The EU Referendum and the Intercultural Challenge

In workplaces across the country the fallout from the EU referendum vote is being felt, like ominous seismic activity heralding an earthquake sometime in the not-too-distant but indeterminate future.  In some, it has been relayed to us, feelings have come to a boiling point. Perhaps of most immediate importance is the duty of care of employers to reassure and employees from EU countries, many of whom are feeling deeply insecure and are not reluctant to say so – as I personally witnessed when accompanying my mother to an NHS teaching hospital on 24th June. However, there is also the inter-cultural challenge amongst the UK population, which has shown itself to be so deeply divided.

Our history as a nation with other European nations has been long and often bloody. It behoves us to pay attention to the fact that this history it has been comparatively peaceful for the last 70 years or so, notwithstanding Balkans war and ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the conflict in Ukraine amongst other key exceptions to this picture. And of course European nations have been directly or indirectly involved in conflicts in other continents. That said, the narrative of ‘peace in our times’ had some resonance, at least in Western Europe. But we now live in proverbially ‘interesting’ times, and the decisions we make today may have far reaching consequences for whether the comparative peace we enjoy remains sustainable – or not – and at what cost.

The EU referendum is a symptom of deeper tectonic movements in the world, and our decision as a nation, for better or worse, is a definitive event within those larger movements – with far greater repercussions than perhaps we imagined when we cast our votes. What has this got to do with intercultural competence? Well, more than may at first appear to be the case. There are two key dimensions to the tensions which have reportedly spilled over in some workplaces since 24th June, which speak directly to the question of intercultural competence (or lack of it): the first is the deep cultural division between many of those who voted ‘Leave’ on the one hand, and many of those who voted ‘Remain’ on the other. The second is the question of which of these culture is set to dominate our political landscape – or whether there can be an accommodation between them – a third way.

Turning first to the question of cultural divisions – though more a question of political than strictly national or ethnic culture, what we do know is that the divisions between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters seemed profound. They roughly divided the country along class, age, metropolitan urban / small town & rural and – yes – ethnic and national, lines. In short, the more middle class, the younger and the more metropolitan you were, the more likely you were to vote ‘Remain’ – and vice versa. Ethnicity also played a role, with white voters marginally more likely to vote Leave, but Asian and Black voters more likely by a considerable margin to vote Remain. The variations between the home nations, with their differing political cultures, has been widely publicised. The referendum therefore did not so much open up divisions, as give ‘legitimate’ and ‘public’ space for the airing of those divisions.

If we go back to the campaigns by the respective sides, it is undeniable that there was a fundamental failure of genuine debate in favour of posturing and position taking – a failure which frequently characterises the nature of communication when there is a clash of cultures, with a concomitant inability or unwillingness to understand, empathise with and translate the aspirations of the other side into a language both can understand and dialogue in. Little wonder, then, that the repercussions and legacy of this perhaps inglorious example of democracy of work is a predominant sense of continued – even amplified – ill-feeling and bitterness. What happens in the world happens in us, and what happens in us happens in our workplaces – it is not surprising that even the characteristically reserved English can ‘lose it’ when under intense enough pressure. The victory of Brexit is, for some people, a moment of intense enough pressure. And the underlying, rapid, shift in the political landscape, which seemed to bring the ascendant political culture into a position of dominance, has induced fear and anger in many who were on the ‘losing’ side, as well as a sense of triumphalism among some who feel they have waited a very long time for their victory.

So what is the role of the workplace in promoting healthier outcomes in such circumstances, and how can learning intercultural communication skills help in such situations? It is our view that the workplace is a school with a purpose – a place where very diverse people need to learn to get on for the common purpose of the success of the whole – the company, the business, the organisation, the service. It is the role of core company values to help provide the glue that can hold together otherwise irresistible centrifugal forces of diversity. But it is the practice of inclusion, which demands effective intercultural communication and leadership which can truly make that aspiration a reality.

Following and building upon the work of Deardorff and others [reference], the principles of intercultural communication, as we understand them, simply stated, are as follows:

  1. Respect, openness, curiosity: be respectful, open and curious. Be willing to take a risk and to move beyond one’s comfort zone. Be willing to be wrong, or at least to have one’s perspective altered or widened.
  2. You are not the centre of everyone’s universe: realise that one’s own culture is specific, and study how it has affected one’s own world view – also how odd or foreign it may seem to others, and how it may impact upon them
  3. Culture, power, status: understand that cultures are often in a relationship of status, power and domination / subordination – that those who feel dominated often feel ignored and marginalised, and those who dominate often do not recognise their privilege or power. When these power or status relationships change, there is often upheaval, fear, anger and anxiety
  4. Learn from the other: with this understanding, be willing to learn as much as possible about others’ culture, as far as possible without judgment, but with respectful curiosity. This will often throw a new light on one’s own culture
  5. Develop Core Skills: intercultural communication requires self-mastery, as we develop our willingness and ability to observe, listen, evaluate, analyse, interpret, and relate with less judgment and more openness.
  6. Reap the Inner Dividends: this process will enrich you personally and professionally, as you gain in flexibility, adaptability, empathy, and the ability to really ‘get’ what others experience and perceive, whether or not you ‘agree’ with them.
  7. Reap the Outer Dividends: Deardorff defines intercultural competence as “the effective and appropriate behavior and communication in intercultural situations.” She goes on to explain that “…[e]ffectiveness can be determined by the individual while the appropriateness can only be determined by the other person – with appropriateness being directly related to cultural sensitivity and the adherence to cultural norms of that person”. This distinction is important, but has very different implications, depending upon whether the person attempting to be inter-culturally competent is part of the dominant, or the non-dominant, culture in a situation. In our work, we deal with both these instances.

To return to workplaces where EU exit – or any other sensitive issue – is a matter of fractured communication, and perhaps fragile relationships: having leaders, managers and supervisors skilled in intercultural communication, and able to promote these seven principles, could mean the difference between a team that can work through difficulties and re-find their common cause and team citizenship – and one that loses morale and experiences a consequent drop in performance.

The Equality Academy’s Intercultural Competence workshops are designed to support teams and organisations to promote the principles of intercultural communication, and make for a workplace culture which is capable of dealing with – not suppressing – differences of perspective, outlook and culture, resulting in stronger teams and higher morale.