Intercultural awareness in communication
Nabil, Casper and two of their friends are playing near the bicycle shed at school. Casper is playing with the doorknob when suddenly it breaks! Casper drops it and the boys run away. A teacher finds out and he asks them what has happened. No one says anything. Three sets of eyes look at the teacher innocently while Nabil casts his eyes down to the ground.
Nabil: Oh my, the teacher is really angry; he’s looking so serious! I need to just show him my respect and hope he’ll calm down soon. I know it was Casper who broke the doorknob but I definitely won’t tell on him. Casper is my friend.
Teacher: What do we have here? Nabil is afraid to look at me! I’m sure he’s hiding something. It must be him who broke the doorknob. I’m not sure I trust this little boy.
Parents or teachers in the Netherlands ask children to look them in the eye when they have something serious to say. This way they can get through to the other person, they see the ‘truth’ in their eyes. Nabil was taught that it is respectful to cast your eyes down, and disrespectful to look the teacher in his eyes. The teacher has a different interpretation: to him it looks as if Nabil is trying to hide something, so automatically he will put the blame on him.
Where lies the connection?
In the Netherlands it is not disrespectful to look an adult or a person with authority in the eye and once he understands this, Nabil might be able to try.. This is true for many relationships; a worker and a boss or manager, the director of the asylum center and a refugee; it doesn’t matter, everyone is on an equal playing field. It’s usually appreciated if you look the other person in the eye, even a person of authority. The teacher of Nabil might understand that Nabil has learned in his home county to cast his eyes down. For Nabil, this has nothing to do with hiding something.
The Netherlands is a country with low power distance while Nabil is from a country with high power distance. In a high PDI country it is a sign of disrespect if the subordinate, or the younger person, looks the superior straight into the eye. This is considered arrogant. In the low PDI Dutch culture direct communication between superior and subordinate is preferred and both should be open and transparent. Eye contact is one way to be open and if this is not done, people in the Netherlands often believe the other has something to hide and they associate it with guilt.
Important to know
This anecdote is based on stories that have been shared with us. Connect2Us aims to illuminate the dilemma from both sides and not to label people or suggest that one or the other should behave differently. We see in our daily intercultural work that awareness is enough for those involved to move towards each other without denying themselves. Connect2Us wants to help readers recognise and avoid prejudice.