A cultural anthropologist slowly spells out “Alemania” at the top of the page. A non-profit executive sketches a large iceberg below it, careful to place the waterline high, with the majority of the ice submerged. A photographer who had lived internationally for years asks the pair sitting across from him—one in human resources, the other in tourism—about their stereotypes of Germany. As the group tentatively threw out words like “beer”, “technology”, “punctuality”, and “seriousness”, a discussion began to swirl between the heads hunched over their poster. By the time the collection of strangers had filled the paper with scribbles, a lively discussion on how to break down stereotypes with interculturalism had bloomed among them.
At the “Global Challenges: How to Understand and Develop Cultural Diversity?” conference, discussions like these served both as education and as introduction for each of these intercultural professionals. The event marked the debut of SIETAR Argentina, a society dedicated to promoting the interdisciplinary field of interculturalism in Argentina.
The theory holds that culture is like an iceberg: the tangible aspects, foods or holidays, for example, are the visible tip. Yet the most profound elements of a society’s culture; family values or concepts of time, for example, remain submerged, unfathomable without careful examination. “What we interculturalists try to achieve,” explains SIETAR Argentina president María-Inés Quiroga, “is to create a bridge between that conscious culture and that which is unconscious, through workshops, lectures, group dynamics, and other methods. We try to fill that void of confusion with dialogue and reflection.”
With greater cultural consciousness, individuals enjoy more harmonious and effective relationships. Esther-Marie Merz, another founding member, describes the philosophy more simply: “We used to say, ‘I try to treat the other person like how I would like to be treated.’ And that’s exactly what you should not do in intercultural communication! You should treat the other person how the other person would like to be treated.”
Participants in the conference work in a range of fields, from business consulting to student exchange programs, but their work goes beyond streamlined corporate relationships and more successful host family placements; it cultivates social justice. “If not observed and analysed promptly, intercultural misunderstandings—funny and amusing as they may seem—can develop ‘wrong’ or ‘misguided’ assumptions about ‘the other’ culture that may generate stereotypes, hatred, discrimination, etc.,” explains Quiroga. She maintains that directly addressing those tendencies is essential to counteracting them. “If you don’t have the space, the moment, the workshop, where you feel comfortable enough to say it all out loud, you don’t think about [stereotypes]. It’s hard to first recognise and then work with them.”
Yet despite the need, professionals who facilitate those discussions face resistance from potential clients. Merz, an intercultural coach and facilitator, describes approaching Argentine businesses, “When you say, ‘Why don’t you organise a workshop about intercultural communication?’ they say, ‘What is that? I don’t need that. I don’t have the money for that.’” She also says that Argentina’s image as unified in its diversity can impede intercultural discussion. “Argentines see themselves as a multicultural pot. They say, ‘We don’t need that because we already know how to communicate. We’re a multicultural country.’” She sighs, “It’s going to be a long path. We have to have a lot of patience.”
In a field so challenging, SIETAR Argentina is a pioneering platform of professional support in Argentina. As the first Spanish-speaking chapter in Latin America, the society builds upon the 38-year legacy of other SIETAR chapters operating throughout the world with over 5,000 members.
Judging by Friday’s conference attendees, intercultural professionals in Argentina are eager for a tool like SIETAR Argentina. Quiroga began the conference with the question for participants: why had they come? A veteran interculturalist answered that she wanted to meet more colleagues. A few more volunteered: “Helping others.” “Tools that we can apply to our everyday lives.” “Research.” Several others were hoping to discover mentoring and opportunities for practice among the group. “To learn!” called out another.
As for SIETAR Argentina’s future, the conference is just a taste of resources to come. Explains Merz, “You call SIETAR Argentina and then you’ll know who to go to. We’ll tell you, “Listen, María-Inés is doing these trainings in the universities,’ and we’ll give you all the information.” They plan to organise lectures and discussions on both universal topics, such as stereotypes or intercultural communication, as well as those specific to Argentina. Events listings and newsletters are also possibilities, but SIETAR Argentina stresses that its priority is addressing the specific needs of the newly-emerging interculteralist community.
But without a rich network of practitioners, SIETAR’s ability to support intercultural professionals across Argentina is limited. To those ends, they say their first priority is uniting the Argentine interculturalist community by expanding their membership.
Although only just making their first public appearance, SIETAR Argentina is already poised to revolutionise the Argentine interculturalism field. Merz explains the vision succinctly: “It’s a platform where we nourish what you want to know, where we meld people together to get stronger, bigger so that one day in Argentina, everybody will know that for intercultural communication, you go to SIETAR Argentina.”