In this section you will find some theoretical input, videos and method sheets to explore how cultural differences affect the way we think and feel about relationships and intimacy. This work is based on Margalit Cohen Emerique’s intercultural approach that takes as central concept “culture shock”, but the activities we present were developed by members of the IRIS team.

We propose three different ways of learning through and with culture shocks:
1. Read our collection of analysed culture shocks or critical incidents to gain some illustrations of cultural diversity in intimacy and relationships
2. Use the method to analyse together incidents that young people experience. To get started, please check out our video “Analysis of critical incidents” and our method sheet “Analysing culture shocks with icebergs”. Depending on your group, to work with this method you may need to do some preparatory activities, and embed the work of analysis into a longer workshop. This leads us to point 3..
3. You can also use our materials to create your own workshops exploring cultural diversity in domains of relationships and intimacy. To get started, we recommend having a look at our videos and our method sheets

What is a culture shock?

The concept of “culture shock” has been used in a variety of definitions and perspectives, so let’s start clearing up how we understand it – what it is, and what it is not.

  • First of all “culture shock” is not a characteristic of a migrant, or a culturally different other. It is always relational, emerging in the connection of two or more people who have different ways of thinking about, being in the world.
  • Though we call it “shock” it is not necessarily something big and dramatic. It can be quite subtle. In fact, we prefer it to be not so dramatic. For instance, episodes of severe manifest violence for us are beyond culture shock, and are probably better dealt with through other tools than a cultural analysis.

Let’s bring in the definition of Margalit Cohen-Emerique, whose approach we propose to work with.  She defines culture shock as…

… an interaction with a person or object from a different culture, set in a specific space and time, which provokes negative or positive cognitive and affective reactions, a sensation of loss of reference points, a negative representation of oneself and feeling of lack of approval that can give rise to uneasiness and anger“ (Cohen-Emerique 2011)

How to work with culture shocks ?

Experiencing culture shocks can reinforce stereotypes and prejudice, but all such incident also has the potential to become a powerful source of learning if we don’t obey our need to close and quickly forget the situation but ponder on what may be behind it…

For the culture shock to become a source of learning, we have to open it up, carefully exploring what’s behind it, what it is that really caused it and what are the reasons for the emotional reaction it triggered.  The method we propose is based on the idea that “it takes two to tango”, that if there is a shock it is because of differences between the ways the protagonists experience or think about the world. The subjective emotional reaction of the person who experiences the shock is always indicator of what is important for her or him, it sheds light on norms, values, representations that are important.  You can follow an example of analysis in our collection of critical incidents

All in all, in culture shock we learn about the other, but also about our own culture. What’s more, exploring what are the most frequent themes of culture shock – or critical incident helps us to unveil the sensitive zones, which are cultural domains of particular importance, susceptible to become a source of tension in intercultural contact. When you scroll through our Collection of critical incidents, you’ll see that the incidents are classified under six such sensitive zones: relationship to groups, relationship to each other, relationship to authority and power, conceptions of what’s private and public, gender and professional identity.
When you open one of our incidents, you’ll discover that the analysis is organised into a strange shape. This is not by coincidence.

Icebergs and culture shocks

Icebergs are probably the favorite metaphor of intercultural trainers, and for a good reason: they capture a fundamental truth about the “nature of culture”.
Consider this: wherever you are, you are surrounded by signs of culture. Look around just now; you are probably facing a computer, sitting on a chair, within a built environment, a room, you are probably dressed in a particular way. Around you there may be decorations, books, images, souvenirs. All these items are perceptible, visible: they constitute the visible part of the iceberg above the water level. But in order to understand them fully, we have to tap on a larger baggage of values, norms and representations that give the real meaning to these cultural manifestations. These, like the hidden part of the iceberg are usually invisible to us.
In intercultural contact, misunderstandings and conflicts can emerge, because we attach different meanings and importance to the same visible element. Most of the time we’re not even aware of the hidden meanings of our own cultural references, let alone those of other cultures. We do however take our models as the standard, and assume the others behave on the same premises. But they don’t necessarily do so. A kiss on the cheek for a colleague may be the sign of politeness in one context and a sign of intrusion and harassment in another context.
In most intercultural interaction two icebergs meet: two different sets of norms and values, and sometimes they collide. It is to give visibility to this idea that we present the critical incidents by displaying the two separate icebergs of the protagonists: the person who told us about the shock episode and the person(s) who triggered it. Icebergs may give a dramatic touch to the idea of “culture shock”, but even with this metaphor we have a message of optimism: giving visibility to hidden values and norms does not make the situation worse, in fact It is a first step to work out solutions.

Here we present you the outline of a workshop to introduce the concept of “culture shock” and the method adopted to work with culture shocks originally developed by Margalit Cohen-Emerique.  You can find the description of the specific activities under “Method sheets”, here we present you the flow of the workshop.

The outline below is for 7h broken up in 2 days, but it may be possible to structure it differently. We advise to make a break after the collection of critical incidents so that the facilitator can read them, if necessary, make further research and select them accordingly.

30’ Intro, get to know each-other

Whatever activity that helps people connect to each other and to the subject of relationships and intimacy

30’ Safety rules and the heart

Establish a safe space for all

45’ Culture in the room and with an iceberg.

Exploration of the concept of culture.
Learning points: culture is everywhere around us, even inside us (the way we sit, the way we dress and prepare our bodies etc)
No human space is “culture-free”, it is always shaped by the values, representations, norms of the people that have created it.
Introducing the metaphor of iceberg: becoming aware that underneath each visible / audible manifestation of culture there are hidden norms, values that give their meaning.
15’ Break

45’ Decentering with images – and with an iceberg

Simulation of culture shock with a set of images answering three questions, and debriefing through the iceberg metaphor

45’ Introduction of the concept of critical incidents and writing the incidents

Using a flipchart paper, derive the concept of “culture shock” / “critical incident”

Explore the key ingredients: sources, reactions, consequences etc..

Distributing the tables for the incidents and inviting everyone to write one.

30’ Introducing the method of analysis through an example

Bringing an own incident and showing how to analyse it filling out the tables and the icebergs.

30’ Creating the groups around incidents

Making small groups

45’ Analysis in small groups

Each small group analysis an incident

Facilitator walks among the groups and checks if all is understood.

15’ Break - at one point during the small-group work

75’ Sharing analysis

The small groups present the analysis they have done with the icebergs.

Facilitators and members of the other groups can ask more questions and make suggestions.

15’ Assessment

Assessing how participants felt during the sessions and what they have learnt.

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