Have you ever found yourself on the other side of the world and met someone who just embodied their values in every single breath they take? The sort of person who mostly knows THE WHY of whatever they were put on this Earth to do…
Recently, I had the pleasure to meet Serena: a very unassuming, perhaps slightly dramatic, but most importantly very level-headed and strong minded Italian woman who does not shy away from issues at the edge of cultures. Apart from being able to fix a broken table or make a shelf from some long forgotten scrap found in the attic, she is also a humanist. Serena’s story started with volunteering for a local NGO near Bologna, where she taught Italian to refugees. One thing led to another, and she ended up working as an intercultural operator, supporting asylum seekers on their literal and metaphorical journey as they reached the shores of Europe, escaping a wide range of circumstances.
your experiences tint your perception
Firstly, the newcomers were greeted with a thorough explanation of legal procedures that awaited them. There was no psychological help available, so the intercultural operators had to decide, solely on a best educated guess, who needed proper assessment. If the the migrants were lucky enough, they would be seen by a bunch of medical specialists dealing with a plethora of prior stressors, such as rape, torture, trafficking or abuse.
Meanwhile the newcomers underwent a series of administrative proceedings to determine their legal status. Their hope was to present a credible story to a commission that granted them refugee status. Apparently, there were some underground “books” available around that would guide the potential interviewees how to “pass” their “exam”. According to Serena, it was hard work to sift through the truths and lies that were all constructed on fear, loss, distress and disturbing trauma. Amongst the newcomers there was a mixture of all sorts of people, some classified as economic migrants (individuals looking for a better life) and some as asylum seekers (seeking international protection). If a migrant presented a credible story, they would be granted refugee status on the grounds of the potential danger they could face back in their home country. Sadly, a process that was supposed to take six months, would stretch even up to three years in some cases. That’s when the intercultural operators stepped in, providing legal advice, helping the migrants to manage their pocket money or accompanying them to hospital if need be. The education bit was equally fascinating and hopeless. Imagine a classroom of 25 men from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh as well as from Somalia, Eritrea, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea and Burkina Faso, all packed in one group, regardless of their abilities or motivation. They imagined arriving to a world portrayed in American movies… and then reality kicked in. Serena needed to persuade the migrants that “The movie will never happen”, and facilitate their integration into society. However, the workload was horrendous and the intercultural operators burned out as quickly as they arrived. Nonetheless, some things worked and that’s where I see that we can learn just a bit more about the pitfalls and opportunities of intercultural work.
One day, Serena was gathering her group to check out some training courses in town. As we know, burn out makes one short-tempered. After repeatedly instructing one Nigerian man, Serena just lost it and snapped at the whole group. She got a response right back in her face, with the aforementioned man yelling at her at the top of his lungs. She knew she had to think fast to get her authority back as a leader, as a woman, as a facilitator, as a teacher and as a human being! Luckily, a few weeks later there was a big party in one of the houses for the refugees. The intercultural operators were taking turns to make sure the festivities would not get out of hands. Serena was hanging out in the corridor when the same Nigerian fellow, who yelled at her, invited her to join a group of men at the table. She sat down, reluctantly. Then the breakthrough happened. Serena ate the food with the men, showed some real interest and appreciation for their cultures as she devoured a whole Nigerian meal of an unknown name. Since that day, there was some kinship between her and the Nigerians. They shared a moment of commonality that paved the way for more diplomatic interactions. Serena realised that it would have taken so little, had she known this earlier. Nevertheless, this story shows that every encounter at the edge of cultures requires some common, shared piece of reality that makes sense to both parties.
Each of us has a habitual way of looking at the world, called a frame of reference (Schiffs, 1975). It is a sort of filter that determines the way you see yourself, others and life. For the knowledge-thirsty, the formal definition is:
“An individual’s frame of reference is the structure of associated (conditioned) responses (neural pathways) which integrates the various ego states in response to specific stimuli. It provides the individual with an overall perceptual, conceptual, affective, and action set which is used to define the self, other people, and the world both structurally and dynamically.”Jacqui Lee Schiff & Aaron Schiff (1975)
If you get a headache looking at this definition, just think of a frame of reference as a pair of glasses that gives your vision a particular palette. A bit like Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose”, you can see life in a grim way or through rose-tinted glasses. Apart from having an individual frame of reference, we also have a cultural frame of reference. Cultures have their preferred ways of seeing the world. For example, in Poland we enjoy complaining and feeling hard done by. The French love being proud of their national identity, which annoys many other nationalities. Italians always imply that whatever they do, it is significantly more elegant in comparison to the rest of the world. These are of course stereotypes, though they demonstrate that various cultures create an expected and “official” world view.
In a nutshell, different cultural frames of reference will create different systems of perception. Schiffs underscore that, in order for communication to be meaningful, there has to be enough of an overlap between people’s frames of reference. We need to share enough of our reality so that we can understand each other.
In other words, find what you have in common with someone else, be curious about differences, but emphasise commonalities. Given that each culture has a different frame of reference, sometimes there may be very little that they have in common. And yet, there will always be at least one point, one feature that makes us human. It does not have to be food. There is something, there has to be something, there will be something. If you care just a bit about the quality of intercultural contact, commit yourself to finding at least one valuable aspect that is shared. It may not be your preferred way, and yet this is where your intercultural competence resides. This does not mean minimising the differences! It means making a conscious effort to find that common ground that literally and metaphorically connects you with others.
Since her job as an intercultural operator, Serena shifted quite a few times around the world. She knows that the American movie doesn’t in fact exist, and it is merely an expression of our occidental illusions. Serena experienced many contexts and now she can comfortably separate fantasy from reality. This doesn’t make her totally immune to the roots of her Italian drama. These days, even though she may be about to lose it, like with this Nigerian man, she now knows that the best way of bridging cultures is to find a focal point of shared humanity.