The IRC boosting cultural competences for tourism managers

by | Sep 14, 2023

Mr Lee walks through the airport, looking forward to the conference. To smooth out any problems in an unfamiliar country, he has hired a tourism consultant. This is an important conference for him. He has brought along his wife and teenage daughter, who want to visit some of the city’s museums and meet up with friends studying at the local university.

The consultant meets them, smiling, and shakes hands with everybody. It turns out that though Mr Lee’s English is a little hesitant, his daughter has fluent English, and it is possible to communicate easily with her. Win-win!

Every question is directed to her, and every arrangement explained to her, so she can interpret to the others. What a stroke of luck!

Except that somehow, nobody seems very happy. The teenager appears embarrassed, and keeps glancing at her parents. The husband is silent and tight-lipped… What can have gone wrong?

The problem is one of power distance[1]. To the consultant, the question is simple: talk to the most fluent person. But to this family, this is deeply insulting. It would be possible to ask the girl to translate but this – and every other question discussed – needs to be routed through the senior members of the family.

Without this knowledge – and the self-knowledge to be open to having a non-rigid attitude in negotiating a culture different from one’s own – the tourism consultant has grievously offended, lost this businessman’s custom, and probably lost other future customers.

Wendy Raaphorst and Senka Rebac are lecturers in the Bachelor’s degree in tourism management in Inholland, a multi-campus Dutch university specialising in applied sciences. This course is taught in Dutch in Rotterdam, Haarlem and Amsterdam, and in Amsterdam the same four-year course is taught in English.

They were looking for a tool to sharpen the students’ attentiveness to their own cultural attitudes and how these attitudes affected their work in tourism when they found Intercultural Business Improvement’s tool, the IRC (Intercultural Readiness Check). “We tried the IRC ourselves first, and then we brainstormed and looked at how we could implement it within our course,” Senka says. The IRC proved a valuable tool for increasing students’ cultural awareness and competences. We use it as a zero measurement, to give them more insight on their own competences, before they go on an internship or study abroad.”

The Netherlands, with its rich diversity of European and large population of foreign origin, might seem like a place where everyone can swim in varying cultural streams, but when Wendy and Senka introduced the IRC, their students were often surprised to realise how minimal their own relations actually were with people of cultures outside their own.

Inholland has Dutch students, a lot of students from the Antilles, Curacao and Surinam, and many students who have grown up in the Netherlands but with a specific cultural background. “In Rotterdam, for instance, we have some Turkish students, sometimes we have Moroccan cultures, Romanian, Bosnian, Croatian, and in the English-language version of the course also many international students.”

But this does not always make for people who are interculturally fluent. Families can live in their own bubble. “From my own perception,” Senka says, “I see the biggest challenge for the students who are in an environment where they don’t know anyone from a different culture. That can be a bigger problem for Dutch students coming from smaller towns. For them, coming to a city to study, it’s the first time they are in a multicultural environment, and often in their own environment they have actually never had an encounter with anyone outside their culture. The only encounters they would have would be on holidays, and these would be more superficial.”

Using the IRC, with its revelation of your own attitudes, a conversation can be had about what makes a superficial interaction versus a deeper engagement. “Becoming aware of your own norms and values is terribly important,” Senka explains. Before ever understanding other cultures, the IRC helps you to understand your own norms and values, and where they come from.
It often happens that when first people fill out the questionnaire of the IRC, they do not understand the conclusions drawn from their answers. “So they say ‘I do not agree with these results’! That is very interesting when it happens.” People with this reaction, says Senka, inevitably turn out to be the students who most need the awareness of their own innate attitudes.

“We talk about it – we must explain that a low score in a particular cultural competency gives them an opportunity to grow, and to learn from different perspectives. What we do then is we help the person to reflect upon it, and to look – how could this be possible.

“We ask them to look at the pitfalls and see which are closest to those that they can relate to. For example, if someone has scored low on intercultural sensitivity, they will say ‘But I am sensitive to other cultures! I do not agree with that!’ and then we have this conversation, and mix the students with others of different cultures or a different kind of upbringing, so they can converse and learn about other cultures. We put them in these situations within the class, and they become aware and say ‘Oh! Yes… I did not know about you’ as another student in their class explains something that is very important in, say, Surinam.”

An important discovery is how power distance varies in other cultures than theirs – that people have different rules within the home. Power distance is the value put on age and maturity, or a higher social position.

“In the Netherlands, in the Dutch culture, power distance is very low. Equality is more valued. So when these Dutch students hear stories from people who have been in their class already half a year, and discover that they think quite differently – that is when they become aware that their intercultural sensitivity can actually be developed more.”

There is a slight difference in the function of the IRC for Dutch students and international students. “I have noticed, doing the Intercultural Readiness Check myself twice, and seeing students who have been more often abroad, or have more multicultural encounters, they are a bit more aware of their own norms and values, and those of other cultures.”

Wendy and Senka are developing their use of the IRC with students by working especially on how the students reflect on the results after the Intercultural Readiness Check is taken. “In terms of developing your intercultural, it is not enough just to know what your score is, if you wish to make real steps in developing these competences you must do more.” They help students to simplify this learning, to reflect better on their result, and to use their result to make learning goals.

The IRC contains suggestions for working on specific cultural competencies. “We tell the students, choose one pitfall for that one competence that you think you can reflect on and give some examples in your own life that you can use to see why that is a pitfall, and then think what could you be doing, what would be your learning goal, linked to the culture where you want to go to study abroad or do your internship abroad.”

As a concrete example, “let’s say they score low on intercultural sensitivity, and then they reflect upon it – ‘Yes, I want to go to Spain, but I never have spoken deeply to a person that comes from Spain, I never had an encounter, I actually know no other cultures except from Netflix or from holidays, so I don’t create for myself an environment to actually have these conversations!’ – and then, asking what the student can do about this, they come up with ‘I could start with watching a Netflix series in Spanish and noting what it shows about cultural attitudes. I could find somebody in class that speaks Spanish, find a friend online, start doing Duolingo in Spanish, so I can make a little better conversation…’ It’s the little steps to prepare them.”

The university’s style of teaching is very much project-based. Senka leads a project called Students as Partners. “Within tourism, students would organise a trip, be the tour manager and take all the people along – they will perform the job to learn the job.” For this, the reflectivity and the skill of self-knowledge that come from the IRC are core.

This is a tool, they have found, that gives students a way to open their heart to new cultures. It’s up to the student to do something with it, but the IRC facilitates taking that step, Senka says. “I actually think it would be good if all of the teachers in our organisations were to use the Intercultural Readiness Check to become more culturally aware. Where organisations have strategic plans seeking to improve diversity and be more inclusive – people need to become self-aware first, for these initiatives to work.”

[1] Power Distance is one of several dimensions of cultural differences, first proposed by Geert Hofstede in his 1983 seminal paper “Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values”. Administrative Science Quarterly. 28 (4): 625–629.

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