Intercultural competence

By Marion Robinson

My first trip outside of Jamaica was to a small island in the Caribbean called Dominica, where a three-month psychology externship turned into a periodic stay over a two-year period with the same organisation. During most of my stay, I lived in a newly refurbished apartment owned by an incredibly welcoming family who lived in an adjoining house right on top of mine – Caribbean style. At the end of the work week, I could anticipate being asked for my basket of dirty laundry so that it could be washed, while Saturdays were devoted to family excursions around the island.

If this all sounds appealing, then why did I find myself taking the five-minute walk to sit alone by the pier during my lunch break instead of eating with my colleagues? Why did I bolt the door of my apartment when I got home from work, despite being told that the area I lived was safe? Why was I the only one on the bus annoyed with having to wait for at least 10 minutes at the bakery while the other passengers bought bread?

In an Intercultural Competence workshop I attended recently, the question of the association between personality and culture was raised. How can we know whether the way a person behaves in our interpersonal interaction with them is reflective of their personality, or of their culture?

Based on my own experiences, I would infer that personality and culture are inextricably linked. Having been accustomed to structured work environments, my period of isolated lunch hours was a physical and emotional reaction to being thrown into a less structured work culture where raised voices, cramped work spaces, an unfamiliar accent and indecipherable dialect were the norm.

Out of context, my reaction could have been misinterpreted as a deliberate preference for isolation or even arrogance. In truth, both the old and new work cultures created and required competing personality traits, and my reaction was evidence of what was happening in the space between loosening my grip on one in order to grab on to the other.

Thankfully, my host family was my ‘soft place to land’. They provided a sense of familiarity that buffered the dissonance, and over time, I learned to assimilate the strange and daunting experiences of the new culture.

It leads me to wonder: what ‘soft places to land’ do international students coming to the Netherlands have? I propose that if experiences of ‘home’ are prioritised – where internationalisation of higher education means catering to individual well-being as much as economic gain – then perhaps many of the crises associated with the ‘personality-cultural dissonance’ inherent in adjusting to life away from home could be averted.

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