A Bit of History

The field of intercultural communication training was initiated after World War II, as Edward T. Hall studied the complexity of intercultural exchange at the U.S. Foreign Services Institute (The Silent Language was published in 1959), and Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodtbeck developed their "Values Orientation Theory" at Harvard (1961).

The new field built on work by researchers and practitioners in the fields of anthropology, sociology and linguistics, including such notables as Franz Boaz (The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911), Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928), Edward Sapir (published 1920s-40s), and Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture, 1934).

Since then the intercultural training field has been pressured from different directions. The first was political and brought an end to Hall's experiments at FSI. Other major influences have been:

  • Corporate, with a tendency to look for simple answers to complex problems
  • Academic, with a tendency to create complex models for basic human behaviour
  • The language training market, seeking to extend its offerings and diversify its markets
  • Publishing, linked to all of the above: supplying books for corporate, academic and linguistic clientele

In many ways, the dependence on politics, corporate training services, academia and publishing has prevented interculturalists from seeing the obvious: people don't wait for experts to define the field; they necessarily engage in cross-cultural behaviour, and they learn from their mistakes! Nearly every one in the field recognizes that experience is still the best and most thorough teacher. Which doesn't mean that training is unnecessary. On the contrary, training needs to focus on actual human interaction, enabling us to learn from others' experiences.

Intercultural science, especially applied to the practical needs of real people, has grown up inside a capitalistic system of intellectual as well as economic competition. Hall saw a relationship between cultural dimensions and those of the physicists (Einstein offered us a fourth dimension, time, which played a major role in Hall's metaphor), while IBM-bred Geert Hofstede saw an opportunity to extend Hall's invention and put a commercial brand on it. More recently Fons Trompenaars, Richard Lewis, Shalom Schwartz and many others have branded and marketed their own versions of cultural dimensions with varying degrees of popularity and success.

Cultural Dimensions and Intercultural Communication

While each of these interculturalists has made major contributions to the field, there has simultaneously developed a dangerous and erroneous tendency to focus on cultural dimensions to the exclusion of other hugely important intercultural concepts. Many people now gravitate towards dimensions much as consumers do towards Nike, Nintendo or McDonald's. We forget the complexity, the context; we forget we are dealing with people who behave differently in different situations, people who are amalgams of multiple cultural influences and who are unique individuals; we forget that culture is not a predictor but an influence. As a result we sometimes forget that intercultural interaction should not be exclusively analyzed through the lens of "dimensions" partly because such interactions are real human events, with drama and emotions attached to them. Some interculturalists focus so much on selling a scintillating "culture of culture," as it were, that we displace our valuable purpose, and disregard the depths and richness of intercultural interaction.

Because at the birth of intercultural science we needed to illustrate the principle of cultural difference by demonstrating cultural differences as stark contrasts, we had no other choice than to take photographs of cultures and point to—or better, calculate—the differences. Hofstede did it with statistics, whereas Hall, Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck had used observations, impressions and anecdotes. The common theme of most theorists was to point out differences that were less than obvious to laymen (prisoners of their own culture) and create a typology that made it possible to formulate those phenomena as the result of an unstable relationship between two otherwise stable items. Whether the pairs were called monochronic/polychronic, high/low context or modelled on the "more or less" (e.g. power/distance, individualism/collectivism), their binary nature made it possible to classify designated "cultures" (generally, national groupings) and draw strong and seemingly definitive conclusions about them, even to the point of branding a culture as, say, collectivist or individualist.

I offer one short example. In a recent training-of-trainers in the intercultural field, a respected organization development practitioner working for one of the world's three largest companies said, "I would never use a case study involving Japanese and Russians to teach about intercultural effectiveness! Both are high-context, relationship-oriented cultures. There is not enough contrast between Russia and Japan to make meaningful learning!" If we back up a bit, I think most any of us, including the gentleman in question, can see the irony in his off-the-cuff pronouncement. Cultural dimensions, like many tools, can be very useful. But they are not the only tool to have in our repertoire. As with nearly anything, taken to an extreme they can be counterproductive.

The problem with binary analysis is that it fails to take into account the dual nature of culture as something that is both static (its natural and necessary inertia) and dynamic (its required adaptation to permanently changing circumstances, especially in today's globalized world), with contrasting and unpredictable trends occurring both on the surface and in the depths below. Culture can be compared with the weather: we know how (and why) depressions and anticyclones interact, but where, with what intensity, for how long, and with what local results over a period of even a few days, we simply don't know. That makes training rather difficult, especially if the expectation of the trainees is to make behaviour (ours or that of the Other) predictable. Unfortunately, that's what many clients actually expect: they want answers about the future or recipes for managing other people's behaviour. After all, that's the way our business and management culture is structured!

Most of those who grapple with the problems faced by real people realize sooner or later that, while categories can partially clarify specific issues, achieving anything that can be called effective intercultural competence requires accepting perception and human psychology, focusing on the interpersonal, and discovering how culture produces its effects through human interaction. In order to do this, the vital element is not the place of a national culture on a sliding scale of dimensions, but the values that "inform" (in the Aristotelian sense: give form to) behaviour.

Cultural Detective and Intercultural Communication

That is why the Cultural Detective focuses immediately on "core values," those deep and relatively easily identifiable forces affecting the psychology of each member of the group, whether they manifest it actively (by promoting the value) or passively (by accepting it as "natural" when manifested in others). Thus, as a simple example in U.S. culture, "speaking up" is a core value (and not a dimension), even though not everyone in the U.S. is bold enough to be seen as the kind of extravert who will consistently "speak up." In some Asian cultures, the core values of harmony and face play the opposite role. While there are people who actually do "speak up" in those cultures (in contradiction to the central tendency), it tends to be a personal and strategic contrast with the group norm. Cultural Detective is a wonderful addition to our intercultural toolkit. It returns us to our anthropological roots, guiding us to view behaviour as "clues" motivated by the values and beliefs of deeper culture. It reminds us that we play a role in our cross-cultural interactions, and that understanding ourselves as individuals and as cultural beings is at least as important as developing cultural literacy. And, perhaps most importantly, this tool encourages us to go beyond understanding into creating communities or workplaces in which every player's contributions are meaningful, respected and utilized.

Each Cultural Detective is built around the perception and progressive understanding of core values, which originate not as behavioural rules but as sources of emotion that subtly guide the interpretation of behaviour (including one's own!). Avoiding the meta-language that academics and gurus find so pleasing (especially when they can claim to have invented, explored or tested the concepts) and that corporate decision-makers find so impressive, the Cultural Detective moves from the multi-faceted consideration of core values (discovering how they work in slogans, proverbs and everyday anecdotes) to actual critical incidents that highlight the unconscious effects produced by those core values when brought into unexpected contact with the behaviour of other real people possessing different core values.

In other words, instead of classifying cultures and creating prototypical (if not stereotypical) models of national character, instead of describing each specific culture as a closed system with set characteristics, the Cultural Detective looks inside the psyches of the members of the culture to filter out the principles they share amongst themselves, principles that are responsible for producing spontaneous feelings in the face of real events. For the purposes of training, it's difficult to imagine a more efficient process. Although the limited experience provided by grappling with (rather than merely analysing) the critical incidents is no substitute for extensive personal interaction with the culture, it sets learners off in the right direction and avoids the distraction of their trying to memorize the meaning and applicability of abstract descriptive categories. I would even suggest that the way it actually works—the kind of intelligence it produces—would be worth studying by those academics who are still looking for the secret formula to sum up the meaning of culture and "interculture." Be sure to take the time to supplement your intercultural training toolkit.