The Dynamics of Intercultural Communal Living

The way we interpret culture depends on the way we experience it and our level of exposure to it. This means that you would perceive someone’s culture in a different way depending on whether you live with them or if you are a tourist visiting their country.

In 1976, the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed an analogy for culture known as the ‘Cultural Iceberg’. Hall’s analogy put forth the idea that the majority of culture is below the surface and that, as a result, only a small portion of culture can be observed.

Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg

This small, visible portion consists of dress, food, arts, language, religions, traditions and all the other things which one can see and experience as a tourist. While these are all vital elements of culture, the conclusions which one will inevitably draw based on their experience of these visible elements will likely be flawed or incomplete. In order to get a more accurate and complete view of culture, one must look beneath the surface to experience and understand its invisible elements. The invisible part of the cultural iceberg contains things such as people’s beliefs, values and ideals: things which one can begin to experience and understand only through deeper exposure to culture.

Intercultural communal living offers people the opportunity to see and experience culture in a more meaningful and profound way. Put differently, when people from different parts of the world live together under one roof, they begin to experience the invisible parts of the iceberg.

Source: Unsplash

A programme in Antwerp, Belgium allowed young refugees to live communally with local Belgians of the same age group in order to help facilitate and strength their social inclusion and integration. While living under the same roof, the participants were able to learn about the aforementioned invisible parts of culture. In the Comparative Migration Studies journal, Rilke Mahieu and Rut van Caudenberg explain the programme and give examples of some of the things people faced:

Gender issues

Living in a gender-mixed space, the participants were faced with opposing views regarding gender roles. For instance, a local Belgian clashed with her male, refugee housemate who expected her to do all of the housework on account of her being a woman. In another case, the refugees informed their housemates that they felt uncomfortable with them having their partners sleep over in the house. It must be noted that not all participants clashed in their views; some acknowledged the differences in their perspectives and saw their cohabitation as an opportunity to have important discussions regarding gender roles.

Stereotypes and prejudice

As with people from all over the world, some of the participants were prejudiced and held stereotypes. While for some these prejudices and stereotypes proved to be true, others felt that they had initially made wrong judgements and assumptions regarding their housemates. For example, one of the refugees explained that he had initially believed all Belgians were racist; however, following his cohabitation with a local Belgian, he learned that this belief was false. Similarly, a Belgian local was ashamed to admit that had she come across refugees who looked like her male housemates prior to the programme, she would not have felt safe.

As seen through these two examples, intercultural communal living works to reduce and overcome prejudice. In addition, the programme showed how people’s views of gender norms and roles are framed by their culture; thus, inevitably, people will initially clash as a result of their differences and the cultural framework through which they view the world. Nevertheless, intercultural communal living can overall be seen as a valuable learning experience which teaches people tolerance and awareness — virtues which are crucial in our 21st century world.

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