewing someone who has been socialised in a worldview that cultivates social harmony, modesty, and loyalty, I might judge that person this person doesn’t have any ambition. That person might be thinking I’m trying to be modest. We have different worldviews, logic, and things we take for granted in situations. That’s what the first O stands for.

That resonates so strongly with me. It’s how we have ordered the world that we live in. It explains how the world works. It’s the architecture of a particular society or ecosystem. If you don’t invest the time and effort to understand the order, and how people see the world particularly space, environment, social group, or ecosystem. Then you have no chance of building a true bridge of understanding with their worldview. Moving on. What does the P stand for?

The P stands for Persons. This stands for identity and relations, which is another thing I think is very often overlooked, underestimated, or under-conceptualised in intercultural theory. This stands for the level of what we call the relationship level of communication. We have a task or content level of communication in theory, where we exchange what we are doing now on a show.

We are deep-diving into content. It’s about the message that we want to deliver. We will say to someone, “You did a good job,” which is the message I want to deliver, but there’s a relationship level where we communicate how we see the other person, or more complicatedly, where the other person might interpret how he or she is seen.

Even a well compliment, it’s like, “You did a good job,” might, on the relationship level, communicate to this other person, “He didn’t expect that from me. Did you have low expectations?” If we see that through an intercultural lens and in the context of cultural diversity or ethnic national religious diversity, it immediately becomes apparent that what we communicate about how we see the other person is essential.

A lot of misunderstandings can be brought back to these aspects because how we see other people is partly shaped by what we call social representations, single stories, narratives, or discourses that we are fed from society and global influences. That builds expectations of what we have of other people. Very often, unconsciously, we project that in certain people, and we have certain expectations of this person from this or this group. They are probably very conservative or they are from this group, so they have probably never heard of this Netflix show that I watch every day.

How do we overcome that? That strikes me as a particularly real problem because we live in stories that explain the world. How do we challenge that bias?

Part of the answer, unfortunately, is a sad truth. We don’t completely overcome it because we can’t. We have it for a reason. We have expectations in our minds of people. We categorise people for a reason, which is probably our cognitive survival. We would go nuts if we had to judge every bit of information on our own merits. We can’t completely overcome it. We can become more mindful of the process itself on the narratives that surround us. There is a scholar in Sweden who calls it discourse awareness. We to become more aware and recognise the discourses that we are fed about groups of people, society, and others, and become more critical of them.

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication
Intercultural Communication: Discourse awareness is when we become more aware of the discourses that we are fed about groups of people and about society, and become more critical of it.


We can start to recognise those moments when they impact our communication. It takes critical awareness and effort. First of all, it takes recognition, which is the most important step that we are affected by this. I have had people in programs, and I’m not making this up. You do an introductory round in the beginning, who are you? Why you are here? Sometimes people would say, “I don’t know why I’m here because I don’t have any stereotypes or biases. I don’t need this training.” My answer is always, “You need to go to a lab now and get yourself examined because you are not a human being.”

The first step that we need to do is to accept that we unavoidably have this stuff in our heads every single human being has. To work from there, there’s a quote I love to use. I normally don’t say who it’s from in my lectures. If people listen to my lecture afterwards, don’t give the clue to others. That says something of, someone once said, “I saw that the pilot was Black, and I had to suppress my panic. How could a Black man ever fly a plane?”

I will do a round of expectations. Who uttered this extremely biased, prejudiced phrase? For the last couple of years, the standard answer was Donald Trump. I don’t know who they will come up with next, but the actual answer is it was Nelson Mandela who admitted that he was impacted by what he called his apartheid conditioning.

He had absorbed the stereotypes of his group on their level of intelligence and competence. It made him panic when he saw the pilot on the plane. He was thinking, “It was Black. Will I survive?” My message is always on two levels. On the one hand, if Nelson Mandela has this, who are you to say that you are immune to this? On the other level, you can be impacted by this and still be a pretty decent human being and do good things for the world. Very often in our communication, we incidentally and implicitly communicate these expectations. If we are not aware of that, it might do damage. If we are aware of it, it might still do damage.

I want to steer away also from another discourse, which makes everyone guilty and culpable, and find easy ways to point victims, perpetrators, guilty, and innocent people. That’s not my intention at all. My intention is to say, “We are all impacted by this. We need to be open to the opportunity and the option that impacts our communication.” It’s almost unavoidable. If that happens to say, “I’m sorry, I must have said something wrong or maybe my understanding is biased. Can you help me understand?” Instead of revolting or resorting to self-pitying, “I’m such a bad human being,” that’s not what this is about.

I agree. The idea of biases is useful. We have them for a reason. You are making that point. There’s an evolutionary reason for protecting the ingroup versus the outgroup. I hear it so often and I have seen this quote in various ways, but our brain, as it is now, is 100,000 years old. It served us well then and it’s the same brain that we have got now except the world is vastly different. A hundred thousand years ago, it made sense that anybody different signalled danger and threat because we lived in small groups.

It was, in my interest, to protect my group against the raiding of other groups, whoever they were, who were going to steal our resources. We have this programming exists for a reason, but oftentimes, in this world, it misfires. Intercultural grouping is a natural setting where this system will misfire. Knowing that a system exists, that system is fundamentally good because it is about self-preservation. However, knowing that right now it’s misfiring, why and how am I contributing?

At the same time, that system is fed by certain social representations. We can’t change the system. What we can change is the social representations that we are fed. I even read a paper, that made me think because I have also thought about this as bias for a long time. I read an article by a British linguist who protested against the whole notion of bias in this context. He says, “It’s not necessarily a bias. That means it’s a distortion of reality.” He focused on how we are fed social representations that make us predict reality in a certain way without saying there’s a right or a wrong way to see that. We build an expectation. That in itself is a normal human thing, but it might not serve us and it might not do justice to the people that we meet.

There’s a funny inverted relationship for me about the more that I have learned about cultures and cultural differences because there is knowledge to acquire and it helps us to build scenarios and expectations of possibilities. At the same time, what it’s done for me is that it takes away many of the expectations to say, “It’s so complex. I have no idea who’s across the table. Let me find out.” I have scenarios and opportunities in my head that I might like, “Maybe it’s something like this.” It makes me less convinced that I’m right. I increasingly laugh about myself that so many of the interactions I have do not at all confirm the expectations that have been developed in my head.

It’s slightly unrelated, but it triggered a thought in me. That’s how Brené Brown’s definition of empathy, which I like, and how we build empathy with people from vastly different backgrounds and circles to our own. It is to try and connect to the emotion underpinning and experience as opposed to the experience itself, which speaks to that point slightly in the sense that it’s about realising what is the programming that I’m carrying about this person. What am I projecting on this person that’s shaping and influencing how I understand them? The reality is I haven’t walked in their shoes. I haven’t lived their lives. Everything I have in my mind is merely a projection.

What I can do is I can connect to the emotion that they felt because we all feel the same emotions. We all feel fear, joy, or sadness. It might have been produced in different circumstances. We have all lost somebody we love. In a military context, whether that counterpart I’m working with in Iraq, their family was killed in war and mine died a peaceful death, the emotion, sadness, and anguish are still the same.

That’s where we can connect. That’s where I can see and understand the person. I can never understand or try to pretend to understand what it feels like to lose your family in a suicide bomb attack or whatever, but I can connect to the pain and anguish. It was a long way around, but I do think that there’s a link to how we see a person and to the P of the TOPOI model.

It’s a very clear link. Thanks for building that bridge because I said the P is for Person, identity, and relationship. What you address there very beautifully is this aspect of relationship where beyond all these perceptions, we can build a connection of trust with people. Also, in many ways, if we do manage to build that human-to-human relationship, I love the faux pas as they are seen in terms of cultural etiquette or in terms of the stereotypes I might have about people who will be forgiven if I have that connection and that trusting relationship.

The question is, have I focused on that sufficiently? I see international corporations sometimes go wrong, especially nowadays, we have all been online. If you only communicate with a counterpart without ever meeting them face to face, sitting down over a meal, or exchanging information about your lives, everything becomes about negotiations and the nitty-gritty stuff. Once we meet human-to-human in almost all situations, so this is a deeply human phenomenon, it will go a lot easier. It’s an investment.

I have to bring in another anecdote that comes to mind. In a previous life when I worked in the liaison space in the military, we used to refer to it as the rapport bucket. This was passed down to us as a way to think about interpersonal connections. Every person you meet, imagine this empty bucket between you and that person. Your goal is, with every interaction you have with that person, to pour a little bit of rapport into that bucket. You build that rapport through the things that you are saying. To get to know the person, ask about them. Find out about their family, friends, and interests.

You will find that there are a lot of similarities, even though, overtly, you might be completely different. You might both love football. You can certainly pour a lot of rapport if you follow the same football club, or if you both have dogs or whatever it is. The goal is that you build such a dense relationship or rapport with that person and that the imaginary bucket is overflowing. When that bucket is overflowing, as you were saying, that’s when you have genuine trust. If you make a faux pas cultural or otherwise, you are going to take a little scoop out of that rapport bucket but the rapport bucket is so full that it will be laughed at.

Whereas if you haven’t invested into that rapport bucket where you didn’t work on that relationship and trust and the rapport bucket is empty, a faux pas you make is going to be detrimental to that relationship because you have no excess rapport that you can. You have shot a hole in the bucket. That’s an anecdote that we use quite a lot and have used in the past. I have always found it quite useful in my interpersonal engagements. I’m conscious of our time as well. I’m loving this. I could do this for a few days. We have done this for a few days in the past, but what is the second O in the model?

That stands for Organisation. Interestingly enough, that was originally not in the model because the model makes things more complicated. It’s an application of a well-known communications approach by Paul Lazarsfeld’s four dimensions. The organisation was originally not part of that. We have seen in so many case analyses that the organisational context was pivotal to what was going on. People focused on, “Is this an issue of identity? Is this an issue of language? Is this an issue of culture?” No, it’s a problem in the organisation. One of the most extreme examples I have seen was an NGO that had an office in Latin America. They were in the Netherlands at their head office, and they requested intercultural training about this country specifically because they felt communication was not going very well.

We said, “Can you tell us about the problem is?” They said, “This seems to be distrust. There’s something in their culture.” We said, “First, let’s analyse what’s going on and what the situation is.” They forgot about this. Don’t ask me how but they had doubts about the order of an integrity investigation of this office. They were freed of all charges and forgot to tell them and seemed distrustful in the communication afterwards. It’s a big surprise. Before you even need to bring in aspects of cultural identity or language, if that is the context in which you are operating organisationally, no wonder. This may get further amplified by linguistic, cultural, and identity issues but the root of the problem is in this organisational issue.

We see that time and time again that organisational issues are the root problem, and maybe they are amplified by these other things. If you don’t look at those issues and how clear is the organisation in communicating something to a very diverse population, there is a big chance that those things will be interpreted in all kinds of different ways, which is good to have an understanding of other things and factors. If the root of the problem is that you are not communicating it clearly from an understanding and people have taken for granted assumptions and interpretations, it’s going to come back at you.

Without putting on the spot too much, how does one challenge that? Coming back to this cultural worldism piece, we can’t accommodate every possible relativistic view. I know that’s not what you are saying, but how do we then help those who are crafting and drafting the messages to get the most out of it?

Sometimes, it’s about clarity and explicitness. Classic examples. I have worked with a lot of schools, and then you have schools that decide to organise a camp at the beginning of the academic year. This was for higher education in the Netherlands where new students were about seventeen years old. Many of them lived with their parents. They organise a camp at the beginning of the academic year. This was compulsory or mandatory and it involved the sleepover in unsupervised dormitories.

Students started to protest against that because their parents didn’t allow them. In this case, the majority of those students had an immigrant background. You can try to understand that, like, “They are morally conservative and religious,” which is part of their motivation. Maybe there are other motivations we don’t know.

The end of the story was that it became this very strong us versus stem scenario. “They need to adapt. We set the standards here. We only change them if we want to.” One of the first questions that I had was, “Did you communicate to students before they signed up for your program that there was a mandatory camp with unsupervised dormitories?” “No, we had not.”

Even if you decide about this camp, I would take issue with that person who says it’s essential for succeeding in this program that you need to go to a camp but unsupervised dormitories. Even if you do, the least thing you can do is then communicate. “If you sign up for this program, this is what you are going to get. If it objects to your moral views of the world, then it’s not for you.” That exists. It sounds a bit cheesy, but some people have said, “You don’t apply for a sausage factory if you are a vegetarian.” It’s a bit of a cheesy one-liner but there’s truth in that. Not everyone can cater to everyone. The least thing we can do is be clear.

VOW 36 | Intercultural Communication
Intercultural Communication: Not everyone can cater to everyone. The least we can do is be clear, honest and upfront.


The last I?

It stands for Intentions. In a way, in a dialogical sense, it’s the most important one because that’s where we look at what drives people in a certain context. Why do they do what they do? One of the mantras we have is what is called the Hypothesis of the Best, which means that, at the end of the day, everyone has good intentions. This sounds incredibly naïve, I know, and I’m not saying that those good intentions coincide with what you think it’s good. However, it’s good, it’s logical, and it makes sense from their view of the world. They are doing what they think is the right thing to do. We have a quote in the book.

At the end of the day, everyone has good intentions. Click To Tweet

I forgot her name, but there’s a former CIA agent who turned human rights activist who says in a very convincing video interview that the one thing she learned from her work at the CIA is everyone thinks they are the good guys. That may make them do things that are, in your view or even in a common human view, portable.

What they are doing is they think that they are doing the right thing. If that is your starting point, that makes you curious about people’s motivations. It makes you potentially able to recognise those intentions without agreeing with their effects. We need to distinguish between effects and intentions, but people are generally doing what they think is right and best. We may not agree with it and we don’t have to agree with it, but we can try to understand it.

There’s a difference between understanding and agreeing. Specifically, we also look at how much are we actively recognising their perspective. Are we trying to understand where they are coming from, and also recognise that they have good intentions and they are trying to do the right thing? These students ask for exceptions that they don’t want to come to these camps. Even if we don’t agree with their motivations, we can say, “We can understand that you feel awkward about this from your point of view. We can see that unsupervised dormitories are controversial and there’s a problem with that view. However, we have our reasons for doing this.”

That’s controls in that argumentation from my point of view, even if you would take that point. Another thing that I have seen is that students have asked for exceptions. They feel that a class about Evolution Theory is not for them because, from their religious point of view, they don’t agree with evolution theory. You don’t have to agree with it to show recognition. Understand from your worldview that you don’t agree with that. The point is you don’t have to agree with it. It’s a theory. We can discuss it.

I can recognise that they are trying to do the morally right thing from their point of view without having to agree with it. There are different patterns we can run to recognition, but very often, it’s dismissal. It’s like, “Don’t be so difficult. Show me in your holy book where it says you can’t follow this class. Why are the students that have the same religious backgrounds don’t have any problems with it? Listen to them.” That ends up in what we call a truth battle. It’s my truth versus your truth. One of the other liners we have is sometimes the shortcut is the way around. By going around, we get easier to resolve than immediately going upfront to resolve.

Sometimes the shortcut is the way around. Click To Tweet

I like this idea of motivation. We have touched on it already, but it seems to me that motivation lies at the root of all conflict. It’s my motivation. It’s whatever motivates me that’s clashing with what’s motivating you. We spoke about this, but if we want to understand human behaviour, we need to understand what motivates it and what needs and desires are driving that motivation and therefore driving that behaviour. It’s quite neat that you made the point of intentions. Perhaps, it’s one of the principal pillars of the model.

I also do understand why you don’t like models. We also don’t want to fall into the trap of saying, “Here’s a model, apply this.” No. It should serve as a trigger or force you to take a pause. It’s like, “Here are some considerations for you,” as opposed to, “It’s a cheat sheet rather than a map to follow.” Maybe you can give us an example of how you would apply or how you have applied the Tongue, Order, Person, Organisation, and Intentions in intercultural settings.

You are looking for a case example or something?

A case study that would bring this to life of how somebody reading this could try to use it.

One example that we like to use is from an educational context, but I think you can make the translation to other contexts as well. There was a study counsellor who was talking to a student of immigrant background in this case. This was in the Netherlands, and this student had failed the class because she was “not assertive” enough in the classes.

She was with the study counsellor and they talked about this. The student had a light handicap. In the conversation, at some point, the study counsellor asked her, “Is this because of your culture that you find it difficult to be assertive?” The student said, “Yes. I find it difficult to speak up against my parents at home as well.”

The counsellor, all of a sudden, felt trapped because he realised if it goes against her culture, then can we demand our students to be assertive? On the other hand, we did agree that was an important part of our education that it makes students assertive. There’s a conflict, but at the same time, if it contradicts their culture and potentially the culture of many other students, maybe we can’t hold onto this. You see the classic relativistic clash there with no way out. You could say he set up a trap for himself, and if I’m cynical, a little bit of an easy way out for her to say, “This is the end of the story.” When we analysed that, we said, “There are all things that could be going on that can be explored.”

If we follow the order of the model, the T for Tongue are there linguistic aspects to this? Could it be that assertiveness means that she’s not speaking up in class? Could it be a linguistic ability? Could it be that she doesn’t feel comfortable enough to speak up? On a more core level, what does assertiveness mean? Is that clear to everyone? Does assertive mean the same thing to every person involved? What do we mean by that? Do we mean that people voice their opinions in class? That’s a lot more of a clear label than saying you need to be assertive. On the level of order, there can be different perspectives on worldviews in terms of how you view a relationship with others.

We discussed a cultivated worldview of personal development and personal opinions versus a cultivated worldview of social harmony where you might not want to speak up to defend someone. This is where normally people would dwell. I would say it’s one of the options, but there are other things. On the P level, what is the student’s relationship to other students? The fact that she has a small handicap, it’s not even discussed. Maybe that makes her uncomfortable in class, that does not accommodate her, or that makes it difficult to speak up. On the level of organisation, what does assertiveness mean and why is it part of the program? Why have we organised in such a way that we judge students on the basis of assertiveness?

Have we explained to them what it means? I think there can be good reasons because this was an HR program to say, “Students need to be able to voice their opinion.” As an HR opinion, you are often speaking up against other concerns in the organisation that goes beyond HR. You need to be able to voice your opinion in a considerate dialogue.

That’s a much clearer competence than being assertive. As we talked about this before, is this clearly defined at the beginning of the program? No, it wasn’t. Is it explained to students how they will be judged on this and what they need to do to adhere? No, it wasn’t. On the level of intentions, what does she want? What is her motivation? When they asked her, she wanted to change herself.

She said, “I find this difficult to speak up against my parents.” Does that mean for definition that you can’t learn to voice your opinion in other contexts? Is she motivated to do that or not? She was. It bothered her that she couldn’t do this. You have a constructive dialogue instead of stopping at, “It’s her culture or not.” That means there’s some magical line that makes us unable to change.

At the end of the day, she did go to a course to learn to voice her opinion more clearly while being considerate and avoiding conflict. She still speaking her mind and the organisation. The program decided to be much more clear on what they expected, how they measured this, and how it played a role in the professional context that the students work in.

It comes down to knowing what are your requirements and what are you trying to get out of a particular interaction relationship and knowing that will help you develop the path to get there. I know that we are pushing up on the hard right shoulder, but maybe one last question for my audience, which is mostly military, emergency workers, and frontline workers.

For any of those going into intercultural situations who might not have the time to go and read books about culture or learn about all the places that they are going to go to because that, unfortunately, takes the backseat when other priorities are placed upon you and that’s life-or-death type questions. Arguably, this should be on there. That’s one of the things that I’m arguing for. Given that it’s, at the moment, not yet the case, what is the best way to prepare for a cultural shock if your aim is to build relationships with other cultures? It’s a very easy question for you though.

It might sound a bit simplistic or maybe even confronting. I have mentioned that before, but the lesson I have learned from all of this is to try to engage without a sense of superiority. This sense of superiority sounds a bit harsh, but that can take very subtle shapes. We might underestimate people’s capabilities and intelligence. We might have all notions and think of who they are. We might think very implicitly deep down that what we do is always better than what someone else does. This is probably a human tendency. You phrase that very beautifully. That’s tied down to our survival. At the same time, part of our survival depends on how well we cooperate with other people.

For a sense of humbleness and trying to tame this sense of superiority that we are often motivated by implicitly and communicate in very small ways, that stand in the way of that cooperation. At the same time, I can constantly say stay away from a sense of superiority because it doesn’t mean that there’s not sometimes a better way to do things. That’s the ethical part. There are probably, in many situations, better ways to do things. If we communicate that from a sense of superiority, it will be very difficult for other people to see that as well. If we see it as something that’s to all of our benefit that I have learned the hard way, and as an individual and as a group learned the hard way that other people can benefit from then we can have a conversation.

It’s like the human rights dialogue. I’m all in favour of human rights, but what often happens is that certain groups or nations appropriate human rights as their invention and teach the rest of the world how to respect another human. If you look at the history of human rights, not to start that whole conversation, but it came also out of huge flaws and atrocities that happened in the West. It’s not the West’s invention.

It’s a human invention that we can all benefit and learn from, and that we can all improve it. There’s a very different dialogue than to say, “I’m going to teach you how to do this.” That happens on the micro level as well. To have that humbleness without excluding the option, there might sometimes be better ways to do things. That, for me, is only summarised by trying to steer away from this sense of superiority, but engage otherwise.

It’s a wonderful note to end on. Arjan, it’s been an absolute pleasure, and I can hear there’s a little young person that’s been rather patient, but your participation and communication are required elsewhere. I do want to thank you for giving me so much of your time. It’s been wonderful, and it’s been great to catch up with you. I feel like it was only yesterday when we were sitting around coffee and having these chats.

We are on opposite sides of the world, but again that’s globalisation and intercultural communication so much.

I appreciate it. We will be in touch.

Likewise, we will be in touch. Many thanks for the interview. It was an interesting conversation.


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