“Intercultural” is a very common adjective associated to positive values of mutual understanding and dialogue, although for some strange reason still not recognized as a proper word by most English spell-checkers on the writing programs I use.
Nowadays, the value of this term is proving increasingly important, as it expresses the relational principle that lies at the core of our contemporary world of interconnectedness and “glocal” dynamics in which the global and the local continuously meet.
During many of my job applications I was positively surprised by the fact that “intercultural skills” are among the most requested competences in a persons’ CV/Resume, especially for positions that entail an international dimension. But how can people acquire such skills, and what kind of experiences are involved in the process? There is no easy recipe and the truth is that, as in many other fields, direct involvement and personal engagement are the keys disclosing the path that leads to a transformation in one’s world vision.
There are people who are lucky enough to grow up “interculturally” in a conscious way, having been exposed to a variety of influences coming from different cultures, and having chosen not to belong to one of them exclusively but to look at human encounters with a different, multifaceted sensitivity. There is a specific awareness that arises in those who experience movements, changes of cultural setting at an early age and become easily accustomed to them. However, not everyone is meant to live such events so smoothly and there can be resistances to practices of interculturalism even in people who have traveled a lot around the world: no easy “cause-effect” element can be defined. It is always a matter of attitude: what makes the difference is the willingness to being open to receive positive lessons from the possibilities offered by life.
Other people, who have not had the chance to travel a lot in their early years, become naturally interested in intercultural factors later in their life, after having spent a good amount of time in foreign countries meeting local people and trying to adapt to a different mentality while familiarizing themselves with the language, culture and customs, and most of all having learnt that different visions of the world exists and must coexist on this planet. The most important element in this case is the intention emerging from a proactive behavior, which is change-oriented and aims at expanding one’s range of mental action through the acquisition of new skills and their application to different challenges in daily life.
By virtue of my personal background, I can consider myself a highly intercultural person because I grew up in a family with a mixed cultural background. Hearing about my mom's family stories in Mexico and about my grandfather's origin in Istanbul, together with the various trips to visit relatives, nourished my early need for a deeper understanding of human phenomena and made me feel a sense of contradiction with the culture of the small Italian town where I was living.
However, even my small home town became a source of inspiration for the further development of my intercultural skills, as it was located at the border between two very different cultural worlds still separated by the iron curtain during the years of my childhood. The frontier between Italy and Yugoslavia represented to me a privileged territory from many points of view, including the cultural and linguistic ones, that allowed me quite soon to appreciate the value of diversity and to build up my skills as a truly “intercultural explorer”. As a matter of fact, the activities taking place along border areas not only enrich the intercultural potential of their inhabitants, but also contribute to question the theoretical foundations of exclusive (“monocultural”, “monolingual”) identities, an interesting and complex paradox that I have not yet stopped investigating, in the search for the best paradigms of original, unexpected convergences across cultures.
If I have to assess what was one of the reasons for the later development of my curiosity and openness towards other nations, this was most likely the embarrassment for not being able to understand the Slovene language of our neighbors and the subsequent frustration for the impossibility to decipher the written word appearing in this foreign cultural setting just a short walk away from my town. In fact, my city (Gorizia) is directly connected in an urban continuum to the Slovene one (Nova Gorica), having been separated from it after second world war because of political reasons: the iron curtain acted as a dividing ideological line for many decades and only in 2007 was the border checkpoint completely dismantled.
During my childhood, in the late 1980s, when Yugoslavia was still a living reality, the act of crossing that border was always filled with contrasting emotions: on the one side, I was excited because some kind of “magic” was going to happen: the immersion in a totally different and “exotic” world starting only a few hundred meters away, on the other I was always worried of not being allowed to cross it for some bureaucratic reason: you needed to carry your passport of course but sometimes on minor checkpoints a special “permit” was required, another document issued to the people of my Italian region.
Much later, that feeling of curiosity for our neighbors led me to focus on the cultural area that extends just after that meaningful border, deciding to study the languages and cultures of Southeast Europe —which represented, (inexplicably) one of the most neglected field of study in my country’s universities. It seemed to me indeed that very little attention was devoted in Italian academia to that area of the world, especially to its languages, notwithstanding the fact that it was a highly strategic area; it is still an open problem that depends on a series of thorny ideological and cultural questions and prejudices. I later managed to overcome this gap by taking the opportunity of attending a number of intensive language courses held in the countries of the former Yugoslav area. The path to become intercultural was thus marked by the call of languages; furthermore, that liminal home territory became a metaphor for the definition of my non-exclusivist identity, which was already made up by different components thanks to the multiple backgrounds of my family (Italian, Mexican, Levantine, Dalmatian, Armenian…).
In the course of the intense educational and professional experiences abroad I realized that nothing helped me more, especially from a human point of view, than my talent for “connecting” different realities and cultural messages, that was always accompanied by a great dose of empathy and humbleness. Multiplicity, contrary to dangerous homogeneity, is an inestimable richness, and this is why institutions such as UNESCO work hard to foster and support cultural diversity, praising the value of the authentic manifestations of human creativity. However, the word “intercultural” implies the ability of linking different cultural experiences and visions, and the willingness of letting them communicate with each other. It is not enough to see them singularly, but there is the added value of a new experience emerging from the contact across different cultures, that contributes to deconstruct any pretext for “exclusivity”. To be intercultural means to acknowledge the limits of the single vision and embrace the connecting principle of the dialogue. It implies the ability to mediate across cultures and the constant awareness of the vastness and potential of foreign horizons.
Thus, those who can master foreign languages have an enormous privilege and at the same time an extremely important social responsibility: in fact, it is up to them to translate the thoughts and cultures of others into their own language. The widening of one’s national perspectives thus implies the readiness to open the doors to something previously hidden which “unbalances” the fixity of our cultural universe.
Author: Giustina Selvelli (PhD) is an anthropologist and writer who has taught topics related to diaspora and multilingualism at several academic institutions. She has lived in many countries including Canada, Turkey, Austria, Mexico, Greece and Serbia for personal and professional reasons and is fluent in around 10 languages.