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When Does Cultural Immersion Go Too Far?

davidlivermore | April 18th, 2016 8 Comments



It’s easy to travel far away from home and experience very little of the local culture.

Study abroad students are encouraged to get off Snapchat and soak up the local culture.

Business travelers are told to go beyond the hotel lounge to meander through the local streets.

And staff and students are told to move outside their in-groups and interact with peers who are different from them.

This comes pretty naturally for me. I describe myself on my Twitter bio as “insatiably curious” and my family shares my curiosity for all things cross-cultural. Whenever we travel together, we try to encounter the local culture up close. We prefer to stay in locally run hotels or better yet, we usually rent an apartment or house in a local neighborhood.

We did this a couple weeks ago when we took a brief vacation together in Panama. We stayed in an apartment in Panama City and rented a little house in Bastimentos, a coastal village on the Carribean side of the country. We asked locals to tell us their favorite places to eat and we used public transit. When the water stopped running for awhile in Panama City, we asked our neighbors what to do.

As much as I loved being in the cosmopolitan world of Panama City, I particularly enjoyed visiting Bastimentos, a sleepy island that is only accessible by boat taxi. Soon after we arrived in Bastimentos, we headed into Old Bank, the little town on the island that has a mini supermarket, a few cafes, a couple churches, a police station, and no cars. I felt completely alive. This was a curious traveler’s dream! Most everyone we walked by appeared to be locals. And given that there are no cars or roads, it was pretty tough to walk around without seeing the culture up close. While trying not to stare, it was impossible not to get a glimpse right inside people’s homes where men were chasing chickens, women were bathing their children, and teenagers were heading off to school up the hill.

Whoa! And all of this was just a short flight away from the U.S.! It was intoxicating!

But then…I started to wonder if we were intruding. The pathways around the island went right alongside people’s homes. Our home in Michigan sits alongside 11 acres (45,000 m2) of public woods and I was trying to imagine how I would feel if I looked out my window and saw a Panamanian family strolling by our house with smart phones in hand.

Bastimentos has only recently been discovered by travelers like us. We had lunch one day at a local café. We were the only foreigners there. We started talking with the grandmother who runs it. She’s lived on this land her entire life and we asked her how she felt about people like us coming to her village. What’s she supposed to say, right? But in between her hospitable welcome, we picked up on her growing concern that gringos are taking over the island. She was grateful for the new opportunities for business—though she said most of the foreigners simply stay and eat at other foreigner’s businesses. And she wonders what her homeland will look like in the years ahead.

These same realities happen closer to home. A neighborhood near us is often lauded as a compelling picture of revitalization. It’s gone from having little more than a liquor store to being filled with hip boutiques, coffee shops, and foodie haunts along with lofts and condos. A woman who has lived there her entire life recently said, “I don’t feel comfortable walking around my own neighborhood anymore. I suddenly feel like an outsider and like I’m invading the newcomers’ community.”

There’s a lot of useful research that analyzes the complexities related to tourism and gentrification. We ought to resist easy answers and I’m certainly not suggesting we should all stick to ourselves and leave others well enough alone. But for curious travelers like me, our CQ Drive—the interest and motivation to engage with different cultures, must be combined with CQ Strategy—the ability to plan accordingly in light of the cultural context.

Vincent Mattox, an administrator from Kentucky State University attended our CQ Certification program last week. Vince introduced me to the idea of “delayed curiosity”. He suggests that while curiosity about other cultures is a good thing, it runs the risk of being offensive and may sometimes need to be restrained. Vince agrees that political correctness is not the way to create a culturally intelligent environment, however, he sees the importance of tempering our expressions of curiosity when we aren’t sure how our questions and observations might impact others. Just think of the wildly-popular video where the Caucasian runner asks an Asian-American woman, “Where are you from?” Curiosity is a huge asset for creating the necessary interest and motivation for working and relating with people from different cultural backgrounds; but it needs to be guided by the other three CQ capabilities—knowledge, strategy, and behavior.

I will continue to advocate for getting to know a culture up close and moving beyond surface-level encounters. But I’m going to think further about when I need to delay my curiosity or even give up some of the cultural experiences I’d like to have because they may do more harm than good.

When has your curiosity gone too far? How do you encourage others to get outside their comfort zones without needlessly making another uncomfortable? My curious mind wants to know!

The Amazing Race to Study Abroad

davidlivermore | December 2nd, 2011 5 Comments

Our family loves to watch the Amazing Race. Given our many travels together, we often think about how we would compete to cross the finish line first. And you can imagine the joy it gives me to hear my kids evaluating the CQ of the various participants based upon how they interact with the locals and describe the various stops along the way.

Many college students live out their own version of the Amazing Race by studying abroad. It’s estimated that more than 1 million students study abroad annually. And the number keeps rising.

When done well, the opportunity to study or serve abroad can be life changing. One of the greatest benefits of a semester or even a few weeks overseas is the opportunity to discover one’s self and gain hands-on experience learning to be effective in a different culture. But the experience by itself does not guarantee this. For many students, the time overseas ends up being little more than moving campus life from Columbus to Barcelona. One study found that on average, U.S. study abroad students spend more than four hours per night communicating with friends back home on Facebook and Skype. If not done well, international experiences like these can actually erode cultural intelligence and perpetuate ethnocentrism rather than improving CQ.

7 Ways to Improve CQ while Studying and Serving Abroad
What makes the difference? Ultimately, the value of an overseas experience rests in the individual but universities and organizers can play a powerful role in shaping study abroad programs to have lasting impact.

1. Select and prepare facilitators and faculty carefully
Every trip will have participants who go for the pub-crawl or simply for a change of scenery. But the selection and preparation of facilitators and faculty is the most important thing to consider. These are the individuals who help students interpret the experience. And the ways these mentors talk about the culture and personally interact with it will be far more influential to students than any formalized cultural training you give them.

2. Assess CQ Before
Assess students’ cultural intelligence before they leave. The feedback they receive will help them focus on their CQ strengths and opportunities for improvement. In addition, just the process of answering the questions in the assessment is educational by getting students to reflect upon their intercultural perspectives and experiences.

3. Local Internships
Rather than simply relocating lectures to a different culture and time zone, take advantage of local learning opportunities. Many students won’t take the initiative to get involved locally unless it’s required. At the most basic level, require them to travel to various sites like museums, cultural icons, and even grocery stores and shopping centers to discover what’s similar and different from home. Then assign them to set up meetings and interviews with local experts. Require a local internship related to their studies.

4. Home Stays
Living with other international students in the dorm can definitely be valuable but it’s often little more than another extension of university-life back home. If at all possible, have students stay in local homes. Living and communicating with a family provides a much more visceral experience than another semester of dorm life. And lifelong friendships are often developed as well.

5. Amazing Race-like adventures
Drop students somewhere with a limited amount of money and require them to find their way back to your central location. You’ll be amazed at how resourceful they become when they aren’t simply waiting for the program facilitator to announce the next thing on the agenda. They’ll overcome their fear of using the local language when it’s their only means to communicate. Show them that they have more intercultural skills at their fingertips than they may think they do.

6. Guide Re-entry
Some students experience far greater culture shock when they get home than when they go abroad. Many friends and family aren’t interested in hearing much about their experience and many of the students overlook the opportunity of continued intercultural encounters with international students on campus back home. In addition, many job recruiters complain that most students can’t explain how their study abroad experience will improve their effectiveness in the workplace. Students need help in transferring the learning from overseas to life back home.

7. Re-assess CQ
Assess students’ CQ again upon their return. This gives students (and universities!) a tangible way of measuring the impact of the experience upon a students’ intercultural effectiveness. In addition, study the aggregate data from all the students who participate to compare how various programs fare in developing CQ. (Pre and Post CQ Study Abroad Assessments are available as well as Short-Term Missions Assessments).

As students, families, and institutions invest growing amounts of money in studying and serving abroad, it’s essential that we take time to develop effective programs and assess their role in improving participants’ cross-border effectiveness. I’ve only scratched the surface of ways to improve these experiences. I’d love to hear what you’re doing if you’re involved in this fascinating opportunity for growing CQ!