One of the greatest challenges of writing about intercultural communication competencies from an authoritative position is that I often fail at so many of them. Like when Laura became engaged to marry, she had just completed a graduate degree in Marriage & Family Therapy and I was finishing a graduate degree in Human Communication. People would comment that marriage was going to be a breeze for us, and I, young and very naive about long-term relationships, believed them. After eleven years of marriage to Laura I can say she definitely makes marriage a wonderful experience, but the reality is that each day requires learning more about each other, serving each other, and forgiving each other. it turns out that a few courses and a diploma did not keep us safe from any tough days, but they did help.
Similarly, even with a doctorate in Intercultural Communication, I find myself failing to sometimes recognize opportunities to engage diversity and even when it is blatantly obvious I still often fail at it. Engaging diversity, as it relates to the Go Culture International program’s assessment and coaching method, deals with our desire and ability to purposefully interact with people who look, act, and smell differently than us. We could dive deep right here into well-known Intercultural Communication scholars and their respective theories on this topic, including Hofstede, Ting-Toomey, Gudykunst and others’ revelations about how we interact across cultural contexts. But, instead, let’s focus on one primary element and challenge that brings this concept home in a truly tangible manner.
We all gravitate to those similar to ourselves. This is normal and does not require a sense of guilt because it needs “fixin'” (as my Missouri relatives would note). No, the truth is that we want to be comfortable, so in order to catch that feeling, we seek out situations and people who make us feel that way. Oppositely, engaging with people who are different from you will likely make you feel uncomfortable, a feeling most of us hope to avoid. Herein lies our desire to engage with similarity rather than diversity. Engaging or interacting with those who are different from us can make our feet feel itchy, hands sweaty, and face a little too warm. These sound a bit like flu-like symptoms, but they are quite common placed in an uncomfortable situation. Simply stated, we just want to get away. Don’t worry, there is a good chance the other person is feeling the same way.
So what helps? I dealt with a social anxiety for about ten years and to be honest, most interactions made me feel a bit like what I just described. Once I finally put my pride aside long enough to walk in the door of a counseling office, my wise counselor hit me with this tip that I now share with you. If you are looking for a magic pill or mental trigger-word that will immediately alleviate this discomfort, you are about to be sorely disappointed. However, if you want to grow as a person and become truly engaging of diversity, you must increase your exposure. That means that if you grew up in a rural Christian home, walk into an Islamic house of worship and ask questions (not to just argue). If you grew up in a large city, call a local dairy farmer after 8 AM and before 3 PM (ask him or her why) and ask if you can help with tomorrow’s milking. And yes, if live in a area that has seen an influx of international individuals and families (university campus communities, for example), your challenge is to engage diversity by reaching out to kindly invite a student, new local international doctor, or that low English-skill family that just moved down the street over for Thanksgiving; it’s not too late. Take the first step in exposing yourself to diversity, and I can tell you from experience, exposure typically brings increased comfort and enjoyment, something we all seek.