More than thirty years after my first international adventure, I still think about those first Chinese students that changed the course of my life so long ago. As my life has unfolded, I have pursued a master’s degree and Ph.D in the quest to learn more about the art of intercultural communication. An English-as-a-Second-Language colleague from that first international teaching experience in China and I have developed an intercultural communication ‘bridge’ program where international students and Lane Community College students learn intercultural communication principles from each other.
So have all these years of studying, teaching, and intellectual curiosity made me more culturally competent? Maybe. Maybe not but I’d like to hope so. Cultural competence is the ability to understand and communicate effectively across cultural boundaries. If I am culturally competent, I understand my own cultural worldview and have a positive attitude about cultural differences. While cultural norms and worldviews do exist, there are many variations within them. An individual’s life experience is rich, diverse, and complicated, so cultural competency can only take us so far in our understanding of intercultural communication.
In 1998, medical doctors Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia (1998) introduced the concept of cultural humility to healthcare providers. Cultural humility is a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique to develop beneficial relationships acknowledging that each one of us “is a unique intersection of various aspects of culture” (Vanderhoef, et al., ret. 8/10/19). Through humility, we accept that:
It is impossible to learn all cultures—we cannot know everything, but we can become familiar.
Knowledge of cultures does not create mastery and standardization.
Perceived mastery can lead to miscommunication or mismanagement [of communication]. (Vanderhoef, et al., ret. 8/10/19)
My own personal goal is no longer strictly cultural competence, but rather using the principles of cultural humility to create a gracious space for communication. Gracious space refers to a collaborative leadership model developed by the Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Washington in Seattle (Hughes, 2018) that promotes a safe and supportive environment for group work. There are three core elements of gracious space.
The first is ‘spirit’ or bringing an attitude of safety, compassion, curiosity, and humor to the communication interaction.
The second is ‘inviting the stranger’ or welcoming diverse perspectives in order to learn from each other.
And the last is ‘learning in public’ or suspending judgment and remaining open to learning. (Hughes, 2018)
My goal with this book was first, and foremost, to make studying intercultural communication in college more affordable for students, but once the course has been completed, my hope is that you continue to grow in cultural humility while creating your own gracious space in which to learn. Intercultural communication is a life skill that I hope that you will continually build upon as you meet new people and find yourself in new situations. I hope that you find joy in the journey.