Team-working on multicultural campuses

On Friday 17th July 2020, I and a group of over 10 other students and staff from the University of Birmingham (UoB) and the University of Amsterdam (UvA) took part in a joint online multicultural team-working workshop. It was led by UvA’s Manager of International Student Affairs, Guido de Wilde, to explore areas such as intercultural competencies, cultural intelligence and intercultural team working practices, these being increasingly important skills in the workplace.

I especially wanted to sign up to this workshop due to having recently completed my exchange year in the Netherlands, which has inspired me to live and work abroad in the future.

The workshop began with a poll about how we would choose to greet others (in this case disregarding the current social distancing measures). Most of us chose ‘hug’ or ‘shake hands’ which alerted me to the fact that many of us were from or used to western societies, already a cultural similarity despite residing in different countries. This realisation was highlighted by the fact that the one person who chose ‘bow’ said they would only do this in a certain (non-western) country. There were a series of polls throughout the workshop that helped us to engage with each other’s experiences in the online environment.

A second poll asked us about what the most difficult part was in working in a multicultural team. The most popular response to this was ‘differences in language skills.’ Most, if not all of the group had worked or studied abroad at some point, so this was not a surprising result. It did, however, highlight the linguistic diversity of the world we live in and the importance of learning foreign languages, not to a native standard but to a level at which you can be understood, as was explained by a group member who had worked in a company where there was no main shared language. I believe that this is something lacking in the UK, as we often expect people to have perfect English when this is not usually necessary.  

A key term for the workshop was ‘cultural intelligence’ (CQ), meaning ‘an individual’s ability to detect cultural rules and create new ones to function in intercultural situations.’ To have CQ you must have the drive (energy and confidence to persevere through challenging cultural experiences), the knowledge (know-how similar and different rules are across cultures), the strategy (capability to notice your thoughts, reduce stereotypes and adjust strategies to respond) and the action (flexibility to vary behaviours according to what is appropriate in other cultures).

Something I found particularly interesting and hadn’t thought too much about before, was the different scales of communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling that are found in different cultures. Having studied in the Netherlands, I was already aware of the generally more direct style of evaluating (as compared to the UK). However, I didn’t know about the overlapping Latin American conversation pattern, or the East Asian incorporation of silences between speech, in contrast with the Anglo-American way of playing ‘conversation tennis.’

We also discussed other aspects of diversity and inclusion, such as ‘The Gender Unicorn,’ a primarily transgender educational resource describing the differences between gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, physical attraction and emotional attraction. We then looked at the International Symbol of Access (ISA) as well as the individual symbols for cognitive, visual, auditory, motor and speech diffabilities. The term ‘diffability’ is a combination of ‘different’ and ‘ability’ intended to remove the negative connotations of ‘disability.’ This is just one of the inclusive language terms that we engaged with, some others being ‘experiencing homelessness’ instead of ‘homeless’ and ‘under-resourced’ to refer to people with poor access to financial resources.

Although I already considered myself an inclusive person (as all of us who attended the session did), I found this workshop incredibly eye-opening to the range of possible diversities within the international community and will use what I have learned to ensure that I am doing my best to be inclusive in everything I do.

Watch the session on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/dghjqp0ul-o

Lottricia Millett, Final Year BA English and Creative Writing with Year Abroad student at the University of Birmingham

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