GULP

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to be one of 11 students from ANU to be involved in the pilot year of the Global Undergraduate Leaders Program (and if there’s ever been a less appealing acronym than ‘GULP’, I haven’t heard it). This program, a collaboration between ANU and the University of Minnesota (UMN), is an initiative which seeks to develop student leadership skills and foster an understanding of sustainable development, culminating in a two week trip to the small African country of Malawi. The trip to Malawi is the first time all 22 students meet, having conducted all previous meetings via Skype. While in Malawi, the students conduct a community support and development project; in 2015, we ran 3 hour sessions in various high schools on the importance of gender equality for development, while in 2016, the group ran a three day leadership camp for high school students.

Now, given the theme of this issue, it’d be reasonable for you to be thinking that I’m going to write about the experience of visiting the remote far-Northern reaches of a tiny African country.

In actual fact, the cross-cultural difference that was most prominent was between ANU and UMN, or the ‘Australians’ and the ‘Americans’, as we soon came to refer to ourselves.
For cultures that appear to be similar in so many ways, the differences between us became apparent very early. The most obvious of these was in our different approaches to, and appreciation of, the personality assessments we had to complete as part of the program. These were the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment and the Intercultural Development Inventory. The Strengths assessment provides a good starting point for understanding the differences between ANU and UMN: upon being given our five key strengths, we spent the majority of our 3-hour drive to the ANU Kioloa campus discussing how little we cared about the strengths we’d been told we had, while some of the students from UMN identified so much with their strengths that they referred to themselves by them (“Well, because I’m an Inputer®, I think that…”).

At this point, I think both sides just thought the other was a little bit weird and different. It was with the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) that uh, tensions started running a bit higher.

In hindsight, just the name of the assessment should have been somewhat of an indication…
The IDI is an assessment of intercultural competence, which is conceptualised as the ability to change perspective across cultures and adapt behaviour to the cultural context. It’s a 50-item questionnaire that asks participants to answer questions while thinking about a culture they’re a part of and one with to which they’ve had a substantial amount of exposure. The results put you on a continuum somewhere along a line of five different stages. The continuum is shown as an arrow, angled upward, from ‘denial’ at the lower end to ‘adaptation’ at the higher, pointed end of the arrow. They also give you a score for where you think you are, compared to where you ‘actually’ are, so that’s just great.

They assure you, in the IDI, that there’s no ‘right’ place to be – there’s no good or bad. Or maybe they just assure the people who aren’t very far along to continuum. Either way, the Australians received a LOT of assurances. I’m still not entirely sure how they think they can try and convince people that there’s no good or bad place to be though, when it’s called a ‘development inventory’; I guess we weren’t bad, just ‘undeveloped’…

We all got given our results individually, and then we received our group results at our next meeting. The UMN students got their results at the same meeting. The Australians, true to form, were decidedly less ‘interculturally developed’ than the Americans. After getting our group
results, we had the opportunity to discuss both our results, and the measure itself.

Perhaps it was our bad less developed result. Perhaps it was our charming Australian cynicism. Either way, we were not generous in our feedback on the IDI. Most of us were rather dismissive of the whole thing, while some of us were particularly direct in their opinion about this measure and others of its ilk. All this to the UMN group, who would frequently described themselves in terms of their results on such measures.

For the ANU students, we saw the results as pretty much meaningless – perhaps useful in a specific context, but not really representative of us, and probably implicitly reflecting a degree of the patented Australian “fit in or fuck off” mentality. This last, I should say, entirely unintentionally, as the people in that group are some of the most accepting and loving people I have ever met. It was probably more an outcome of the types of questions asked in the IDI (we said defensively).

Our dismissiveness was contrasted with the wholehearted acceptance of the IDI by some at the UMN. To them, these measures – not assessments or tests, we were told – seemed to show them more about who they were, and to provide a useful lens through which to understand themselves. So now, on the one hand, we have a group who are slightly defensive because of their results, but also see measures of these kinds as the sort of thing where, if it’s useful, use it – but if not, don’t worry about it mate. On the other, we have a group who seem to see themselves only, at the time, through the perspective of the assessment, and felt, it seemed, somewhat threatened by our utter disregard for it. After our mostly, although not exclusively, civil discussion, both sides disconnected from Skype and spent the remaining 10-15 minutes of the meeting expressing, in no uncertain terms, how completely insufferable the behaviour of the other group was.

It was a challenge that came up quite a few times, in different manifestations, throughout the year and the two weeks in Malawi (one time quite spectacularly – you can ask me about that personally). We were all as prepared, I think, as a group of university students from developed countries could be for the cultural surprises that a trip to one of the poorest countries in Africa could bring.

More accurately, we were all prepared for being completely unprepared. In the process of this, I think we made the mistake of assuming, as I think many people do, that there wouldn’t be any cross-cultural obstacles between the Australians and the Americans. In fact, I don’t even think we got as far as making that assumption: it wasn’t even a consideration to make assumptions about. Both groups were comprised of university undergraduate students from developed, Western, English-speaking countries, so really, how different could they be?

In the end though, those cross-cultural experiences were some of the most challenging for the whole experience on both sides, I believe. Finding these firm cultural sticking points, between groups who seem on the surface to share so many common characteristics, was surprising and showed us all that when dealing with any culture other than our own, there’s going to be challenges. Especially when the Americans are so obviously wrong!