Welcome to BookMarks, a new feature of the SIETAR USA newsletter. Each month BookMarks will review one or more books that meet our two selection criteria: the book must offer insight into the intercultural experience and it must be “exceptional” in one way or another.
Exceptional is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but it would certainly include the following:
- the only book (or one of very few) on a particular subject
- one of the better books on a much-examined subject (cross-cultural management, for example, or building global teams)
- a book that adds a new dimension to a particular subject
- a book that is unique or original in some other way
Sandy Fowler has give me carte blanche to develop this column, for which I am very grateful. We both envision that the column will of course review some new books but also books that have been out for some time but might deserve more attention. Naturally, some books will be by people in the field, but I imagine others will be by people from other fields. Indeed, in my reading experience, intercultural insight can come from at least four classic sources, all of which we intend to sample in this column:
- intercultural experts and practitioners
- the best travel writing
- the best science fiction
- the best expatriate fiction
We welcome suggestions of titles from our readers and would also be happy to welcome guest reviewers to this column from time to time. We just ask that you keep our “exceptional” criterion in mind, when suggesting titles or in proposing to review a book. Our inaugural review follows.
Working in a Multicultural World: A Guide to Developing Intercultural Competence
by Luciara Nardon. University of Toronto Press, 2017. 207 pages.
The original plan was to review a different book in this inaugural column, one by a writer from the U. S. But then we thought that in the spirit of SIETAR, we should choose a book by someone from outside the United States, in this case a woman who is Brazilian by birth, who studied in the U. S., who has worked in North and South America and Europe, and who now teaches at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Which brings us to Working in a Multicultural World by Luciara Nardon. In her preface, Dr. Nardon sets forth the major premise of her book: “[T]his book rests on the assumption that knowledge of other cultures, while helpful, is insufficient. At some point in time, the knowledge we have will not apply to the context we are in…. Instead of focusing on cultural knowledge, I propose to focus on the process of intercultural interactions and increased self- and situational awareness.” In other words, if you want descriptions of Saudi, Swiss, or Scandinavian cultural characteristics, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know how to deal more effectively with cultural differences when you encounter them in actual situations—and who doesn’t?—then your pulse will quicken.
True to her manifesto, Nardon then constructs her book around the six elements that comprise and influence what she calls an intercultural “interaction,” namely: context, culture, individual differences, the situation, personal feelings, and communication. Nardon does not contend that knowledge of cultural differences is unimportant; it’s just, in her word, “insufficient.”
And it’s easy to see why: Let’s say you’re in possession of information that Germans love to plan and hate surprises, but then you’re in a meeting where you and your German supplier, faced with an unexpected production delay, need to come up immediately with a work-around. In that context, your piece of cultural knowledge will not be all that relevant, and indeed it may even get in the way of your ability to hear what your colleagues are saying. Nardon would say that this is where you have to factor in those other influences besides culture, especially the situation, your own feelings, and perhaps individual differences. Nardon develops her six factors at some length in separate chapters and provides numerous practical examples.
Nardon’s other Big Idea in her book is that reflection is essential to being truly effective in intercultural encounters. By reflection Nardon does not mean merely thinking about what you did or said, pondering over what happened, but a more structured process consisting of: 1) describing the experience, 2) reflecting on the experience, 3) identifying what you learned from the experience, and 4) applying insights going forward. At the end of each chapter, Nardon asks you to add the key element from that chapter to the process of reflection.
Nardon shrewdly suspects that some of her readers, like some of her students, might find the whole idea of reflection just so much navel gazing and not especially practical. But she sticks to her guns and makes a convincing case that deliberate, structured reflection can indeed be the key to learning from these encounters—and getting better at them.
Nardon’s book is aimed at a general audience, and to that end she tries to steer clear of academic speak. She succeeds, mostly, but has an occasional lapse, such as the chart on page 46 titled Enacted Situational Context. That’s quite a mouthful!
Nardon is not the first person to observe that knowledge may be necessary but not sufficient for navigating successfully in a multicultural world, but she does us all a great service by focusing so closely on the discrete elements that comprise the encounter. If we can better understand what’s happening to us in the midst of an intercultural interaction, just think how much more effective we will be.