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In talking with author and educator Joseph Shaules, he met each question with extended moments of silence as he pondered his response. When asked about these pauses, he chuckled and admitted that recently in Germany a seminar attendee said, “I can tell you live in Japan…You have a very ‘Zen atmosphere’.” „I don’t practice meditation,” said Joseph, but “apparently I was leaving long pauses as I reflected on what it was I wanted to say.”

The Intercultural Mind

The idea of critical reflection is one of the key ideas found in Joseph’s new book, The Intercultural Mind. “I’m no wiser than the next person”, he said, “but it’s true that I try to give myself the time to let deeper mental processes work.” His book argues that this is one key to unlocking intercultural insight. Here are some other themes that came out of our recent conversation with Joseph.

Cultural neuroscience and “Deep culture”

His new book explores the idea of deep culture—the hidden cultural “programming” of unconscious cognitive processes. Joseph describes his book as a sort of “user’s manual” of the mind for people interested in global living. He explains how the emerging field of cultural neuroscience is changing our understanding of culture and cognition. Joseph’s views sometimes go against some common memes about diversity and global living. He believes, for example, that globalization is not taking us beyond cultural difference. On the contrary, we are discovering that cultural influences on cognition and identity are deeper and complex than many realize. According to Joseph, global living offers more than increased market share or exotic foreign experiences. It provides an opportunity to gain insight into hidden recesses of our own minds.

Globalization and Choice

Globalization doesn’t automatically create international understanding, but it does offer us a choice. “Increasingly, a personal commitment to engaging with diversity is more important than whether you live abroad or not,” says Joseph. He is referring not simply to people from other countries, or of other ethnic groups. “There is potential for cultural learning any time you engage with people and communities that are unfamiliar to you”. While Joseph wrote his book with expats in mind, he has a message for everyone: “Globalization is bringing cultural diversity to your neighborhood—but you need to seek it out to learn from it.”

Likewise, these days, going abroad isn’t necessarily enough to learn deep cultural lessons. “Connective technology is very convenient,” says Joseph, “but it can shield us from the cultural adjustments that used to be an unavoidable part of foreign travel. With Google Maps,” he says, “you don’t even need to ask for directions abroad. This can create a cocoon of convenience.” Globalization can expose us or protect us from cultural difference. “If we recognize that,” he says, “we see that an active choice to engage with difference is important.”

Choosing The Intercultural Mind

The chapter Culture and Cognition focuses on findings from cultural neuroscience research. It argues that we seldom notice our own cultural programming because its influence operates beneath conscious awareness. If so, one may wonder how reflection contributes to intercultural competence. In a chapter on Cultural Intuition, Joseph explains that our “intuitive mind” operates as a cultural auto-pilot. He introduces a three-step, reflective learning process that can help us bring together different cognitive processes. “Ideally,” he says, “we need to make bridges between our analytic mind and our intuitive mind; become aware of hidden assumptions that we don’t normally think about; reflect on our emotional reactions; slow down our judgment processes; and be aware when we’re jumping to conclusions.

The Intercultural Mind Emerges

Joseph’s thinking has changed as a result of the findings of cultural neuroscience research. “I used to think of intercultural competence primarily as an analytic or critical-thinking skill.” He now sees it as an ongoing trial-and-error exploration that touches upon deep elements of the self—mind and body, thoughts and feelings. His book recounts a story of standing on a freezing corner waiting for a group of Japanese to make a decision about where to eat. He fought a rising sense of irritation because the group’s collective communication process felt agonizingly slow. This story illustrates the limits of detachment and analytic problem-solving. Despite our best intentions, it takes time to learn to ‘read the air’ in a foreign country. Our conscious mind must learn to work in tandem with the pattern-recognition processes of our intuitive mind. “This reminds us” Joseph says, “that intercultural understanding is more than a moral stance or a philosophy of tolerance. It requires a willingness to get out of our comfort zone and venture deeply into unexplored territory of the mind.”

intercultures Consultant Dr. Joseph Shaules is an intercultural consultant and a professor at Juntendo University in in Tokyo, Japan, where he lives with his wife. The Intercultural Mind is available for purchase online.

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The above article was included in the Jan. 2015 intercultures e-newsletter.

Picture Courtesy Cover Picture of ” The intercultural mind”: Joseph Shaules.