Reflexivity in Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Our deep cross-cultural professional collaboration and personal relationship have developed over seven years. Together, we have written one book, edited another, and led dozens of faculty development workshops and national presentations. Culturally, Susan originates from Northern and Western Europe (Danish, Swedish, German, French, English, and Irish American) while Alicia is Mestiza from Apache and Spanish American origins. Because our work and identities cross cultures in sustained ways, and because successful cross-cultural collaboration requires a deep understanding of one’s own intersecting identities, including cultural identity, we crafted over time a reflexive ethnographic process. Through this process, we continually reflect upon our respective cultural identities, explore together, and learn from each other about how our cultures and identities affect our collaborations. This enhances our relationship, sustains our professional collaborations, and enriches our study of college teaching and learning. As we built our relationship, we found our way to intercultural, collaborative well-being.

We regularly cofacilitate faculty sessions on teaching across cultural strengths, and this leads us to culturally reflexive dialogues. For example, during a recent session, Alicia diverged from her customary process of telling and then explaining a concept through a single teaching story. After sharing one story, she went on to tell another and another. Later, when Susan asked why, Alicia explained she felt an urgent need to offer more stories when she observed nonverbal indications that many faculty did not initially understand her point. Susan shared that she, in contrast, felt an obligation to move on from this topic to avoid neglecting other activities. Through reflexive conversations, we realized Alicia was following her cultural norm by spending enough time while Susan was following hers by remaining on time.

Reflexive meaning making is critical to our collaboration across cultures. Over time, we developed practices to support our intercultural collaboration and relationship:

  • Abandon defenses about one’s own cultural mores (ways and practices). Susan discovered that abandoning defenses was crucial to opening her awareness of dominant cultural norms. After abandoning defenses, seek balance across cultural ways of knowing, being, and acting.
  • Cultivate a willingness to be uncomfortable. Interactions across cultures often create discomfort as people experience divergent cultural practices, priorities, and values. Feelings of annoyance offer important clues to cultural differences, underlying assumptions, and judgments. It is necessary to engage this discomfort, often for sustained periods of time, to reach an understanding and blend cultural strengths toward shared purpose.
  • Draw on cultural strengths from each individual. For instance, in speaking and writing, Susan relies on Alicia’s use of narrative to convey context, and Alicia relies on Susan’s use of abstract concepts.
  • Remain intensely present. For example, as we feel conflict, we take breaks and later reengage. Being present serves as a catalyst to understanding and facilitates attention, inquiry, and meaning making needed to reveal deeper insights about what underlies cultural norms.
  • Develop deep trust in each other over time. Our willingness to introspect continually and engage with one another about culture builds trust. Mutual trust makes it possible to explore together, push boundaries, ask questions, and navigate through conflict.
  • Ask one another directly and respectfully about differences. Regularly request assistance to understand cultural behaviors, assumptions, values, expectations, beliefs, and priorities.
  • Encourage risk taking and mistake making. Risk and mistakes are inherent and essential to intercultural collaboration. Practice asking, listening, encouraging, forgiving, and offering a generous and immediate benefit of the doubt. Developing emotional and intellectual resiliency is critical to achieving cross-cultural collaborative well-being.
  • Engage one another’s combined strengths to get through trauma triggers. Because professionals from some cultural origins regularly experience trauma associated with negotiating educational systems, cross-cultural discussions may trigger emotional flashbacks and distress. Engage strengths such as generosity, openness, courage, and persistence to offer comfort and support to get through the intensity of reflexive cultural learning.
  • Include metaphor, story, symbol, and visual sharing. Meaning can be illusive across divergent cultural epistemologies and ways of being. A story or metaphor often facilitates understanding when direct explanation is insufficient.

We share our learned practices in hopes of contributing to healthy cross-cultural collaborations. We write this article during troubling times that call for reflexive paths into cross-cultural well-being.

Alicia Fedelina Chávez is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of New Mexico, and Susan Diana Longerbeam is Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Louisville.

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