How to Cross Cultures

In a few days, I will be taking my family into Papua New Guinea, crossing over from North American/Western culture into Melanesian. This is probably a good time to think about how to cross cultures. No, I’m not talking about tips on flying with children, handy as those are. I’m talking about the process that someone goes through when going from one culture to another so that it becomes a meaningful, growth-inducing, life-enriching experience.

In his book, Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to Engage our Multicultural World, David Livermore provides his take on a model developed by Karen Joplin, a five-step process for active learning, which Livermore has adapted for cross-cultural experiences. The five steps- focus, action/reflection, support/feedback, debrief, and learning transfer-are visually represented like this:


In the first step, focus, you give particular attention to what you hope to learn. The key here is taking a little time for preparation and creating awareness of your self and the situation into which you are heading. Livermore provides some questions to facilitate this step:

– What do I anticipate will happen?
– What do I hope to learn?
– What are my hopes?
– What am I afraid of?
– What am I assuming about the other culture that might need correction?
– What judgments do I need to suspend?

The second step, action/reflection, takes place in a continuous loop. As you engage in cross-cultural experiences, you are reflecting on what is happening. The reflection doesn’t have to be profound, but does require taking note of what is happening around you. While I tend to think of reflection as something that is done internally, Livermore notes that it is best when the action/reflection loop happens communally. Keeping a journal is a good way to facilitate ongoing reflection.

The third step, support/feedback, requires engaging with community, especially with others who are further along the path of cross-cultural learning. These people will be able to provide the help that you need to move forward in the culture well, but also challenge you to think deeper about what you are experiencing by asking the “why” questions and forcing you to consider the hidden layers of the cultural onion that lie under the surface.

The fourth step is the debrief. While similar to both reflection and feedback, this is the organized process of identifying what you have learned, discussing, and evaluating it with others. What is different here is that is done after the cultural experience. Livermore suggests that reviewing your journal entries is a helpful way to debrief.

The fifth step is the learning transfer, taking what we have learned and incorporating it meaningfully into our lives. Livermore contends that most people do this step poorly because the context for cross-cultural learning is so different, and also because we simply don’t know how to translate those experiences into our day-to-day lives. Livermore suggests finding a mentor who can help you to engage in continuous reflection and incorporation into how you think and live.

As I head out, I hope that this model will help me engage with the new experiences well so that I can grow from them. I recognize the real possibility that the only things that grow are my level of frustration, anxiety, and self-centredness. What I hope, however, is that the experiences, interactions, and relationships into which I am heading will be opportunities for real growth, growth not only in cross-cultural learning, but especially in the humility of the cross of Jesus Christ.

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