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Posted by Philip Patston on 23 March 2010, 6:57 am in , ,

Diversity and intercultural competence – nature or nurture?

(This post is adapted from email correspondence.)

A Facebook friend contacted me recently about an essay he was writing at University about intercultural competence. He figured I was the local expert on diversity issues, so was wondering if he could get some help.

In his essay he was trying to show that, when a person finds themselves to be in a minority, (be it through race, sexual orientation, or ability level), they are better equipped to handle intercultural situations because they are more likely to understand the nature of diversity.

"I know that is generalizing a lot," he said, "but I was wondering if you know of any research that would support this theory?"

So much for being the local expert – I had to admit I didn't know of any research off the top of my head, but I offered, for what it was worth, that my experience and observation would often, but not always, suggest the opposite, particularly in NZ.

Attitudes towards disability in the gay male community, for example, are in general negative because of the emphasis on body image. In many cultures and religions, disability is seen as a curse or bad karma, and homophobia is prevalent. Gays and lesbians are as racially intolerant as mainstream society, in my experience.

Perhaps the exception are people with the experience of disability, where I have noticed less stigma towards people on grounds of sexual orientation, race, etc. I wonder whether the difference is that where there is such a restriction on freedom, other issues and characteristics pale.

This is why I steer away from these characteristics and definitional labels in my work, because I see them as divisional and more about representation than diversity.

I think the potential for what my fellow Facebooker was mooting is huge, but in order to truely embrace diversity and be interculturally competent, we need to explore how we are common and unique rather than divide ourselves into categorical groups based on characteristics.

He replied saying that his lecturers were espousing the works of Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, and also of G & G Hostede when teaching about intercultural competence (IcC). Both sources hold cultural background issues as being the deciding factors in IcC, but he could not see why personality issues (which span cultures) would not also play a major role in this.

"It really is a nature vs nurture thing, in my opinion," he said. "Does your own culture/national origin determine how well you communicate with other cultures, or is it a more personal, individual thing?"

He said I summed it up perfectly when I said, "I wonder whether the difference is that where there is such a restriction on freedom, other issues and characteristics pale."

That was what he was getting at. Now he just needs to find a peer-reviewed article that has researched this viewpoint.

Can anyone help?