The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Intercultural

A Short Essay on the Art of Tipping In and Out of Cultures

News | Patrick Schmidt | May 2008

Gustave Courbet’s painting Bonjour metaphorically explains the intercultural respect of cultural uniqueness

Globalization is rapidly breaking down our vision of a world with well-defined national, cultural and linguistic boundaries. Cheap computers and internet service, and innovations like Google, YouTube and Wikipedia are enabling a constant flow of knowledge and ideas across borders. This, along with the emergence of faster and cheaper transportation, has meant even the remotest parts of the planet have been bought into instantaneous contact with one another.

Marshall McCluhan’s "global village" has, in this sense, become reality.

Not surprisingly, intercultural competence has taken on an importance that no one could have imagined 15 or 20 years ago. We have shifted into a new mode of living where cross-cultural contact has become almost a daily occurrence. Our lives have been enriched, but at the same time become more complex. The very nature of intercultural communication — different languages, behavior patterns and values — makes it imperative to avoid assumptions of similarity, to stimulate consideration of difference. Thus, intercultural skills – the ability to understand different values and beliefs behind behavior and reconciling them with your own — are the things most urgently needed in today’s world.

Now, this skill can’t be obtained overnight – it’s a gradual process, usually requiring many years of dealing with difference, by living in another culture. Although it can be shortened through cross-cultural training, the general rule is, the more experience one has with foreign ways, the better. So, an American who has lived in Austria for twenty years will intuitively know when to adapt to Austrian values than, let say, an American student who has recently arrived.

But more interesting, how do you recognize intercultural competence?

To begin with, watch for complex allegiance. An intercultural person has gone beyond an original group’s value-system and is able to adapt. Identity becomes less fixed, more a process than a product. The experience of self moves in and out of different worldviews, and people no longer think in ethnocentric terms — as in, "my country is the best." They are comfortable with multiple and ambiguous cultural conditions and become, in a sense, "cross-cultural swingers," juggling of two or more competing value-systems.

A good example of this is Arnold Schwarzennegger: when he visits Austria, he’s as Austrian as you can get, but upon returning California, he swings back to his adopted American-ness. Whatever you think of him as an actor or politician, it’s hard to deny his intellectual and emotional openness to others, his ability to embrace the change necessary for growth and the freedom to be different.

In the vast majority of cases, the intercultural person speaks more than one language. Through language you learn not only vocabulary and grammar, but an entire way of understanding the world, a set of frames in which experience and meaning are connected. And each new linguistic reality, teaches you much more about yourself.

The intercultural person is able to see and feel the relativity of beliefs, and also of decisions — so there is no absolute standard of "rightness." It’s a dynamic process, a continuing awareness of your own cultural boundaries, but parallel to that, allowing yourself to expand and wander into another person’s mind. This "other" perspective, what we call empathy, permits events to be reconstructed as alternative cultural experiences.

However, this ability to see one’s self within a collection of various cultural frames of references — a sort of  "dynamic in-between-ness" — can cause some to lose their primary cultural identity and create what might be described as internal culture shock.

The breakdown of identity leads to cultural  marginality — existing on the periphery of two or more cultures. It’s at this stage when Milan Kundera’s "unbearable lightness of being" take on meaning. It suggests that each life is ultimately insignificant; thus, each decision one takes,whether based on your own culture or an adopted culture, ultimately doesn’t matter; these decisions have no weight, they’re "light," they don’t tie us down.

But at the same time, insignificance is unbearable: when our decisions, i.e. our lives or "being" so not matter, we no longer exist. This condition is common among long-term expatriates and "global nomads." Because of conflicting identities, they subconsciously tend to seek out other cultural marginals rather than people from any one of the cultures they know.

Despite periodic identity confusion and the "unbearable" meaninglessness of an un-rooted life, people at this stage may seek out roles that allow them to be intercultural mediators, as reflected in statements like: "I love the varieties of cultures! Change is so stimulating, and keeps me from going stale."

Broadly speaking, this is a person who can understand and reconcile the dilemmas of the human condition, generating respect and appreciation for other realities. For example, when an American has decided to proceed on a trial-and-error basis, but is confronted with the Austrian need to plan everything out, the intercultural person will try to understand this need as a real — not a frivolous — concern and act accordingly.

This is not to say that the person has lost a sense of values. One always preserves some "ethnocentrism," certain fundamental habits of mind along with the "other-culture awareness." This is perfectly natural; a person needs a healthy identity-based ego and tested approaches to life. However, we are being forced to move from the "nationalistic" toward a greater recognition and acceptance of other ways of living.

But as we can never know another culture fully, the goal is to raise our sensitivity and reach some degree of cross-cultural comprehension.


This article is adapted from the author’s book "In Search of Intercultural Understanding", published by Meridian World Press – ISBN 978-0-9685293-1-7, available at bookshops in Vienna such as Shakespeare and Company, the British Book Shop, Frick Buchhandlung or on Price Euro 19,90

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