Fear and anger: The emotional disruptors of intercultural connectedness
Monique Toohey Download pdf
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
The stance we take in relation to others reﬂects choice. We can position ourselves in relation to others. We can position ourselves in ways that invite respect, curiosity and connection. We can also position ourselves in ways that invite judgment, disconnection and disapproval. The stance we take has profound effects on relationship and is shaped by our values (Madsen, 1999)
There was a moment in my life as a 14 year old that I realised that I could sit with intense negative emotions as experienced in others and be able to hold the person in that moment.
In the summer of 1989, my parents explored the possibility of a sea change. My grandfather who lived in Sawtell invited us to stay in the riverside and coastal town of Repton for us to spend our summer holidays with the option to stay there permanently. It didn’t take long to make friends with the girl who lived next door. Being the same age and gender, we connected straight away. We connected based on perceived similarity.
We did what most teenage girls did on summer holidays, talking about school, friends, love interests and what life was like for me in Melbourne and her in Repton and Bellingen where she went to high school. Debbi and I spent many an hour exchanging thoughts, stories and life plans on the primary school oval, which was situated across the road from our houses and given the amount of time we sat on the school oval, it basically became an extension of our joint front yards. From the school oval, we had a view of our houses and behind our houses a view of dense trees, which inclined up a hill to meet the horizon.
You know when you look back on your life if you’re very lucky you hold clearly in your mind at least a few visually exquisite memories. One of mine was created while sitting on that school oval. A lazy afternoon soon turned to dusk and the sky had grown dark casting a shadow over the trees, over our houses and over the oval we were sitting on, when a very bright light started shining from behind the dense forest behind our houses. This unexplainable light lit up the entire rim of the treetops across the horizon before us. As the light grew brighter it flooded the recently darkened valley. My new friend had no plausible explanation. I remember being so startled and confused by what I was seeing, having experienced nothing like it before, for a few moments I considered the possibility that it was lights coming from a UFO, because we were in the middle of nowhere. As the sky grew brighter a shining silver round object did appear from the dark sky and slowly rose higher and higher. ltwas the full moon rising. This ovenuhelmingly oversized orb felt like it was only meters away from where we were sitting, it in all it’s shiny glory. We sat there until it had risen high into the sky. It was a horizon moon. The ‘horizon moon’ is a true trick of the imagination, indeed highlighting that things may not always be as they appear.
What an idyllic, mesmerising paradise. Within weeks of being in this location I had well and truly moved even though my parents had not finalised their decision to do so. I had adopted the local customs, the dress, I was in bare feet and wearing flowing skirts. l was very quick to integrate into this coastal and rural life. I had long flowing red hair to match my friend’s long flowing golden brown hair. it was the year after the Bette Midler movie Beaches was released, and we watched it together on video. Two kids from different backgrounds meet on a summer holiday, one a redhead, one a brunette; through letter writing they would form a friendship that lasts for years. We couldn’t help but compare the similarities between the child characters, part of the storyline in Beaches, and our own. That was probably where the comparison ended though.
Bearing witness to a horizon moon wasn’t the only memorable moment that I would experience on the hill, for only days after this event, Debbi disclosed to me that she had she had recently been raped. We were 14 years old. This was the last thing I expected to hear. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, but I do remember how I handled receiving that information. I listened and I was open to the story being told. I mirrored her matter of a fact manner in which she delivered the information. I remember the information being heavy. Heavy for her to carry and heavy for me to hear and similar to most people who hold heavy information, I needed to share it, so I told my mother.
The majesty of the horizon moon had further lured me into a utopian illusion. l say further because I had such a free from harm upbringing. Growing up l had absolutely nothing to worry about except normal teenage happenings such as will this pimple disappear before Monday or Friday? Will the radio play my favourite song at the exact time I am ready to record it using my double cassette player and without the radio host talking through the song at the beginning or the end of the song? Will I be teased about my spiky fringe hair, aka “fountain-head” for another year? But for my new friend, her woes were far more troubling and serious. I wonder if she was capable of seeing the beauty of the moon rising in the same way that I did. Even in the most idyllic of locations, the world isn’t a perfect place for everyone, particularly when it’s quiet. Some people have hidden stories filled with trauma and others have stories that are plain to see but are unseen and unheard.
This particular moment in my life is my reference point for knowing that I was capable of hearing people’s deeply distressing stories and to not feel exactly what others feel, but to stay connected to people when they are being vulnerable, bringing to the surface intense negative emotions such as fear and anger. In so many types of dialogue these emotions are met with avoidance, resistance, rejection and a reciprocity that delivers more of the same. They can be the most destructive of all human emotions. On a macro level they are responsible for interpersonal conflict and disconnection and wars despite their innate purpose being to keep us alive and well.
A myriad of intergroup dynamics and implicit biases are instrumental in influencing the emotions that surface when we are exposed to both cultural differences and similarities. When we perceive social and emotional benefits by building intercultural connections through dialogue and sharing space we will pursue those connections and work to strengthen them. However if there is no perceived value or perceive risk then we are less likely to pursue intercultural connectedness. This is ultimately problematic, because when we start to avoid connectedness our position is strengthened by the very experience of negative emotions that are consequential of that disconnection, and we reference the experience of emotions such as fear and anger as a reason for ongoing disconnection. This happens when couples get in to a disagreement, it happens between communities and between countries. And similar to couples when they get into a disagreement they get caught up in trying to resolve those negative emotions by addressing the content of the argument. This might lead to a short- term gain, but ultimately identifying the invisible dynamics responsible for escalating the tension will be far more useful to maintaining the connection between the couple. The argument is never more important than the couple‘s relationship, but as soon as they allow the content of the argument to supersede the value of their relationship a further escalation will occur and disconnection is inevitable.
Many Australians would consider themselves as champions of multiculturalism and we have had 45 years of practice doing multiculturalism, but we shouldn’t allow this righteous version of ourselves to lull us into complacency, particularly when our closest international neighbours and evolving stereotypes posit Australia as a racist country. As one of the most culturally diverse countries on the planet, Australia has everything to gain by actively leveraging its cultural capital. The opportunities for Australian businesses, government, tertiary institutions, schools and local communities to harness the asset that is Australia’s cultural diversity cannot be underestimated. Developing intercultural connectedness goes far beyond our desire for diverse foods, customs and travel experiences. It is about developing a comprehensive set of skills to communicate effectively, innovate, solve problems and share solutions to local and global problems.
It is a capability that when executed well, facilitates scientific discoveries and the interpretation and reinterpretation of art; it helps people to share space peacefully and harmoniously to build nations. Developing an appetite for doing intercultural relations, or more simply put, doing difference well, is often considered a key task for companies who need to compete and thrive in international markets.
Governments express varying degrees of commitment for multiculturalism as if there is another viable option and more often than not it is relegated to migrant and minority communities as a task to be achieved to integrate well into the dominant culture facilitating economic prosperity and social cohesion.
Exposure to difference is not enough. The cornerstone of intercultural connectedness, like the foundation of all solid relationships, is effective communication, but doing this well requires that we improve the quality of the conversations we have about culture, cultural differences and similarities. The truth is though that not everyone is motivated to have these types of conversations in a respectful way and not everyone is interested in facilitating intercultural understanding and build mutual respect.
Speaking about cultural similarities and differences often evokes avoidance strategies, as people perceive risk in being called racist or in causing social disharmony. Discussions around cultural differences and sameness can trigger intense emotional hot buttons that can disrupt our ability to connect (Sue, 2015). These feelings can result in defensive strategies to avoid dialogue about culture and intercultural relations. The preference to dilute differences and stress commonalities out of fear that such talk will divide and not unify is currently dominant. Exposure to differences in other people doesn’t automatically equip us with the necessary understanding or strategies to manage the negative emotions that arise during dialogue about race or cultural differences. Poorly handled, misunderstandings arise and intense negative emotions often result in polarisation. Skilfully handled, speaking about cultural differences and cultural realities can increase intercultural harmony and expand critical conscious of one’s cultural identity (Sue, 2015).
Why do we need to know about cultural differences and similarities?
Work differently than you
Think differently than you
Decide differently than you
Are motivated differently than you
Use time differently than you
Use appointments differently than you
May communicate differently to you
May resolve problems differently to you
And you from them.
Despite the evidence that groups are different from each other, we tend to believe that deep down people are all the same and we do this out of our need for connection. Misunderstandings between people of diverse cultural backgrounds occur because we have a tendency to minimize or exaggerate cultural differences and interpret each others thoughts, beliefs and behaviours through the narrow prisms that are our own cultures. We have been socialised and encultured to connect with others based on similarity, however when culture is minimised individuals and groups can feel invisible, invalidated and uncertain of their identity. When culture is exaggerated individuals and groups can feel labelled, alienated and othered. The evidence across the social psychological literature certainly indicates that enduring connections between people are based on mutual respect and understanding, therefore it is important to be aware of intercultural differences and our own reaction to difference to reduce the likelihood of bias.
Culture is the vehicle by which we have the ability to get to know each other and build vibrant and interesting relationships. The way we perceive and analyse people, resolve conflicts, form, sustain and end relationships, are all culturally influenced. Cultures of influence broadly include one‘s place of birth, parental birthplace, ethnic heritage, religion /spirituality, level of religiosity, sexuality, gender as well as generation.
Culture affects the way people label illness, seek help, decide whether someone is normal or abnormal, it underpins moral frameworks, supports identity formation, influences pathways towards resilience and fulfilment. Norms concerning emotional regulation in all cultures senie the purpose of maintaining social order by ensuring the engagement of culturally appropriate behaviour mediated by culturally appropriate emotional responding (Matsumoto & Juang, 2013). Culture is the system of scripts, values and norms that narrate and regulate the expression of our primary emotions: joy, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, fear and contempt. Although these feelings are universal, they are constructed within a particular culture. Emotions bring meaning to life’s events and make many of our memories worth remembering. Without emotion, memories are just empty facts. Emotions are our physiological instant messaging service, which inform what we need to do next to meet particular needs.
For example, Joy tells us “do nothing different, keep doing more of the same.” Sadness says, “One or two things are not right”. Depressed says, “You are miles away from what you need. ” Anxiety says, “pay attention, there is a possible danger in the environment, you might need to move” and anger says, “there is a possible injustice in your life, spring into action”. Emotions are the mechanism through which we determine the status of our welfare, they prime us for an immediate behavioural response to all threats, both perceived and real. Emotions trigger patterns of thinking and similar physiological responses among all human beings. In this way, one could describe these patterns as not only predictable, but stereotypical. Take the emotion sadness. What is predictable cross-culturally is to see down-turned lips, and perhaps tears. What we wouldn’t expect to see is something like the person breaking out in blue spots. A degree of human predictability and the science behind emotion has obviously made my job as a psychologist much easier, because l really wouldn‘t know what do to with a blue spot break out.
We tend to believe that our emotional reactions to events and situations are causal. Many Psychologists will argue however that our ways of interpreting and thinking directly influence how we will feel about a situation, which then prompts us to act in certain ways which may be helpful or unhelpful, rational or irrational. Our interpretation of all events, patterns of thinking and the behavioural manifestation of mood states are influenced by cultural belief systems. Our physiology determines what we are able to experience for example rapid heartbeat in response to fear, but the interpretation of the rapid heart beat and the fear and the ensuing remedy are both culturally and contextually influenced. Some Anglo Australian cultural scripts for coping with fear are embedded in humorous metaphors and sarcastic language. For example, “She‘ll be right mate”; “No blood no band aid”; “Toughen up princess”; or in situations that cause surprise one might say “That gave me a bloody heart attack”.
When children are small we teach them to differentiate which then develops into spotting difference. Children do this initially with a high level of curiosity and a low level of negative value judgement. “Look daddy at the really tall man”; “Look at that old lady she looks like Nana”; “Why does that lady wear a scarf on her head?”; “Look at that girl. She has a chair that comes with wheels”. Parents are often in a position to encourage openness and acceptance or model narrow- mindedness and rejection of difference. Think about what influenced you to choose your seat today in this room or in a lecture theatre, or in a waiting room or on the train. In the early part of an interaction with a stranger, judgements are based on how people look. Perhaps what you were really choosing was not your seat, but who you wanted to be seated next to or away from, making a choice preferring one person to be your proximal neighbour over another. The absolute majority of people make deliberate yet unconscious decisions to sit next to someone who is most perceivably similarto them. In this case affinity bias is at play. This refers to the tendency to gravitate towards people similar to us in some perceivable way.
Unconscious bias is far more common than conscious bias and it‘s often at odds with our conscious and articulated values. Unconscious bias becomes more pronounced when we have to make decisions quickly, when we are stressed and under pressure and when we feel threatened. Even the well intentioned harbour biases. The brain and other parts of the body will flood multiple physiological systems with stress chemicals required to prime the brain to respond to a threat. It will process large volumes of information and connect the dots in ways that first and foremost promote safety and survival. it is only after spending quality time with other people, that additional information may influence us to refine our initial evaluation. However if we get to know someone from a group deemed undesirable, conﬁrmation bias may come into play. This is the tendency for people to seek out information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions, So despite being presented with information, which may run counter to one‘s initial judgement, the new evidence will not alter pre-existing beliefs. There is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their beliefs and opinions. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. So rather than accept the alternate fact to inform a more accurate position, they discount the new evidence as the exception to the rule. For example, one might provide countless examples of empowered Muslim women whose achievement places them on a global stage, including Nobel Peace Laureates and Presidents of countries, however due to the embedded stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman, the above examples may be sidelined as exceptions to the rule and the stereotype remains.
Understanding the influence of culture in any society is fundamental to understanding who we are and who we are in relation to others. When thus framed, culture is a stabilizing force that creates a level of certainty, safety and security. When these conditions are met, Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs suggests we can move up the human need ladder and head towards love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. Culture can also be harnessed to effect and sustain social change. Social change is a common trigger for discomfort, anxiety, fear and anger. Cultures embody evolving belief systems, which are collective realities of what we hold to be good, right and true. Cultural belief systems are highly effective coping mechanisms, helping individuals in a group to make decisions and cope with uncertainty and to experience love and connection and prosperity. Non-compliance with the system is disruptive and perceived as a threat, though there will however always be a group of people within the system that will perceive the disruption as timely, exciting and as an opportunity for growth.
In family and community systems, disrupting the system is to breach social and cultural schemas and scripts. Disrupting the system can also look like challenging powerful beliefs carried by the dominant group, which is akin to challenging orthodox ideas. Dominant cultures often set and implement agendas and expect compliance from minorities, communities and individuals who choose different ways of being and doing things. Such disruptions can result in conflict and or exclusion (McCashen, 2005). It also results in identity denial, which sounds like “You‘re not Australian enough!”
When I was 19 years old, I distinctly remember telling my mother that Australians didn’t have culture. Others did, but we didn’t. I minimised the role of culture in my life and that of my family’s. As a 6th generation Australian with Anglo-Celtic decent, I once believed my cultural roots had little to do with my day-to-day cultural scripts and that other than celebrating Christmas and Easter I couIdn‘t espouse any other iconic Australian customs. I also went through primary and secondary school narrating my childhood and teenage years as a colour-blind one, which was also a form of cultural minimisation. I grew up in the second most multicultural local government area in Australia, the City of Greater Dandenong, which is home to over 50% of residents who were born overseas. For a long time, I used to say that despite having friends from a myriad of multicultural backgrounds, that colour, cultural background and religion were never an issue and by issue I mean a problem. We all just got along, or so I thought.
lt’s only really been in the last few years after really listening to the stories of other Australians whose backgrounds are other than Anglo-Celtic, have I realized that colour, cultural background and religion did matter to the small numbers of Vietnamese kids who arrived in my primary school in the mid-80s, it did matter to my Sri-Lankan Australian Christian best friend, it did matter to the Turkish Muslim girl who was teased because her school uniform was longer than the other girls’. It did matter to the Aboriginal kid who was often mistaken for being of Indian decent and in late high school it likely mattered to the Serbian and Croatian kids who had previously identified as Yugoslavs. I realized it didn’t matter to me because I was afforded the privilege of cultural invisibility, being white and being part of the majority group. I didn‘t notice the cultural realities of the people around me and it is these perspectives that can help create more objective accounts of the world. It was outside my conscious awareness for many years. In fact when I look back it was a perfect example of unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what you don’t know. lt’s hard to see something you and many others largely consider invisible.
A fish jumping out of a bowl of water is commonly used to illustrate the idiom for being outside one’s comfort zone or doing something different beyond the range of one’s capabilities. However I particularly like the Turkish version of the fish out of the water idiom, which states: a ﬁsh doesnt know if’s in water until if jumps out of it. I actually didn’t realize how Australian I was until I became a Muslim.
After converting to Islam a week before my nineteenth birthday, I immersed myself in Melbourne’s multicultural Muslim communities and as a 2″d year undergraduate psychology student I started volunteering for the Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights (formerly known as the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria). It was during the months I worked for this small not-for-profit that I was afforded the opportunity to speak on a panel during a cultural sensitivity training for Melbourne University staff. I‘d been a Muslim for less than 18 months, so I was given an easy topic to get me started. I was allocated the topic Islam and Sexuality. Seriously, what did I know? Well I knew very little, so I had to do a bit of research. Training others, being asked a variety of questions from work colleagues and customers at work and being the only hijab wearing Muslim woman at my university, which just happened to be at the Australian Catholic University, set the pace for my learning all things Muslim and Islam. Other people’s curiosity about my decision to embrace lslam and become Muslim matched my own curiosity to learn more, propelling me to explore all nature of topics. When I became a Muslim, the development of my bicultural and intersectional identities enabled me to see the world from a different standpoint and beyond my previous monocultural ethnocentric view of the world. I was experiencing the outsider-within phenomenon, which over time placed me in a unique position to begin to recognise patterns of behaviour that as a member of the dominant group I was previously unable to recognise. This has been transformational in many ways. Delivering what was then known as cultural sensitivity or cultural awareness training was based on the premise of delivering content about cultural traditions, customs, celebrations and basic beliefs of a particulariy new or foreign cultural or religious group, but often all this did was reduce a vastly diverse group to a homogenous one.
Tajfel and Turner (1986) argue that individuals need to belong to a group in order to secure a firm sense of wellbeing. One of the most common social distinctions used for functioning and survival is the idea of groups. In-groups include individuals with a shared history and a future of anticipated trust and intimacy. Out-groups include everyone else who lack these characteristics. We learn about which group we belong to through the process of enculturation, we learn about who is us and who is them. Enculturation is learning what is normal, right, appropriate and good about our own culture. By default, we also learn the opposite. As we attach labels of good and bad to our own culture we also use those same standards to judge the behaviour of others. Our standards become the cultural filters through which we perceive others. We wear culture like a pair of reading glasses and after a while we forget they’re on our head. if you are in a minority group you might forget those glasses are on your head until someone else reminds you of your perceived difference, or others invalidate and deny that there are glasses on your head when you know they are there. If you‘re in the majority group, those reading glasses remain largely invisible, except when you travel overseas and people ask you where you are from.
The majority group is largely a benefactor of homogeneity in a domestic context in that they do not need to foster Intercultural relationships to thrive. However minority groups really do need to foster intercultural relationships to thrive, to achieve equality, to improve access to health care and employment. lf we don’t see ourselves as cultural beings, then we don‘t see ourselves as part of an intercultural dynamic and therefore the onus of responsibility for the quality of the relationship is put on the other, the different one. We hear this in political commentary through rhetoric that sounds like “that group over there, yeah the different one, they’re not like us, they need to integrate” and whilst the politicized word integrate is bandied around, the context in which politicians and media commentators use it, implies assimilation, and more often than not the word assimilation is actually used.
When I became a member of Melbourne’s Muslim communities, I quickly learned that everyone had their own perspective on what it was to be a Muslim and whilst there is consensus on the fundamentals of belief in God, the rituals of prayer, fasting, giving charity and getting oneself to Mecca for Hajj (pilgrimage) at least once in one’s lifetime, huge diversity exists because of the fact that Muslims have inherited cultural scripts from every corner of the earth including Australia. My interaction with a range of Muslim groups confirmed to me that cultural scripts are not like coffee: there is no such thing as a single origin cultural script, but rather thousands of different blends. The Australian-Muslim community is not a homogenous group by any means. They are an intenuoven group of communities with their own histories, stories, voices, belief systems, ways of being and doing, challenges and aspirations. Group entitativity is a wonderful term that describes the social phenomenon of when individuals perceive out- groups with whom they are least familiar with as a real entity and not a collection of individuals with individuality. It is both easy and lazy to say, “Those people in that community, they‘re all the same”. And if they are all the same, then they must think alike which then gifts the group with a 6″‘ sense capacity for holding a group intention and having a planning capacity. The diversity of the Muslim communities in Australia to a large extent is a microcosm of a diverse Australia, the only difference being mixed adherence to the faith, Islam. Being an Australian with Anglo-Celtic decent within the Muslim community meant finding myself in the position of being in the minority with majority person status within a minority.
After becoming a Muslim, I chose to manifest my inner belief in God externally by wearing the hijab (head covering). I expected a negative reaction by some because by this time I had been made well aware of the stereotypes of Muslim women by family members who unquestionably bought into the media propagated stereotypes. I actually had very few preconceived notions of Muslims or Islam and this inﬂuenced my openness to tune into the non-dominant narrative and the actual lived experiences of hijab by other women who chose to wear it. lt’s only been many years later I have been able to reflect on the power contained in a piece of fabric and its role in shifting perceptions of my cultural afﬁliation. Wearing hijab when lam in the public domain makes me a member of a visible minority for the hours of the day that lam outside my home across the course of my adult life has been a catalyst for the development of cultural empathy with other members of minority groups within Australia. lt has influenced me to be affected by the quality of intercultural relationships and to reflect deeply on ways to promote intercultural connectedness. Similar to the identity progression of other members of minority groups I came to realize that it is not cultural difference or being different that was the problem, it was the inability of others to accept difference. l’ve come to realize that for many decades it has been a pervasive cultural script of Anglo-Celtic Australians to not talk about many facets of culture, such as religion and political persuasion because to do so would violate the politeness protocol (Sue, 2015) and out of fear it may lead to interpersonal conflict and disharmony. Violating the politeness protocol, bucking acceptable conversation conventions can have negative consequences: one may be perceived by others as rude or complaining and mistreated in future exchanges by being dismissed or retaliated against (Zou & Dickter, 2013). I believe what this has led to has been the broader Australian communities perception that difference is a trait found exclusively in the realm of the ‘other’. i also believe this has hampered the development of interpersonal capabilities in being able to facilitate intercultural dialogue and to actively do difference, not just tolerate it. This has also resulted in an upward trend towards both indifference and intolerance.
“Abraham MasIow’s examinations of psychologically healthy people showed that they are positively attracted to the mysterious, the puzzling, and the unexplained. On the other hand, he suggested that the psychologically sick person is threatened by the unfamiIiar—using preconceived notions (often false) for self-protection. ” (Kinnaird, 2017)
People tend to expect greater similarities between themselves and other in-group members, relative to out-group members (Robbins & Krueger, 2005). For example, people tend to attribute more benign human emotions, like contentment, delight or resignation to in-groups but only primary emotions such as fear and anger to out-groups, Perceptions of out-groups are associated with infrahumanisation — the belief that members of one‘s in-group are more human than members of an out-group, who are less human. Humanity is denied. Assessing one‘s own group in more positive terms by comparison to all out- groups is a social and psychological universal. We are all ethnocentric. As a child from the top of the school playground we would chant ‘We are the best chuck out the rest’ — an apt little ditty to describe ethnocentrism. However conflict and misunderstandings are inevitable when ethnocentric ways of thinking lead us down the path of negative judgments about difference. Negative emotions provoked by negative judgments can make it challenging for us to engage in constructive ways of relating to one another. They block us from acknowledging difference in positive terms and reduce our openness towards wanting to interact with people who are different from us.
ln ethnocentrism theory a strong ethnic identity coupled with a positive evaluation of the in-group are related to out-group rejection, as the in-group imbues a sense of confidence derived from positive self-attribution and negative other-attribution. The multiculturalism hypothesis proposes that a high level of identity security is related to out-group acceptance. A sense of security in one’s identity is a psychological pre-condition for the acceptance of those who are culturally different (Berry, Poortinga, Breugelmans, Chasiotis, & Sam, 2012). Conversely, when one feels their identity is threatened, this will lead to rejection of the group that is the source of the threat. This in turn may strengthen ethnic identity, which is called reactive identity. This dynamic is illustrated when we attempt to answer this particular question: What does it mean to be an Australian? Depending on how we go about answering this important question will influence either tolerance or intolerance for difference. If another group are being portrayed as more certain about whom they are, it gives rise to insecurity. We don’t like to feel insecure and anger is a common defence mechanism. It’s hard to feel confident via our ethnic identity if one is relying on an evolving definition of what it means to be an Australian. When our national identity is reduced to a small set of physical attributes and a monopoly is claimed on a set of values or principles, ethnic identity might be strengthened for some, but it will come at a cost to every member of society who does not fit the narrow definition and marginalisation will increase. When group confidence is derived from a broader inclusive definition of what it means to be an Australian, there is evidence of a positive relation with ethnic tolerance and a decrease in systemic forces such as discrimination, prejudice and injustice (Sue & Sue, 2008).
So what happens when identity security is undermined or threatened? When security is undermined fear and anger will be the emotional disruptors to intercultural connectedness. Three types of threats have been studied: realistic threat (e.g. due to real group conflict over resources); symbolic threat (e.g. conflicting values and beliefs) and intergroup anxiety (e.g. uncertainty about how to relate to the out-group. As people perceive more intergroup competition, more value violations, higher levels of intergroup anxiety, more group esteem threats and endorsement for more negative stereotypes, negative attitudes towards out- groups increase (Riek, Mania & Gaertner, 2016).
Sex sells and so too do fear and drama. Both the media and increasingly politicians understand the powerful role that fear plays in undermining our sense of psychological security and identity security by perpetuating notions of symbolic or perceived threat. This creates what I call impending threat syndrome, which is characterised by hypen/igilance to large scale threats. Once upon a time it was the nosey neighbourwho scanned the streets and reported the impending threats of an unrecognizable car parked opposite your house. Now impending threat is the consequence of over exposure to 24-7 connectivity via news media. We no longer have to read the paper, rather we receive anxiety-provoking headlines sent directly to our smartphones and smartwatches, and by smart it’s deﬁnitely not referring to emotionally intelligent. We might be filling our need for instant connection but we are often being connected to negative mood inducing information. To read the commentary section after any online article is a sure fire way to sabotage your mental health. The Internet and social media feed new possibilities, but are described as heightening emotional disconnection and reducing interpersonal relationship capability (Tummala-Narra, 2016). l cannot tell you how many clients I now see who gain relief from their anxiety by disconnecting from social media, who don‘t or cannot watch the nightly news anymore because of how negative it is and how negative they feel after consuming it.
Impending threats over the last few years have included the global financial crisis, Ebola, antibiotic resistance, global warming and related environmental catastrophes, food security, terrorism, our aging population, the obesity epidemic and complicit double standards when it comes to the protection of human rights. Impending threat syndrome lends itself to a threat-focused cognitive style, which leads to intolerance of uncertainty. Like an internet search engine our brains scan the world for threats, leading to the tendency to overestimate the probability that bad things will happen and overestimate the impact of the consequences should those bad things happen. This leads to restlessness, physical fatigue and compassion fatigue. The latter refers to being too tired to care about one’s self and about others.
In response to perceived threats we worry. We excessively analyse, image, anticipate and plan solutions to imaginary problems. We try to consider every bad thing that could happen in an attempt to prepare for the worst. In response to perceived threat we avoid. We avoid situations we perceive as unsafe and we avoid unpleasant emotions and we avoid upsetting thoughts that cause those emotions by keeping busy, on our phones, which only generate more of the above. We make excessive attempts to feel in control and to remain safe and we project these concerns onto our children. Despite the worry, it does not bring forth a resolution. We will justify our use of the strategy by holding on to beliefs such as “it gives me some control”; “it protects me and others from harm” and “it prepares me for the worst“ and when we‘ve had enough ruminating on numerous negative possibilities, we might just let them go forth freely, without getting caught up in their content, allowing them to fragment naturally over time.
Fear can turn into anger when the threat persists. We interpret the threat as an affront to our sense of security and feel the bite of perceived injustice because of loss of power. Fear and anger bring forth an array of predictable behavioural responses within individuals and between community groups and reactions to these emotions do disrupt connection.
I have been in private practice for the last 12 years. During this time I have counselled many clients who speak of their experiences in relationships, often those that are dysfunctional. l started to hear patterns of thinking and behaviour that each partner used whether they were the victim of abuse or the perpetrator of abuse. The patterns could be summarized as one partner that tended to be overly responsible and boundary oriented and the other partner that could be described as irresponsible and abusive.
When individuals experience fear and anger, their behavior can look like resisting, it can look disrespectful, disempcwered, passive, demanding, controlling and abusive. Between groups it looks like blame, scapegoating, marginalising, excluding, abusing, identity denial, racism, prejudice and discrimination.
The former behaviour occurs when predominantly women and minority groups ask for equality and this challenges the power and privilege of men and dominant groups. When women and minority groups are punished for asking or expecting better treatment, their emotional reaction to injustice and inequality is the very thing used against them to justify further mistreatment.
Consider this story: a big strong man stands over a women and backs her into a corner with his hands around her throat. He’s hurling disgusting verbal abuse and paranoid and untrue accusations her way. She fears for her life. Her heart is pounding as she thinks about the best way to deescalate the situation. She will have little control over what she does next as her brain is about to decide for her. She might do nothing and submit to the abuse. She might self-deprecate to play into his already disrespectful mindset. She might fight back, by yelling, or swearing at him, spitting or kicking. If she did this it would aggravate the perpetrator and he would likely inflict more power over her and more harm towards her. He would also use the opportunity to manipulate her by making her feel ashamed of her utilising any form of resistance against his oppression, in that by swearing at him or spitting at him it would reinforce to him ideas about her lack of worth and the presence of undesirable qualities in her. It would reinforce his denial of her humanity and justify his inhumane and abusive treatment of her.
I ended up writing a book about this dynamic, to support victims of abuse in perceiving the invisible dynamic they were facing, so as to help them depersonalize a very personal experience, and detach from the emotions long enough to make a change in their lives (Toohey, 2014).
Powerful groups use the same tactics over less powerful groups. When less powerful groups assert their rights for equality, fair treatment, land, access to resources and services, powerful groups perceive being accommodating as a threat or as an injustice. They also perceive out-groups as a threat by default, because they are different and not part of the in-group. If minority groups are afﬁliated with attributes that are threatening, then majority groups can feel entitled to deny equality, humanity, and poor treatment towards the group is justified or excused. When minorities resist, the resistance is met with more power, and concerns about community deficits such as levels of crime, levels of unemployment or levels of alcohol consumption are voiced. Strengths and contributions of minority community members are minimised and ignored. What is strengthened are stereotypes, and forms of resistance are seen proof of the existence of undesirable qualities in the minority group.
The unprecedented pace of globalization and interconnectedness, advanced communication and transportation technologies have paved the way for limitless opportunities for individuals and communities to be in contact with one another. Perhaps the pace of change has created a level of uncertainty that we are not adequately prepped for. The immigration policies of a country like Australia have created a society that is culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse and we have absolutely relied on waves of migration to thrive as a nation. However many decisions that our predecessors have made to create this great nation have been ethnocentric at best and notably racist. We do however get to decide what type of society we wish to become and all Australians get the opportunity every single day to be inclusive or rejecting.
In an era of globalization, intercultural abilities and cultural intelligence will need to be extended far beyond the repertoires of diplomats, expats and sojourners. In my opinion intercultural abilities will need to be developed as part of one‘s core interpersonal skillset and I was recently pleased to see intercultural ability on my 9 year old’s school report as one of the interpersonal abilities that students are being assessed on. This is a great step fonivard ensuring all members of the l l f l community are tasked with the responsibility of social cohesion and that culture in of it self was acknowledged as a part of who we are.
Cultural intelligence or CQ is the measurable capability to work effectively in multicultural contexts (Ang, Van Dyne & Ling Tan, 2012). As a capability, it is reported to be one of the most desired attributes of global leaders in the 21st century and of essential importance to Australian businesses and employees in the Asian Century (Byrne, 2013).
A great deal of knowledge has focused on the importance of cultural knowledge which often relates to culturally influenced customs, the hidden meaning behind gestures, clothes, family structure, business etiquettes, work norms, habits and behaviours. Cultural intelligence however is not a learning framework for learning about the ‘other’, it is learning about ourselves and our ability to form and maintain a cohesive relationship with ‘another’. Cultural intelligence, as referring to an individuals capability to function effectively across cultures is an essential set of competencies that assist individuals to negotiate and perform well in all types of relationships, intimate, peer, friendships, organisational and between majority and minority groups.
Research indicates that it is not the well travelled, not the bicultural or bilingual that have higher levels of cultural intelligence, it is those that are highly open and motivated to work in multicultural environments and to see culture as an asset to be harnessed. It is those that are motivated to build cultural knowledge of differences and similarities and to incorporate this knowledge into well thought out interpersonal strategies.
A connected economy rewards people who see things differently, who have ideas that no one else does, who analyse and synthesise information into networks and systems, who design products and deliver services that effectively connect with the diverse communities we sen/e. We are hard wired to connect with people, it propels the emotions joy, excitement and contentment. it is an innate desire to connect, to be good at connecting and to build an identity, cultural and social around these connections. In business it drives resourcefulness, profitability, growth and sustainability. in community it drives social cohesion, community resilience and flourishing.
Cultural intelligence can be developed through personal development of cultural self-awareness, knowledge of how cultures are similar and different, having awareness and planning for intercultural interactions and using cultural information to relate well in intercultural situations. The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Sometimes we can have great relationships with others and still not pick up the subtleties of interaction and communication that become the building blocks for social cohesion.
Intercultural competence involves being able to understand oneself and our own ability to feel comfortable in ‘doing difference‘. Perceiving or feeling difference as ‘a bad thing’ leads to doing difference that can look like prejudice and racism, but doing difference can also lead to doing curiosity and kindness, the latter building communities and though it might sound cliche, more peace in the world.
We are all cultural beings. We cannot rely on lightning bolts to awaken us and jolt us into enacting goodness, nor should we wait for moments of tragedy to reveal themselves, alerting us to injustice. As a society l feel we are limiting ourselves if we are solely relying on moments of personal or cultural empathy to improve intercultural connectedness. What we can do is make conscious and deliberate choices that position ourselves in ways that invite respect, curiosity and connection. I often say that we can do difference with curiosity and kindness. To facilitate this process we need to make visible the invisible and learn safe ways to talk about the invisible. We need to develop cultural self-awareness and develop a mindfulness of the emotions being felt in ourselves and others, so we can tune in to the stories of other people and have our stories heard.
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About Monique Toohey:
Monique Toohey has worked across the education, not-for-profit and health sectors over the past 22 years. Monique is a registered Psychologist and after establishing the provision of psychological services across the majority of Melbourne’s lslamic schools founded her own private practice, Nasihah Consulting – Northern Psychology clinic in 2005. She lectures in Cross Cultural Counselling at the Australian Catholic University and is a committee member of the Australian Psychological Society’s Psychology and Culture interest Group.
She has delivered cultural competence training to over 350 organisations across Australia and abroad. She also specializes in training a variety of audiences in cross-cultural approaches to effective provision of mental health and domestic violence services across Australia and Malaysia. She has also delivered training to mental health practitioners ln lndonesia (2005 Boxing day Tsunami) and Turkey (2017 Post-coup) in the area of Trauma recovery in children and families.
She is the author of a number of published works, including her debut book in 2014, Without You: Rising above the impact of an abusive relationship.
ln 2015 Monique was awarded by Moreland Council‘s Women’s Honour Roll on International Women’s Day, for Supporting the Contribution & Participation of Women, in recognition of her work for victims of domestic violence in culturally diverse communities and also recognising one of her community projects Passion Cafe, which is a public speaking platform for women of culturally diverse backgrounds. She has worked with over 40 different Muslim organisations across Australia in both professional and volunteer roles, including appointment as a board member to the Islamic Council of Victoria in 2014 & 2015.