posted by Sophia Stepf
categories: Spotlight | Staff

A Spotlight on Intercultural Competence

“Culture is the way we do things and view things around here.” This is one of the shortest and most workable definitions for the word “culture”. Put another way, culture is a system with rules of social interaction, bound to a place and a group of people. So every theatre, every family, every school and every online community has its own culture. And we as individuals take part in and are defined by many cultures. We are “cultured” by our families, our schooling, our hobbies, our workplace. All these cultures define how we evaluate, judge and perceive the world and how we communicate with others.

In the Wanderlust projects, many people come together. They all arrive with different cultures in their backpacks, starting an endless game of conflicting values, misunderstandings and opposing perceptions of the same situation. Sound impossible? There is at least the mutual love for theatre, a shared practice. But does working in a theatre mean the same thing to each person?

To make the point, let’s take an imaginary example. We are in India. The German technician Hans and the Indian technician Suresh have to put up a set together which was designed in Germany.

Hans (to Suresh):
“Vee built ze stage up like ziss, you haff to turn ze screws in here like ziss.”

Suresh (thinks):
What does he mean? Screws in first? But we always put the wooden panels first. That’s more logical. Whatever, he’s our guest, let’s do it his way. I wish his English was better, can’t really understand him.

Suresh (says):
“Yes, yes, of course.”

Suresh tries to do what he thinks Hans wants him to do – put the screws in first. It makes no sense to him. He has heard that Germans can get loud and that they always do things perfectly. That’s why Suresh loves German machines and is afraid of Germans.

Hans (watching Suresh work, thinks):
This Indian guy is so slow! How on earth will we ever make it in five hours?

Suresh (thinks):
This screw is so big. Where does it fit? Why can’t he explain it properly? Somewhere here maybe?

Hans (says a little louder):
“You haff to put ze screws in ziss hole, not ziss hole, hurry up, ze show iss in fife hours!”

Suresh (says):
“Yes, yes, of course.”

Suresh (thinks):
Why are you shouting at me? Is this 1850 and I’m your slave? I am trying my best, you choleric idiot

Hans (thinks):
If he says “Yes, yes, of course” one more time and does not do his work, I will ask for somebody else. Unbelievably stupid and slow, this guy.

Suresh and Hans work in different theatres in different countries. The way they do things and view things are obviously different. But they also come with backpacks loaded with different cultures. Perhaps Hans’ upbringing and schooling have made him value diligence. He thinks Suresh is lazy, which makes him angry. Suresh comes from a family, where harmony and equanimity are important values. To his mind, Hans is an uncontrolled choleric who lacks basic communication skills. Not one piece of the set is put up yet and the two are already enemies.

One might think this problem could be solved by preparing Hans for “the Indians” and Suresh for “the Germans”. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. Although the values and communication styles in this case are only “typical” for the national cultures they both belong to, Hans could have been a different guy. He is not “every German” and Suresh is not “every Indian”. Let’s imagine their lives. Hans was born in a poor family of four siblings, had to work hard to get his degree and now works hard as a technician to support himself and his family of five. He has a passion, he loves riding motorbikes. Suresh was an only child in an upper-class family. He studied Hindi literature and translates poems today. He works as an underpaid technician part-time, because he loves theatre. And he loves his Enfield – a motorbike.

Unfortunately, in this scenario, Suresh and Hans never discovered their common passion. They screwed it up on the first encounter. That happens a lot.

Stress and tight schedules are a major catalyst for conflict. If Suresh and Hans hadn’t been under pressure to put up the set in five hours, they might have had chai and a chat before work. Suresh could have gotten used to Hans’ strange pronunciation and Hans would have realized that Suresh is very intelligent and neither slow nor stupid.

Tight scheduling and the resulting stress were also the main focus of our workshop discussion at the third Wanderlust meeting in Berlin in April 2011. Seven participants from different German theatres described their experiences. It was no coincidence that the group only consisted of women, all of whom had no direct decision-making power. They are the ones who have to face the music, who have to solve the problems that are created on the decision-making level at the top. In the seminar, we identified common problems in all our projects, and hammered out a few strategies for future encounters. Firstly, we came up with one very practical and simple rule: when scheduling, make sure the project duration is one-third longer than usual.

We also worked with the cultural dimensions as described by anthropologist Geert Hofstede.These dimensions are extremely helpful for analysing the exact layer of a cultural conflict. They serve as a scale of human behaviour within extreme poles, in which we can recognize ourselves, our institution and our national culture. In the example with Suresh and Hans, as is the case in many Wanderlust projects, problems arise as a result of different types of hierarchies (Hofstede calls this the “power distance index”) and communication styles.

Hans comes from a culture of flat hierarchies and a direct communication style. This means he is used to discussions, verbal directness and can work within groups of people without a boss giving orders. Suresh is used to steep hierarchies and when confronted with Hans’ direct style of communication, he feels as if he’s being ordered around. To avoid conflict, Suresh communicates indirectly, which means he verbally agrees, but by working very slowly, he signals to Hans that something is not right. This is a form of indirect communication using the surrounding scenario and non-verbal cues. Although Suresh outwardly agrees to the hierarchy supposedly established by Hans, inwardly he rebels. Hans misinterprets Suresh’s behaviour as laziness and stupidity.

Although this is a construed example, it demonstrates very well how two people wanting the best can misunderstand each other so completely that they end up hurt and frustrated.

How can we prepare ourselves and our staff better? In our seminar, we learned that it is useful to define the lowest common denominator and a common goal and keep coming back to them, especially in times of conflict. If Suresh and Hans had decided that the goal was to put up the set in five hours, Hans might have let Suresh do it his way. In our seminar, we all agreed that patience, calmness and trust are the three most important virtues for each person involved in a project. Letting go of (German) perfectionism is also crucial – if the set is up in five hours, it doesn’t matter so much how the screws are screwed in.

On an institutional level, cultural training in teams can be immensely helpful, according to one participant whose theatre had taken part in a three-day, cross-cultural seminar with their African partner institution.

A sensible training session would take at least two days and help everyone understand their own value system, comfort zones in hierarchies and communication styles. If I understand the way I do things and view things is relative, if I realize that what is normal at home might be abnormal somewhere else, then I have taken my first steps toward gaining a skill that Germans are obsessed about: cross- or inter- or transcultural competence. And finally, when visiting the foreign country for the first time, participants ought to take some time to get acquainted with their partner’s lives and culture. Then Suresh and Hans might have taken a ride on motorbikes, ate samosas and drank a beer before putting up the set together in just four hours.

Sophia Stepf is an academically trained dramaturge for theatre and media (Leipzig / Toronto) and a certified “business cultural trainer” (London). She has directed a number of theatre projects for the Goethe-Institut in India and is responsible for the Mannheim-Bangalore Wanderlust project Do I know U. She gives workshops and seminars in the areas of theatre, performance, team-building and intercultural competence.

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