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Jaargang 44, 7 februari 2002

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Aware of differences
'What's the story on those other cultures?' A question he has heard quite often since 'September 11'. Chris Smit, business consultant at ITIM/Result, gives training in 'intercultural communication'. On 14 February the second pilot course for the trainee research assistants of the university's Stan Ackermans Institute (SAI) is beginning.

After 'eight years of travel experience' his suitcase is brimming over with anecdotes. Chris Smit uses them to clarify the starting points of ITIM (Institute for Training in Intercultural Management). "I had to go to Hong Kong to teach a 'time management' course. It was sheer horror! The result was zip, I talked two days on end with a face as red as a beetroot. 'Time' is very much a culturally defined concept."
The psychologist tries to make his students aware of their own assumptions. He does so on the basis of exercises, role-playing and discussions. "We don't teach the do's and don'ts of specific cultures, such as the hand you use to greet people", Smit explains. "We concern ourselves with the underlying norms and values of those precepts. The sessions focus more on understanding than on skills."
All ITIM training courses are based on a model developed in the 1970s by a Dutch anthropologist, Geert Hofstede. According to the anthropologist members of a certain culture behave according to the pattern of thought typical of that culture. His model catalogues societies on the basis of five dimensions, such as the way in which people deal with differences in power, or the extent to which they strive for material success. The fact that members of a culture have a 'high' or 'low score' for the separate dimensions, can explain a great deal about their behaviour.

The be-all and end-all
"Of course the model is not the be-all and end-all", Smit emphasises. "It accounts for only part of the differences. Still, for people with international experience the course is often an eye-opener." Agnieszka Matysiak, User System Interaction-student at the SAI, confirms this. In November she took part in the first pilot course. "The training changed my perception. You assume that somebody else thinks the way you do, but they don't."
Matysiak felt 'quite lost' in the Netherlands for a long time. During the course she learnt how differences between the Dutch and Polish culture contributed to this. "The Poles are rather a solution-oriented people. They start to tackle a problem straight away, whereas Dutch people tend to examine the matter much longer. You also get more freedom to do that here. It had a relaxing effect on me when I found out that I don't have to come up with the solution at once. That's only required at the end."
Apart from enthusiasm, there is also criticism of Hofstede's model, especially from social scientists. They allege that the model is limited, outdated and particularly 'ethnocentric', as it was developed in a western culture. "Naturally the theories of a society are an extract of that culture itself", Smit concurs. "Yet the model is based on large-scale statistic research. The proof of the pudding is still in the eating: if someone recognises the handles I supply, that is a good enough test for me. After all, the model is just a means, not an end in itself."
Since the events of September 11 the consultant has seen increasing interest from companies in the courses. "They come to me and ask, 'what's the story on those other cultures?'. Globalisation appears to be primarily a technological phenomenon: managers easily cross the border with their mobile phones, e-mail and internet. But there is a human aspect to be reckoned with as well, namely that other culture."

Unfamiliarity with other cultures plays tricks on many managers, says Smit. "For instance, I had a student who had made a spreadsheet in Excell. Colleagues from the establishments in France and Belgium had to work with them. He failed to understand why they didn't." During the course the man discovered that the management style in France and Belgium differs from that in Holland. "The contact with one's superior and inspections are far more important there", says Smit. "However, he expected them to do what he wanted, if he just left them to their own devices."
The ITIM training courses do not provide cut-and-dried solutions to such problems, though. "People have to write down their 'cultural issues' and find solutions for those themselves", Smit explains. The consultant is sparing of his own opinion, especially when politically controversial matters are at issue. "The ITIM refrains from political statements. Which is not always easy, given the situation in the world. People ask my opinion about all sorts of things: what's your view on Afghanistan? All I can do is make an analysis, and then pose the question once again to the people themselves. You need to be very cautious with that."/.

Chris Smit. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

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Anything goes during carnival
Carnival in Brazil is about drinking, dancing and flirting. Anyone who does not like it, flees the town. The Brazilian exchange student Sergio Araujo knows all about it: "Carnival is an excuse to do anything you want".

"Ash Wednesday is really heavy. Physically, but especially psychologically you feel a wreck. You don't want to stop. Everybody is quiet, some people cry. It's a sad day." He describes it without dramatising it. Sergio Araujo (24), exchange student of Applied Physics, is a true carnival lover. In Brazil this implies five days and nights of partying, flirting and - how could we forget it - drinking.
"Youngsters team up in groups of thirty or forty and rent cottages on the coast. There they throw 'open' parties with lots of music, where anyone is welcome. Drinking starts as early as Saturday morning. I once brushed my teeth with spirits in the morning. Others first relax on the beach for a bit and only then start drinking."
The carnival itch already begins in January. "Everyone talks about it, you can hear the music everywhere. It's very depressing if you can't join in. I once had to stay home to study. That was terrible." Yet you also get people who do not like carnival. "Lots of couples don't like the flirting", says Araujo. "They flee to places where it is quiet, like in the mountains."

More passionate
Southern cities such as Rio de Janeiro are widely known abroad. Still, festivities in the northern part of Brazil are more passionate, says Araujo. "In the southern cities they have bigger parades, with floats up to fifty metres high. Tourists just love that. But in the north people really prefer the
feasting and revelry."
During carnival everything is different. The Brazilians dress up and make jokes about all kinds of things. "The mood changes", the student goes on. "You can do anything. Sleep on the ground, pull people's legs: it's carnival, it makes no difference. Carnival is a great excuse to do whatever you want."
This year he will be celebrating in the Netherlands. Preferably in Maastricht, for he has heard that the carnaval there is the best. Is he not going to miss the Brazilian atmosphere? "I don't hear much about it here, so that makes a difference", says Araujo hesitantly. "But I don't want to know what my friends are going to do!" Nevertheless he admits that he has changed a bit. "Maybe I've grown older. In the past I could not imagine fleeing the party hubbub with my girlfriend. Now I can."/.
Sergio Araujo. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

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Carnival holidays
On Thursday 14 February no Cursor will be published because of the carnival holidays. The next edition of Cursor will appear on Thursday 21 February.

Meditation Centre
In the month of February there will be a number of different activities in the TU/e Meditation Centre in room 1.46 in De Hal. On Mondays 18 and 25 February: 'silence can be learnt' from 12.45 to 13.15 hours. On Wednesdays 20 and 27 February: 'zen meditation' from 12.45 to 13.15 hours. The Meditation Centre is open from 8.00 to 21.00 hours. More info: w.j.t.h.fraaije@tue.nl.

Excursion TDO
TDO is organising an excursion, this time to the Essent Combined Heating and Power Station in Eindhoven on Thursday 21 February 2002. The excursion will start at 14.00 hours, the entry fee is 2,5 euro. Registration is required and possible until 18 February at tdo@tue.nl or via ext. 4463.

New journalist
As from this week the English page is written by journalist Enith Vlooswijk. Tips, comments or novelties can be sent to her via
e-mail address engcursor@tue.nl.
The articles on this page are translated by drs. Benjamin Ruijsenaars.

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