Save the Date for This Year's Conference!
November 9-12, 2016
Intercultural Stories of Disconnection:
Insights into the Polarization
of People and Places
Whether it’s Baltimore or Beirut, Paris or presidential elections, the people and places around the world are polarized – distanced by varying perspectives that fuel society’s tendency to “other” each other from afar – or even right next door. Our differing cultural, racial, political, and religious identities and ideology prevent us from connecting with the oneness of our shared humanity. Now more than ever, Interculturalists and diversity practitioners are called on to offer insights and solutions. With SIETAR-USA being the premier professional intercultural organization, we have the opportunity and, indeed, the responsibility to be at the forefront of these conversations. This conference provides the space to boldly engage in the difficult dialogues about what disconnects us, with the aim of bringing us closer to a shared understanding and empathy that such conversations and meaningful connections may bring. Together we will explore concepts, tools, best practices – and perhaps even solutions – to offer each other as colleagues, as well as our clients, organizations, and loved ones, to bridge the gaps and move the field forward.
The 2016 Presidential Election comes to its conclusion the day before we commence. With Tulsa, OK as the backdrop of the conference we have a unique opportunity to discover not only the People and Places of Tulsa, but also to learn the history of the cultural intersections and disconnections of US Americans and how they converged in Middle America. This location will serve as a perfect “middle ground” to unite us, to share our stories and explore the polarization, pitfalls and promises that cross-cultural contact can bring.
Codeswitching and Belonging
Anyone who has been the ‘outsider’ in the room, is a member of a religious, cultural, or ethnic minority, or remembers adolescence knows how important it is to find a tribe, feel understood, belong. In our combined 60+ years specializing in multicultural work with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of settings, an especially poignant theme of clients and students has been that of belonging. Being outside the mainstream, whether it shows on your face or not, raises the question of what it means to fit in and how that differs from belonging. Under certain circumstances, fitting in often means changing how you are to mirror those around you. This strategy, however, can make it harder to distinguish between how you are and who you are.
We have found that teaching about codeswitching is essential to the exploration of the meaning of belonging; it is a communication skill that hones clients’ connection arsenals. Originally a concept from linguistics, codeswitching is the ability to use two or more forms of communication within one conversation, even one single sentence. For example, someone speaking a mixture of Spanish and English (“Spanglish”) is codeswitching.
Everyone codeswitches. We adjust our communication styles to fit the people and situations around us. The vocabulary and style we use with a four year old is different from that which we use with a forty year old. The ability to codeswitch is hardwired. It’s an evolutionary self-preservation skill ensuring we have at least one group to belong to and enabling us to shift between groups when necessary. There is and always has been safety in numbers.
Codeswitching usually happens automatically, without thought. It’s something we humans instinctively know to do. Think about how we use this skill in our professional lives. Psychologists Richard Bandler and John Grinder brought the use of codeswitching into the mainstream with their groundbreaking work in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Many of us use it consciously and deliberately as a powerful relationship-building vehicle. It enables us to join more smoothly, and assures clients and students they will be heard and understood, that they have a voice and belong.
It is important, however, to make a distinction between the use of codeswitching and the feelings related to identity that can come up during the process of codeswitching. For members of any type of minority group, codeswitching is serious business, whether that person is aware of it or not. Whether someone’s minority status is based on social class, spiritual practices, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or other factors, codeswitching is necessary in so many ways (e.g., to fit in, to hide differences that may be socially dangerous or a professional disadvantage). People codeswitch as a survival mechanism, often at great cost to their self-identity.
Over the years, working with minority clients and minority students on the subject of codeswitching, a recurring question has popped up. It hits at the heart of the anxiety accompanying the lack of belonging many minorities of all kinds feel. The question goes something like this: “I already do the chameleon thing to fit in. How is this different?” For clients who have had to hide their real feelings from the majority culture in which they live, we have found it may take some coaching to differentiate between codeswitching and self-brainwashing or co-opting oneself.
The goal of codeswitching is not to turn into a chameleon, to camouflage yourself in order to fit in or hide. The goal and art of codeswitching is to tap into different parts of yourself, and develop new ways of communicating who you genuinely are to different types of people. To be successful, you have to be clear on who you are, to be intimately familiar with your core beliefs and values. It’s an evolutionary path we support in our clients, our students, and experience ourselves.
Our work has taught us that integrating the parts of the self and the internalized cultural system they form is essential for psychological well-being. To us, codeswitching is sharing who you are in ways that the other person can hear and understand in the way you intend. It is part of and even one of the fruits of this integration process. To codeswitch is to truly learn to speak each other’s languages and do so without losing your sense of self or resenting the process, in the hope of fitting in or facilitating personal or professional relationships. We advocate modeling how to play with codeswitching while staying grounded and authentic.
Early in our intercultural careers, we work hard on forming professional identities, forming our professional cores. As we move into the flow of service as multicultural specialists, do we put enough time into examining the core of our identity as it evolves over time, or is it easy to let that piece go? Intellectually we know we are all changing, growing, evolving day by day both personally and professionally. But do we make time to notice, massage, integrate and celebrate this? If we are lucky, evolving and sharing our path is one of the joys of our work. There are myriad opportunities for learning and experience that help keep the profession interesting for us and keep us fresh and passionate. When we are busy, it’s also easy to skate on what has worked well in the past.
We have found that fostering and paying attention to our head-heart conversations can increase our awareness of our own processes, allowing for better prevention and quicker response. We have found it helpful to do a periodical status check, and reconnect with and reaffirm our cores.
Here are some questions to routinely ask yourself throughout your career:
- What is my cultural identity as a professional and how has it changed over time?
- What do fitting in and belonging mean to me?
- How do I communicate who I am to my clients, thus supporting formation of trusting relationships and providing a solid role model?
Every encounter we have, whether personal or professional, is cross-cultural. Multiculturalists are in the communication and relationship business. However, we’re not immune to the same forces that bring clients to our doors. It’s easy to lose ourselves while attending to others, so it’s essential we remember that we are responsible to, not for, our clients, and that our process of identity evolution needs and deserves consistent nurturing as well.
Harriet Cannon, LMFT, LMHC, and Rhoda Berlin, LMFT, are multicultural psychotherapists and co-authors of Mixed Blessings: a Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships
Join them in Edinburgh Scotland, July 12th-15th 2016 for Roots and Renewal: Radical Self Care
www.mixed-blessings.com , firstname.lastname@example.org tel +206 780 3843