La Bella Figura – IRC Connects Across Differences

by | Oct 16, 2023

The difference engine: IRC teaches students how to connect across differences

Many of us may think we know what to expect when in Italy: laid-back southerners, long siestas, a relaxed attitude to punctuality… But wait a minute! Absolutely not!

Students staying in a small town where the shops close from noon to three in the afternoon, may think “Aha! Siesta time!” Then they come up against the Italian students in their university, and their perception changes: they find their fellow students punctual, serious, no signs of any siesta (or riposo, as it is called in Italian), and taking notes and glued to every word the professor utters.

If the puzzled students from abroad ask “Why do you take so many notes?” their Italian fellow students answer, “We need to show the professor, we need it to be seen that we really care about our studies, and we are very serious.”

“It gives an insight into the concept of la bella figura,” says Professor Jane Everett – for Italians, she says, it is necessary to perform attentiveness, as well as simply being attentive, to show your commitment to your studies. “Within the Italian context, to be a good student, you also have to be seen to be a good student. This is an insight for international students who may not care so much about what others think. It’s an interesting learning point when you look at all of the ramifications of that.”

Professor Everett teaches several courses in intercultural competence in Italy and Switzerland–as an academic teacher in LIUC, Libera Università Carlo Cattaneo in Castellanza, and in EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), in Lausanne. “There I teach a course of public speaking where intercultural communication plays a big role.”

Professor Everett grew up in southern England. Her parents were widely travelled, so there was always a sense of the international in her home as she was growing up. She learned and loved and taught the Russian language, and then went to work in the City of London. “I joined a British management company, and this brought me into consulting and training,” she says.

“This was great because it brought together my linguistic background and my interest in other cultures. I transferred to Italy after a year and a half or so working in London – a country that I had never visited, I knew nothing about, didn’t speak the language, though I spoke French and German and Russian. I’m still here after 21 years, and now an Italian speaker, married to an Italian and I have a daughter who’s bilingual!

As well as her academic work, Professor Everett now runs corporate programs with managers to support them in their international teams, whether individually or at a group level, and whether they need to make presentations or run meetings or negotiate working in teams – always with the backdrop of diversity. “Intercultural competence plays a big role, and increasingly so.”

For this, her most important tool is the Intercultural Readiness Check – the IRC, the assessment and training tool for intercultural competence made by Intercultural Business Improvement. “The IRC has become a very significant tool for me in creating the structure of the program and as a pivotal focus – it makes things very concrete, very focused.”

Professor Everett finds that in training a group of anything from eight to twenty people, the IRC allows a direct focus on individual skills and where people want to go within the context of their organization or team. “Intercultural competence is sometimes seen as rather nebulous and abstract. So the IRC is fantastic, because it gives people a quantitative picture of where they are. It is a wonderful tool both in the academic sector and the corporate training sector.”

For many years she has run a course called Intercultural Competences, teaching incoming international students on Erasmus placements. “It is a relatively intensive eight-week course in these students’ first semester when they arrive in Italy, looking at the competences they need during the semester, while they are working in international teams. It facilitates their learning experience – and enriches their social experience.”

The students start by going through the IRC, to get a snapshot of where they are in terms of their four competences: Intercultural Sensitivity, Intercultural Communication, Building Commitment, and Managing Uncertainty. “From that, we discuss. We look at the context in which they are going to be using those competences – in the classroom context, but also more broadly. And I ask them to set KPIs – key performance indicators – to identify what specific goals that they want to work on.”

The results have been a gift of self-knowledge for students. One wrote afterwards, “I’ve come to terms that sometimes things just don’t happen the way I assumed it would, I’ve become okay with that. I don’t get as frustrated easily. I’ve picked up more useful coping skills throughout the semester.”

Part of the use of the IRC is subsequent written reflection. “I ask them to write reflection papers to help them to integrate the skills they learn, to apply these skills in real time into teamworking, giving and receiving feedback, sharing their views and opinions with other people, trying to involve people in the discussions…”

The reflection papers are, says Professor Everett, “the most insightful tool that I have for understanding to what extent a student has understood and taken on board the concepts and the learning, and of course to what extent they’ve been able to apply those.”

Another student wrote, “After giving and receiving different ideas while working together, we also had to agree on what we would do and not do. Thus, I saw how culturally different people decide on how to do things, accept or turn down other people’s ideas and communicate during the creation process. Though I often did this sort of exercise in the past, I really feel like my skills in the area of communication and teamworking developed greatly.”

Sometimes the skills you have yourself can wall you off from other people – a student strong in building commitment revealed that “in regards to Intercultural Communication, we experienced a situation in class which allowed us to put ourselves into others’ shoes and recognize how frustrating it can be to work in a team where people are hesitating to intervene, and on the other side people with a fast-paced style of talking may see interruptions as a way to taking turns.”

The fact that these students all have taken the IRC, revealing to themselves their innate and trained competences, can make them brave. Rather than assuming that others’ way of doing things is, well, cultural, they can open the door to communication. “Because the very fact of having those discussions and making those connections means that both Italian and international students feel much more comfortable. The international students find ‘Wow, the Italians are so open and they’re very helpful and we can see that they’re really dedicated to their studies’, and they start to pick up on signals that tell them that these guys aren’t all just laid-back and having an easy time, that it actually is really hard work to study in Italy. You have to put in a lot of time and effort. Students write about learning that Italian students often work much harder than the international students, put in a lot of effort and really care about the quality of the work they produce.”

Recently, Professor Everett used the IRC with a team that had been working remotely from across the world for over a year. Now they met for the first time, and suddenly quite a critical discussion happened, when the team realized that their communication was not aligned, they were not speaking with one voice. While they were communicating from their separate locations (South Africa, Germany, Ireland, etc), they had not necessarily been sending the same messages (for example, on a specific regulation or company policy). They were much better in synchronizing their messages once they’d got together physically as a team.

It was an extraordinary moment of intercultural awareness, in a team who had thought that they knew each other well. A moment that could only come about with a very special kind of training. Professor Everett is increasingly working with young entrepreneurs now, as well as her more academic focus, and finding that the reflective focus of the IRC can open their road to a new intercultural understanding.

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