Strangeness can only arise in relation to the other, the unknown. This means, for example, when we compare our cultural characteristics with those elsewhere on earth, they often appear foreign to us. Of course, it is the same the other way around. Many Mexicans, Chinese or Ghanaians, for example, also find our German culture foreign, i.e. unfamiliar. When we encounter „foreign“, intercultural competence is particularly in demand. With this ability we can understand the other culture better and enrich our long-term stay.
Stereotypes, which can be positive or negative, can be used to mentally simplify complex characteristics and reactions of people from other cultures. For example, someone who has never come into contact with a particular culture will initially stick to the information he already has. He tries to put the behavior of people who are foreign to him in a known context in order to create his own simplified picture, and to be able to orientate himself. This makes it easier to deal with other cultures at first. However, everyone should be aware that this information about the other culture is only very incomplete and must be questioned.
„It’s harder to shatter a preconceived idea than an atom.“ (Albert Einstein)
„A verdict is debatable, a prejudice never is.“ (Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach)
When this general, simplified information on opinions and attitudes becomes solidified, i.e. highly emotional, one speaks of prejudice. Prejudices are almost always negative.
> Stereotypes due to lack of knowledge (not everyone can know that Oman has become a modern country in the last few decades): „In Oman there are more camels on the roads than cars.“
> Prejudice (to degrade the people there to „camel drivers“ is a prejudice and insulting): „Oman is a backward country where only camel drivers live.“
Reducing prejudices and stereotypes with intercultural competence
Many people feel insecure when meeting the other / stranger, because their value system is deeply affected.
Get to know each other better
To be able to cope with the new situation and to understand the other culture better, you must first become aware of your own culture, value systems and thought patterns. This is not so easy, because our ways of thinking and acting are already shaped in childhood and take place unconsciously.
Get to know your partner better
After this intensive encounter with yourself, it is now time to acquire intercultural competence bit by bit, in order to be able to benefit from the long-term journey and the contact with foreign cultures. Developing tolerance for cultural diversity is a good start, but not enough.
Therefore, besides the language, get to know the people of the other culture more intensively (as in a relationship): How do they see their homeland / the world, how do they think / feel in a certain situation and why …? For this lengthy process it is necessary to spend a long time in the respective place.
Accept that you are changing
The new culture with different views on personal relationships, working methods, problem solving etc. will influence you. You will certainly also become more curious, open and flexible (if you are not already). If you have lived or traveled abroad for a very long time, you will eventually reach the point of not wanting to go back home, but also not really feeling at home in the new culture.
When visiting home, it is expected that the same person who left a long time ago will return. But this will not be the case, which may lead to conflicts with those who stayed at home, whose lives and perspectives have not changed that much.
Learn, learn and do not despair
To penetrate deeply into the new culture and learn more about it without judging it requires a lot of patience and perseverance. See yourself as a neutral observer and also become aware of your own uneasiness if you do not understand certain behavior or processes at all. This is sometimes not easy, but neutral observation and calm acceptance of the situation prevents prejudices and frustrations from being nurtured.
So just try to observe your fellow human beings and develop understanding for them. To gain a deeper cultural insight, you will have to approach the new culture with „trial and error“. This can be a painful learning process. It also helps to have a familiar person from the region at your side and to have certain ways of thinking explained to you from a local perspective.
In this process of adaptation, however, no one should blame the foreign culture for any difficulties that arise, but should simply admit to their negative reactions to certain processes.
Most people go through three phases in the intercultural learning process:
- They are reluctant to change and adapt to their environment.
- They accept the new culture and its demands, but do not change themselves.
- They adapt and change in the sense that they adopt new behaviors, acquire new knowledge and skills and change the way they see things.
It is not about giving up oneself and one’s culture completely, but about developing intercultural sensitivity, i.e. including cultural differences and new cultural patterns in one’s own view.
If you have successfully gone through this intercultural learning process, you can experience the not so foreign culture even more intensively and further deepen your intercultural competence.
Redefine your cultural identity
After all these experiences you should – during long stays abroad – define for yourself where you belong, which values you want to live by, which culture you identify with (of course, there can be several). Maybe you suddenly have the feeling that you no longer belong anywhere or that you are „lost in cultures“.
In any case, even in the farthest corner of the world you should keep in touch with the friends / people from the different cultures that are important to you and have a working network. In the age of the internet, this is actually no longer so difficult. Talk to your friends about how you are doing, so that they can put themselves in your shoes.