Charlie Hebdo and Intercultural Dialogue

[Occasionally CID publishes posts about intercultural dialogue and related issues by various colleagues. The following comments were sent by Peter Praxamer. Those wishing to continue the conversation may respond with comments at the bottom of the page.]

Dear readers of this page:

As so many all over, I am following the unfolding of the dynamics of the Paris events. I do not think that I have particularly much to say about this, but I do want to share some thoughts that trouble me. They have to do with the Paris crimes and with intercultural communication; “intercultural communication” here understood as a research field in contemporary social science and/or the humanities, as a professional practice, and as the social practice of living together in a multifaceted and diversified society.

I do not want to enter into the debate about free speech vs. obscurantist or fundamentalist religious faith, but would like to draw your attention to the possibly problematic relationship between limitless free speech and expression on the one hand, and respect for the dignity of all human beings on the other. This problem is very well addressed n a series of discussions provided by “Democracy Now” (take it from 11:59 onwards). Separate interviews/contributions/debates with Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Achcar, Tariq Ramadan and others can be downloaded. For those who read German, these reflections of a Swiss historian may also be of interest.

More succinct, but equally telling, are the caricatures by Joe Sacco of The Guardian (caricature against caricature, so to speak), who takes a different stance than the one taken now by the hardcore provocateurs-and-proud-of-it, in the name of unbridled freedom of expression or in the name of xenophobia or utter racism.

What happened in Paris very much involves satire, also satire as a form of communication. The question: “To what culture does satire pertain?” or headings such as “The satirical differences of cultures” are probably idle ones, at least in this context, even though some people hail satire as a hallmark of a culture of democracy. Likewise, speculating about that particularly vitriolic “French” form of satire, developed since the French Revolution, which some see as typically Charlie Hebdo sarcasm, does probably not yield too much in this respect. At any rate, I think one can make some points regarding satire as a form of (intercultural) communication.

When analyzing acts of speech, argumentation – indeed, communicative utterances in all forms and communicative (re-)actions –, certain questions are all too seldom asked: “cui bono” or “cui prodest”, and the question “why”. Why do we communicate what and how we do, for what reason, to what end and purpose, and to whose benefit? Analyzing the Charlie Hedbo caricatures (and the earlier Danish ones) by asking these simple questions, one could come to the conclusion that efficiency as well as effectiveness of communication can also be measured in terms of the underlying reason and purpose. Seen in this way, a superior and refined intercultural communication competency would be, to say it with J.M.C. Le Clézio: (Coexister, c’est) comprendre ce qui peut offenser l’autre.

Considering all this, I am not so sure if I can without reserve underwrite “Je suis Charlie” – it depends on what Charlie stands for: if Charlie stands for the journalists and the others murdered, yes, then I can indeed identify with and proudly defend Charlie, just as I could say Je suis Ahmed. If Charlie stands for the right and license to provoke, to offend, to denigrate, in the name of free speech seen as universal, absolute and unilateral human right without corresponding duty and obligation to respect the Other, then I would not like to be seen with this sign in my hands.

A number of points could still be made while reflecting on, and trying to analyze and interpret, these Paris events. Let me just refer to two, which I think are particularly important for those who deal, professionally or in other ways, with intercultural communication:

First, we have to resist any attempt to construe this barbaric act as a clash of cultures or civilizations, or religions, as “Islam against the West”. Even in its more qualified form of “Radicalized Islam”, “Islamic Terrorism” or the like – let’s leave Islam, the Moslems, and indeed culture, out of this. The fact that some individuals use the terminology of a religion and profess to be violent and criminal defenders of a faith does not mean that that religion and its faithful are violent and criminal. Any analysis of this in terms of legitimization and ideological justification is much more explanatory than in terms of culture or religion. No cultural essentialism here – this may be a hard blow for those interculturalists who live off and by culturalizing anything and everything, including conflicts and violence. Equally, any appeal to identity, “Western”, “Christian” or other should be carefully avoided in this context – identity anyways being a very problematic concept that one anthropologist (Francesco Remotti) considers “poisonous”, while a famous economist, Amartya Sen, warns us about the potential of violence inherent in what the French call repli identitaire.

Secondly, what happened is clearly a failure of inclusion, of integration – socially, politically, economically, psychologically and, why not, “culturally”. In a wider context: the free-market-consumer-capitalism-cum-liberal-democracy model of integration does not work anymore (not my thought alone, but the thought of such prominent scholars as Joseph E. Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Tony Judt, Richard Wilkinson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Richard Sennett, Colin Crouch, and a host of others). France, as other European countries, has been unable to give to all of her immigrants the space and opportunities where to develop, where to grow into and together with society. Add to this the stigmatization and all too often outright enmity towards Muslims in today’s Europe – the veritable construction of an inner and outer enemy, as exercised daily by xenophobic and populist-nativist (usually right-wing) political parties and certain media – and then you get that type of social climate and political culture, in which violence thrives. Moreover, this climate in Europe is exacerbated by what happens in many of the Muslim majority countries, from corrupt or utterly undemocratic regimes backed by the (capitalist) West for economic or geopolitical reasons, to direct, almost always US-led, military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. And, in the specific case of France, consider that nation’s colonial past, particularly in North Africa.

I think that we, as interculturalists, cannot ignore the wider, indeed global, context of what is happening (in Europe and elsewhere) in the name of Islam and anti-Islam, but should be well aware of the fact that there are other than “cultural” reasons, factors and dimensions that fuel this conflict.

The only way out of this, and here our contribution and the very name of, and idea behind, the Center for Intercultural Dialogue come in, is to search for (new and original) ways of understanding, dialogue and inclusion – intercultural communication as science (or is it an art?) and practice of human understanding and dialogue, to put it loftily…

Cordially yours,
Peter Praxmarer

How conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures

How conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures

Guest post by Trudy Milburn

As the new academic year gets underway, I’ve been thinking about the intersection between learning outcomes and assessment. In several posts, I will use examples from intercultural communication to illustrate some basic assumptions about culture and learning, and suggest ways to proceed.

First, consider the case of study abroad. Typically, instructors create basic goals for students engaged in this experience: to experience diverse cultures by engaging in observations, conversations and reflection. When I accompanied a group of students to Helsinki, Finland, my co-instructor and I provided a basic framework for students, suggesting how to learn about their upcoming adventure. For instance, we supplied them with Dell Hymes’ SPEAKING framework, to help them become more aware of practices that might be noticeable as culturally distinct. Consider a conversational exchange that occurred during our travels:

During a visit to a Finnish elementary school, we heard a U.S. student exclaim, “they’re wearing slippers to class!” Some jumped to immediate evaluations, “how lucky!” or “this must be a very lenient environment.” Others remained curious, “I wonder why they are allowed to do that?”

As instructors we noticed that the Hymes framework helped students to make initial observations about a way of acting (A). Upon reflection, I now recognize that they needed another way to articulate how this one observation fit into a larger cultural context before moving to evaluate if the observed behavior was good or bad. Carbaugh (2007) provides one such framework. To abbreviate [and change the steps slightly], he advocates that learning about other cultures begins with observations that lead to descriptions: what do you notice? After detailing the observation, one can compare the observation to other cultural practices that are known (often one’s own culture can serve as an initial basis for comparison). Following the comparison, one can start to inquire about the broader context within which the noticed behavior is a part. The social and cultural context that frames any one particular behavior helps us to understand how any given behavior can make sense, or be interpreted from the perspective of the people enacting that behavior. Finally, one can evaluate whether that behavior is valued or not within the given culture, as well as how it might be interpreted and valued or not within the comparative culture.

Let’s apply this to the slipper example above. First, U.S. study abroad students notice that Finnish elementary students wear slippers in class. They may notice this initially due to a comparison with their own experience: when they were in elementary school in the U.S. they did not wear slippers. Rather than jumping to the evaluation from the perspective of the comparative culture (that it is better or worse to wear slippers to class), they need to learn about the larger cultural context. Of which environmental and social factors is this behavior a part? In this case, the heavy winters and the value of playing outside for recess suggest reasons associated with the place where they are living as relevant to the interpretation of this practice. Because outdoor shoes would carry snow and slush into classrooms, they provide an area to stow outdoor winter-wear and don alternate indoor footwear, such as slippers and lighter articles of clothing. Recognizing these circumstances, the students would then dismiss any initial hypothesis that the teachers are more lenient than those in the U.S.

This example of intercultural discovery can serve as an analogy for outcomes assessment. When we are constructing a course, we may have a number of outcomes we hope students will achieve by the end of the course. In order to get to those outcomes, it might be useful for a student to recognize how those outcomes are different from current practice. The practices students bring with them to the classroom are based within particular cultural contexts. In order to demonstrate a new practice that is highly valued by the instructor, a student needs to begin to recognize the larger context within which this new practice is a part and within which it makes sense to engage in this new behavior.

In the next post, I will describe more about ways to create outcomes and assessments for intercultural communication.

References

Carbaugh, D. (2007). Cultural discourse analysis: Communication practices and intercultural encounters. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 36(3), 167-182. Available from: http://works.bepress.com/donal_carbaugh/11/

Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

For further reading, please see:
http://www.cios.org/encyclopedia/ethnography/8references.htm

 

Conquering the Cultural Barriers of Teaching in Thailand by Charles McKinney

Conquering the Cultural Barriers of Teaching in Thailand
By Charles McKinney

Charles McKinney with students

I moved to Bangkok, Thailand in January 2013 to earn my master’s degree as a full-time student at Webster University Thailand. I needed to find work to support myself. After two months of hunting, I landed a job at a private language school teaching English, something I was qualified to do as a TESOL-certified American with two years of previous overseas ESL expertise.

Having never taught Thai students before, I initially struggled to satisfy their learning needs. The students expected me to teach by talking; they wanted to participate as little as possible. My boss told me that, unlike American students who take an active role, Thai students are often quite passive learners.

Classes were mostly one-on-one, a new format for me. A few lessons were cancelled after students griped about my teaching methods, disliking the fact that I was following the textbook lesson plan precisely rather than teaching from my knowledge of the topics and using the book minimally. I started out teaching academic writing and grammar to adolescents who found the material dry; thus my challenge was to make it more interesting for them.

Really, I had no lessons in technique: my busy boss usually gave me the necessary resources to teach and then left me to figure out the rest on my own with minimum advice. So, after nearly a month of floundering to improve my teaching performance my boss decided to give me a two-month hiatus (although I did not know this at the time). It turned out she was right: I needed more time to adapt to the culture and the students.

A few months later, I was called back to teach a new academic writing class for a mid-career professional who wanted to return to school. This time I brought my computer with me, using the Internet as an aid to my lesson plan. I prepared PowerPoint presentations to convey the material in an engaging and orderly manner. Throughout the two-month class, we managed to build rapport and exchange cultural knowledge that helped us to understand one another as individuals.

“Here are pictures of my Buddhist monk ceremony, a rite of passage that many Thai men experience,” my student shared with me one day. In return, I showed him a student newspaper from my college days. “This is my pride and joy as former editor-in-chief of the paper; you can learn about my culture through this medium,” I told him. It was one of those cultural insight moments I cherished. As our class progressed, he gave my boss positive feedback about me – and my confidence in my new techniques improved.

I was not only the first American, but the first African-American teacher this school hired. I have now taught students from Bhutan and Russia as well as Thailand. This experience has taught me the values of patience, flexibility, humility and effective cross-cultural communication. Teachers can make a difference in students’ lives, especially in cultures that are drastically different from their own, but students also make a difference in their teachers’ lives. They learned some English, but I learned about their cultures. Creating a comfortable space for students to be themselves, and remembering that teachers also learn from their students, can foster wonderful intercultural dialogues.

Charles McKinney is a recent MA media communications graduate from Webster University Thailand. Having embarked on a rewarding career of ESL/EFL teaching as an expat in East Asia, Charles is hoping to secure an English Language Fellowship with the US Embassy for the new school year and is making plans to possibly join the Peace Corps next year. CID’s website was helpful during Charles’s master’s thesis research, and he wrote this essay as a way of giving back. Contact him through LinkedIn.

Why Cosmopolitanism?

Ah, cosmopolitanism.  The first time I found you, I was taking a class on global and transnational ethnography with Dr. Takeyuki Tsuda.  I read an article by Ulf Hannerz titled Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture.  He has since retracted many of the things he wrote in this article.  And yet, for the first time, I felt that I had read an intercultural theory (in an anthropology class, no less) that actually applied to my life.  So much of the work I’d done up until this point examined intercultural theories that provided dichotomies.  You were EITHER individualist OR collectivist.  When you travel, you EITHER make friends from your home culture OR your host culture.  You are EITHER a patriot OR an interculturalist.  Profoundly unsatisfying to me, as my experiences often hinged on dialectical tensions and dialogical experiences—those moments that exist between the both/and, rather than the either/or.  Cosmopolitanism was the first theory I’d ever read that said you could be BOTH rooted AND rootless; BOTH local AND global; that maybe you would be the most comfortable with others who experienced similar tensions, who live in spaces of in-between-ness.

And then the backlash set in.  Cosmopolitanism, you were not what I thought you were!  Cosmopolitanism, I was informed, really isn’t a theory of both/and.  This is a theory of exclusivity, of the ‘class consciousness of frequent travelers’; sure there was a sense of both/and-ness, but only for those privileged enough to be able to engage in voluntary sojourns that inevitably involve Western imperialism and cultural commodification.  Why would anyone want to study this concept? I was interrogated about the inherent violence that cosmopolitanism—particularly in its Kantian and previously Greco-Roman Stoic iterations.  This is a theory of global citizenship only accessible to those who have the privilege of being citizens in that kind of world.

And yet, cosmopolitanism, you continued to proliferate, to grow in breadth and depth.  From when I first learned the term in 2006, to the present day (2014), cosmopolitanism theorists flocked to you, across disciplines ranging from sociology and political economy to religious studies and linguistics.  Everyone was coming to the party—which also involved directly addressing the critiques of elitism and western imperialism brought with such ferocity by its opponents.  Forms of vernacular, non-Western, non-elite and critical cosmopolitanism, which have actually been around since its nascence in places like ancient China in the philosophies of Mo Tzu and Mencius, as well as being promoted by the African philosophy of Maat, are resurfacing in work by such scholars as Pnina Werbner, George Delanty and Walter Mignolo.

In intercultural communication, we are, to extend the metaphor, late to your party.  Intercultural communication scholars, particularly those who embrace critical and postcolonial approaches, are only now beginning to accept that this cosmopolitanism a term that is growing in strength, rather than waning.  As the world shrinks and difference becomes something that can no longer be hidden from (if it ever could), cosmopolitanism in its critical and vernacular forms has reemerged as a theory for our time, which insists not that we should all embrace each others’ many and varied values, but rather that we should understand that we all have values, and all hold those values dear to ourselves and the people and things we love.  This kind of dialogic empathy requires hope as an approach to non-binary thinking.  Cosmopolitanism is not a project that can be forced upon people; instead, it must be voluntarily embraced as an ethic of care for the world, from those next door to those across the ocean.   My colleague Dr. Nilanjana Bardhan and I have recently published a book titled Cultivating Cosmopolitanism for Intercultural Communication:  Communicating as Global Citizens, in which we propose cosmopolitanism’s use for our discipline as a space of hopeful dialogue to move from either/or to a space of both/and.  Cosmopolitanism, you may not be the answer, but you certainly deserve to be a part of both the discipline the dialogue.

Miriam S. Sobre-Denton
Assistant Professor | Intercultural Communication
Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Feeling felt: The heart of the dialogic moment?

Feeling felt: The heart of the dialogic moment?

by Robyn Penman

In Maria Flora Mangano’s post on A space of relationship for dialogue among cultures she describes how a student was able to talk about his personal experience during the genocide in Burundi because of the space of the relationship that was created for class members to speak without any fear of offence. The experience within this space of relationship was so profound that by time the student finished talking, the class was so “touched they couldn’t speak”.

As I read Maria Flora’s post I was struck by the way the experience was described metaphorically in terms of physical contact: the students were “touched”, the speaker “felt” understood. I know this is a common way of talking about poignant moments in dialogue and other “close” encounters. However, my recent foray into the interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) research literature has made me more alert to such metaphors and given me reason to draw attention to it here.

Extensive research evidence across the neuroscience field indicates that relationships are crucial to brain development and neural functioning throughout the life cycle. We are, to use Mona Fishbane’s phase, “wired to connect”. The fact that our relationships, and presumably the quality of them, can impact on brain development is, in itself, something to take note of. However, IPNB has taken this broad notion further and fleshed out a number of ideas about how these connections work and what their impact may be. One of these ideas concerns the sense of “feeling felt”.

Daniel Siegel, who coined the term interpersonal neurobiology, uses the concept of “feeling felt” to describe the ability of one person to empathically and authentically encounter another person; especially in the early parent-infant relationship.  According to Siegel, “feeling felt” is characteristic of secure infant-parent relationships: the more infants “feel felt”, the better their attachment and the sounder their development pathway.

While there is still some controversy about the specific role played by neural mechanisms in the ability to be empathic, the concept of feeling felt and its role in childhood development has a great deal of merit. The concept of feeling felt also seems to have merit when we come to adult relationships, and to dialogue specifically.

When I was reading descriptions of the “feeling felt” phenomenon I was struck by the extent to which it resonated with Martin Buber’s sense of “being”. In his discussions of dialogue, Buber made a distinction between “being” and “seeming” in an encounter with another. For Buber, the being person is acting authentically into the encounter and, in acting thus, makes dialogue possible. The moment when two people fully experience each other as “being” in the relationship signifies a dialogic moment. In exactly the same vein we could say that dialogue has occurred when each person feels felt by the other.

The interpersonal neurobiology literature would suggest that this striving to feel felt is part of our neurological make-up. We strive for connection, and we yearn to feel felt from infancy onwards. But, equally important, the existence of this neurophysiological dimension would also suggest that “feeling felt” is a cross-cultural phenomenon. It may be that the way this “feeling felt” is described in different languages differs but the yearning for it may not. It leaves us with an interesting possibility. As scholars, we may not be able to agree on a definition of dialogue but, as participants, we know one when we have one: we feel felt.

References:

Buber, Martin. 1965. Between man and man.

Siegel, Daniel J., & Hartzell, Mary. 2003. Parenting from the Inside Out. Penguin.

A space of relationship for dialogue among cultures

A lesson dedicated to the genocide in Burundi: An occasion of dialogue as a space of relationship among cultures
by Maria Flora Mangano

I am happy to share with you what happened recently in my class, during a lesson dedicated to the genocide of Rwanda and Burundi. I am currently lecturing on dialogue among cultures at St. Peter’s Philosophical-Theological Institute in Viterbo, Italy.

One of the students comes from Burundi; his name is Jean. He introduced himself during the first lesson, describing his background and choice of life as a religious. One day outside of class, he mentioned the war in Burundi and the genocide of 1993. In that moment he shared with me and two Italian students what it was like to be a Tutsi. In 2 or 3 minutes he described a few images of the genocide, which he lived through when he was 12 years old; thanks to God, all his family survived. I was shocked by his words and I asked him if he would be able to share his experience with the class, proposing that the students would both listen to his story and see part of the film Hotel Rwanda together. We could organise this special and unforgettable lesson in a couple of hours.

Jean prepared a powerpoint and presented the story of his country and the story of his family and relatives during those three terrible days of the genocide. I proposed to the class not to see the entire movie (which is quite long, so we saw only the trailer) but rather to dedicate the majority of the time to Jean’s personal story. I introduced the technical vocabulary, including genocide and shoah, sharing what these terms have meant in the last century and what they mean now. The 16 students come from 9 countries; some of them did not know even where Burundi was. I asked the students to try to create a space of relationship in which they could speak without any fear of offending or to be offended.

Jean was extremely clear in explaining the historical background, presenting the political and social aspects underlying the genocide. Then he shared his story with us. I am still speechless, shocked and impressed. It was the first time that one of my students desired to share what the genocide was for him and he prepared everything in detail. One young person who survived the genocide decided to offer his experience as a gift, not in revenge. He was able to share his memories, even if these are still dramatic and negative.

Jean said that in African culture the tradition is oral, not written and for this reason it is not possible to ask to him (or others) to write about their experience. He prefers talking over writing about it, but he never did so before this, as he said that the open hurts rest open even after time and sharing.

At the end of his time, all the students were so impressed and touched they could not speak. I ask the students to take time and then to try to share with Jean their feelings, also to try to thank him in a real way. I hope it will yet happen.

I am happy to share this wonderful experience of dialogue and sharing in class. I hope to be able to publish about it in the future. As scholar, I felt that this should be our way of teaching, especially given the discipline of communication we try to teach (and learn). Let’s go ahead to try to do the best with our students and in research on this issue. I am still convinced that we may try to re-write history through dialogue.

I am sharing what happened because it is uncommon to talk about the genocide of Rwanda (and Burundi) for people who survived this. It is still too early, as Jean told me. I consider this moment an important effect of dialogue among cultures, as this student chose to share his life with the class and he prepared the lesson on his own, without any help from me. He chose what to say, also decided not to show any pictures of the genocide and he carefully chose the words to describe those days. He also chose to first present the political and historical conditions as a necessary introduction to the genocide.

Afterwards, Jean reported that he felt understood by the class, so probably he was ready to share this moment. In the days since, I have received mails from him and from the others who have expressed their appreciation for that moment. I have the feeling that we built the space for relationship as the basis of dialogue during the course, and that this moment significantly enriched this space.

NOTE: See the response prompted by this post, by Robyn Penman.

Miike reflection on international/cultural communication

On Inheriting the Fields of International and Intercultural Communication: A Personal Reflection*
Yoshitaka Miike (University of Hawai‘i at Hilo)

To inherit is to receive as legacy, place adequate value on and make a part of one’s life. But to be a custodian of a great legacy is to guard, preserve, expand and promote it. It is to honor it by building on and expanding it and, in turn, leaving it as an enriched legacy for future generations.

Maulana Karenga (1996, p. 551)

The International and Intercultural Communication Division (IICD) of the National Communication Association (NCA) was founded as a commission in 1971 and later formed as a division in 1984. I am thus the 42nd incoming chair of this flourishing division. When I think about the history of the IICD and its critical role in advocating diversity and advancing internationalization within the NCA, I feel the heavy weight of the gavel that Dr. S. Lily Mendoza at Oakland University passed to me in Washington, D.C. With an eye on the 100th Anniversary of the NCA next year, I would like to offer a personal year-end reflection on how we may inherit the fields of international and intercultural communication. More specifically, I wish to suggest that we (1) “create a community of a larger memory” of our fields (to borrow Dr. Ronald Takaki’s [1998] words), (2) clarify our theoretical ideas  and practical issues without sacrificing their complexities, and (3) generate knowledge that bridges differences especially from non-U.S. and non-elite perspectives.

*Source: Miike, Y. (2013, December). On Inheriting the Fields of International and Intercultural Communication: A Personal Reflection. National Communication Association’s International and Intercultural Communication Division Newsletter, pp. 4-7.

Example of dialogue among cultures

The following note comes from Maria Flora Mangano, one of the participants at the NCA Conference on Intercultural Dialogue in Istanbul in 2009. She told me what she would be doing, and I asked if she would be willing to write about the results for this site.

An interesting example of dialogue among cultures
Maria Flora Mangano

I have just taught a course in a rather unique context. The course was Communication of Scientific Research, offered to students (MSc and PhD) at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute, located in Bari (in Southern Italy). The Institute is part of the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies, located in Paris.

This course was an extraordinary experience: five days, of 8 hours of lessons per day, supplemented by moments of dialogue during the meals and after dinner. All told, a very intense week, with more than 25 students from Masters and PhD courses in various agronomic disciplines. Among the group, only two were Italian, the other students coming from almost 15 countries in the Mediterranean area, from Kosovo to Morocco.

The course produced many challenges for me: first of all, the fear to propose content in a non-native language, especially topics related to dialogue as a space of relationship among, beyond and across our cultures and disciplines; then the proposal of building this space during all the week, in class and out, with students who came from countries where there are still conflicts.

We discussed in class the attack in Beirut last week, as one student had parents who lived in that zone; the same with the Egyptian students with whom we tried to talk about the 50 deaths in Cairo during the riots in the streets.

It was extremely intense to dialogue with students about the value of the other and otherness, starting from European philosophy, which risked appearing far from all their cultures. I tried to introduce the content starting from keywords, as I usually do in my teaching activities, also in Latin and ancient Greek languages, exploring the meaning of the various terms in all of their languages.

I proposed that every student introduce her or himself in 10 minutes by using whatever tools they wanted. We spent a lot of time in class analyzing their oral presentations, which were delivered by slide, oral speeches, or music (one student played some songs from his country with a guitar).

The issues around scientific research gave me the opportunity to introduce other topics related to the relationship with the other, which are different for every country. I also shared with them the notion of creating a “safe” space of dialogue.

One exercise used the short film, Twice upon a time (about bilingualism in Canada). The results were interesting: the students who came from countries close to the European tradition (if we can use this expression), like Turkey or the Balkans (in particular, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia), appreciated the movie and found it a fitting conclusion to the lesson. But the students from the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria) and from the Middle East (Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon) did not enjoy it as much. In fact, they found it boring and a bit excessive, as they did not fully appreciate the issues depicted.

Ramadam started during the course, which provided another wonderful opportunity for sharing and dialogue. The majority of the students in this course were Muslim, but only about half were observant. Those who were needed to fast (not only avoiding food, but also even water), throughout the day, even though in Southern Italy the summer is hot. I proposed to the students that I would participate in their evening prayer, after dinner, for almost one hour, since it was the only one of the five times dedicated to daily prayer that we might share. They were very happy and surprised, as they told me that it was uncommon for a non-Muslim to join in prayer with them.

At the end of the sessions we had ice cream in the garden (the campus is really beautiful), after dinner and after prayer. It was another occasion for interaction among the group members, including some students who were not enrolled in this course.

Course CSR_MAI 2013-rev
I asked students to send me their feedback and so I have been receiving beautiful notes. I have the feeling that we shared something new, beyond only disciplinary content, as many of them have now told me.

Intercultural Dialogue: Saudi Arabia

Listening carefully to intercultural dialogue in Saudi Arabia

By Trudy Milburn, Ph.D.

Associate Scholar of the University of Washington Center for Local Strategies Research

Asked to travel to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia last March to conduct training sessions at a local university I felt some trepidation, but ultimately agreed to go.  Fear of terrorist activity against foreigners was my main concern.  However, since I study intercultural communication, I was excited to learn first-hand about a culture and a region that seemed to only be in the news because of oil and war.

One interaction I witnessed in a public square has remained somewhat of a mystery.

Our guide escorted my colleague and I to the old city-center that functions as an historic landmark and museum. As we arrived, we heard the call from the loud-speakers near minarets to prayer time.  Everyone began moving in the direction of the nearest mosque. Some women knelt to pray on prayer rugs in or near the shops. I asked about the difference, and was told that the women can pray anywhere, it is only men who must go to the mosque. Our guide himself was exempt for two reasons, he was still a student and because he was working.

Standing quite near us, by the entrance to this museum, were about three or four young men, perhaps in their early twenties.  Their dress identified them as Muslim, but since they did not wear head coverings, I could not tell if they were Saudi men.  We watched an elderly woman approach the group of men and speak loudly, gesturing towards the mosque.  From an American perspective, it seemed that she was berating them for not going to the mosque.  Her tone and the volume of her talk made it sound like she was really disapproving of them. She stood near to the group and continued in this manner for some time. In comparison to her, the few others remaining in the square were quiet and you could begin to hear the chanting of the prayer from the mosque’s loudspeakers. She seemed to be causing quite a scene and the men shifted their stances as she approached, backed off, and re-approached.

We asked our guide what she was saying.  From our American perspective, we imagined that she must be chastising them for not attending the prayer with everyone else. What our guide told us surprised us.  He said that she was beseeching them, as good sons, to attend.  To confirm my recollection, I asked my colleague and he recounted that we were told that she was telling the men how much she cared for them and loved them and that they should be good and pray. My colleague was holding the camera taking the video while I was speaking; we saw interaction in the background. Here’s the video, since the individuals are too far away to identify.

The rhetorical choices she made to persuade these men to go to the mosque initially suggested she was breaking the social norm whereby women typically respond to men’s lead.  However, her ability to shift the frame and take the role of a concerned parent who was merely reminding them of their duty to Allah, indicates a rhetorical sensitivity we would be wise to heed.  Perhaps some situations where dialogue seems impossible actually have spaces where, given the proper roles, one can make statements that otherwise would be considered unlikely or impossible.