A beautiful and rich palette of colors. But how do I paint?
I love seeing life as a form of art, a painting that is never finished and is being edited based on our learnings. Now, we don’t just paint at the kitchen table at home with the few primary colors we started with. Globalization and internationalisation have been going on for centuries, and although we can question whether this generates diversity or uniformity, I wonder to what extent we are learning how to paint with the extra colors being offered for our palette throughout the course of our life.
A globalized world doesn’t mean that we automatically have globalized internal systems, a global mindset. We learn how to be sociable, how to communicate, how to be respectful…though not naturally in an intercultural context. We understand and do what is appropriate without too much effort as long as we stay within the borders of our own context (a context not necessarily defined by nation) which actually is pretty small. We simply adopt a wide set of ‘normalities’ that we were taught early on in our very little world. And at the moment we interact with someone from a different cultural framework, we frequently apply the same normalities in how we approach the concept of time, communication, relationships, leadership, etc. We often don’t think about the meaning beyond any action because we unconsciously assume that we know what others mean or that they know what we intend to say. That the differences between us and them are not that significant or that they won’t have a profound effect. However, diversity takes on many forms: style of living, religion, gender, capacity, talent, ambitions, knowledge… Certain is that diversity is not only visible, and is not necessarily indicated by physical characteristics – neither does similarity. Encountering someone different from us is so normal that we act ‘normal’.
But diversity is embedded in experiences, in stories.
Adjusting the colors, the painting and the museum
However, what is normal in a globalized world? What is common in our very same neighbourhood where we find people raised in a certain manner but have evolved throughout the course of their life as a result of intercultural experiences? “Culture is what we are used to, not who we are” is an expression I have heard regularly and I cannot agree more. We learn how to navigate efficiently where we were born or grew up, or where we have established ourselves later on, and act according to what is socially expected behavior. During our life though, profound intercultural encounters abroad or at home can disrupt what they have tried so hard to teach us as it can happen that we learn practices and beliefs that actually match our personal preferences better – which we only discover when stepping out of our context or letting others in. We start questioning what we had always known to be correct. We evolve through a continuous process of acculturation and deculturation. Internationalisation, an increase in expressed diversity and access to travel only stimulate this.
Our painting suddenly doesn’t completely fit anymore, in the museum where it had been exhibited so far.
I can illustrate this using myself as an example. My parents are Dutch, I grew up in the countryside in the north of the Netherlands until I was 18 and left to do my Bachelor’s in Human Resources in a city in the south. After that it all went very fast. When I was 22, I went to study abroad in Portugal. I hopped on a plane when I was 23 to travel through Latin America by myself for six months and began my masters degree in Intercultural Management in France afterwards. As part of my masters I did a semester abroad in Mexico and traveled more, followed by an internship in Brussels with which I proudly completed my masters, at the age of 26. And now I’m already living for a year in Spain.
I designed myself with the colors I got offered with each experience. I lost myself at lakes at an altitude of 5200m, in cities bigger than my home country, and at lots of crowded marketplaces. I found myself on top of volcanoes, at remote beaches, in foreign universities and in conversations with complete strangers in languages I hardly spoke yet. I lost and found myself in newness.
Some colors I had were deleted from the palette, some were mixed with new ones, and some others were there, bright and shiny, without being used just yet.
It is a privilege to be able to gather different colors from anywhere, to choose what we want, and form our own color palette of beliefs, behaviors and routines as a result. We can select colors and create our own by mixing them. Despite that it doesn’t directly change who we are in essence, we are ‘under construction’ ceaselessly. Yet, I think we are underestimating the meaning behind the colors we choose to use – the meaning behind our behavior – and the extent to which it affects us when we have to change it. Wherever we are, it happens that this color palette we have created based on all our experiences, containing colors we like and feel comfortable with, cannot really be used, are inappropriate to use or aren’t recognized by others. In a situation that requires adaptation we would adjust our behavior – paint with someone else’s colors – which may imply emotional labor. There will be a discrepancy between beliefs and actions which feels uncomfortable, even if we are able to successfully adjust our behavior. Andy Molinsky (2009) refers to this as authenticity-based discomfort (high in competence, low in authenticity) in his Acculturation Assessment Framework: “When the norms for appropriate behavior in a situation in the new culture conflict with a person’s core values and beliefs, the person can feel inauthentic, anxious, and distressed when attempting to follow the new cultural rules.” It is also an interesting tool to use with coaching or in education, I believe!
In other words, it’s not easy to ”be yourself”. At least for me, to be completely honest (and I bet that many will recognize this), it is not easy. Even if I have been developing a multicultural identity for some time now. I’ve designed and adjusted my opinions and habits to an extent that I know what I feel comfortable with, what I like or don’t like – at this point in my life – and most importantly, why that is. My colors tell a lot about who I am, but I continue designing, eliminating and highlighting. I continue evolving as a person. Still, however, in none of these places I have been I fit in the standard rhythms of life or ways of thinking. And after all these experiences, being back home doesn’t feel like a good match either. Of course this depends on the given situation, as we can feel comfortable in one but not in another, but in general it’s not easy to integrate and be effective in a society or in collaboration with others while standing for ‘your way’ – doing things the way that makes you feel good and at ease. I have developed adaptability and I am empathetic, so I can behave the way I am expected to. I can understand the value system, the culture, or the reasoning of the other, yet, if I don’t truly believe it myself or have the same values, something is clashing.
This phenomenon is not from today, research has been done for over decades and in 1999 Jean S. Phinney wrote an article in the Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin saying: “… increasing numbers of people find that the conflicts are not between different groups but between different cultural values, attitudes, and expectations within themselves.” A needed skill in this regard is called Global Dexterity: The ability to adapt your behavior – smoothly and successfully – to the demands of a foreign culture, without losing yourself in the process (Andy Molinsky, 2012). As you probably know, there is lots of interesting literature out there about acculturation and the mental challenges that accompany the process. For my master thesis I enjoyed reading works of authors like Antony Kennedy, Bennett, Colleen Ward, John Berry, Schwarz, Young Yun Kim, and Zaharna, all touching upon themes around becoming intercultural, sociocultural adaptation, multicultural identity, culture shock and self-shock. Browsing the internet to stumble upon all these articles has been a pleasure, and above all, gave me a feeling of recognition, of not being the only one lost in the turbulent process of developing a multicultural identity, and a feeling of relief, knowing that it is a well-researched phenomenon.
Learning to paint
If we find ourselves more often in the midst of great diversity, in situations of incompatibility between beliefs and behavior, we have to somehow learn how to manage ourselves. How to protect who we are, the rhythm that energizes us, the type of communication that feels ‘right’, the way of doing things that feel most logical and correct… And to understand what happens within us when this changes, or has to be changed, for one reason or another.
I strongly believe that if we promote and encourage diversity in our environment and within others, and to express diversity, we have to learn how to manage diversity within ourselves – self management. I need to know how to paint with the new colors I have gathered, which colors go well together and how I can create a painting that pleases others but also myself, and taking into consideration the museum where it will be exhibited.
The more mindful I become about diversity, the more internal uncertainties I experience when it comes to interacting with others. And I think it’s not just me. The color palette we have should be quite rich to actually be inclusive, as in embracing diversity, equal opportunity and involvement for all, and no offensive or biased behavior or communication toward someone (unconscious or conscious). Using the right colors is quite complicated and scary if you think that in fact, every single person is different.
To what extent can you be who you are if you have to take into account how you behave and act with every single person? To what extent do we incline toward the other and alienate from ourselves? Self management, profound reflection and the notion of multicultural identity is important here. If I want to be inclusive, I also have to know how I can manage internal contradictions and not to forget, to include myself. Learn about assumptions and how to deal with them; how to reflect and deconstruct. With teaching diversity and inclusion we should not forget to teach how our brain and heart work, the neuroscience and emotions that are intertwined with these practices and how it affects us, maybe without realizing or wanting to admit the impact.
How and why do we select certain colors from our palette and how do these colors make us and others feel? How can we use them to create a painting that conveys harmony and balance? Which colors do we use and what should we paint in order to show that diversity is being encouraged, so that the painting we create all together can only become more vivid and complete?
Being at the very beginning of my career, I have an almost empty canvas. Yet, I have a mixed color palette and I am ready to start an abstract painting to which I will be adding new colors continuously. An artwork that hopefully contributes to make this world a little bit more beautiful.
Life is an art. Diversity is an art. Together we can share our artistic vision of the world and learn how to create a dynamic and authentic artwork using an infinite number of colors.
- Molinsky, A. (2009). A Situational Approach for Assessing and Teaching Acculturation. Journal of Management Education.
- Phinney, J. S. (1999). An intercultural approach in psychology: Cultural contact and identity.
- Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 33, 24–31.
About the author of this article:
Aletta is a recent graduate with a master’s degree in Intercultural Management and a bachelor’s degree in Human Resources. She lived, studied and worked in the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Belgium, Spain and Mexico and traveled for a longer period of time, which intrigued her to delve deeper into the concept of culture and how it influences our understanding of the world, of others, and ourselves. For as long as she remembers, she has been enthusiastically orientating herself in the intercultural field, collecting knowledge and experience, searching for meaningful intercultural encounters and helping others reflect on their experience to manifest profound learning and self-discovery. Aletta is open to connecting with anyone who is interested in joining her journey.