Culture: a primarily physical experience

Do you know the feeling? You are traveling to a foreign country where the people speak a language that you don’t understand. You have come a long way to be where you are now, i.e. you traveled through time and covered many miles/Km. You feel tired and need some sleep to adjust to the time difference. The food you have eaten doesn’t taste the same and you feel somewhat uncomfortable, as you don’t really know how your body will react to the different spices and ingredients. You hear some really strange noises from the street, again very unfamiliar, which you cannot identify. And more and foremost, you cannot understand what people are saying although you are here to negotiate and your business partners already came to greet you at the airport.

I am pretty sure that you know what I mean and have already experienced it in one way or the other!

What is really important here though, is to be able to decipher these feelings so that the learning experience in the new culture can take place. Following Ida Castiglioni, “cultural experience is primarily physical”, hence “(…) by learning from the emotion of the body, one can have a deeper experience of ‘opening’ to an alternative.”[1]

The above has direct implications when working with Dr. Bennett’s DMIS in the field of intercultural training, teaching, coaching and consulting: the body should not be forgotten when striving towards enthnorelativism (acceptance, adaption and integration).

During the “Embodied Culture” course led by Dott. Ida Castiglioni that I attended last week in Milan, the participants had the opportunity to experience for themselves what this actually means and how to leverage the findings for building up competence while working with others. In fact, following Dott. Castiglioni, there are three main areas of intervention where working with the awareness of self and body in the cultural context makes sense:

  1. Developing Empathy
  2. Acquiring the ability to shift into a different category, to shift ‘frames’ and
  3. Constructing an integrated multicultural identity.

For our example at the beginning of this post, this means that once you are aware of your perceptions and feelings and once you attend to them, exploring and integrating them into your cognitive processes you are constructing the experience holistically. The felt experience allows a person to adapt his or her own feelings to a new situation and thus gives way to appropriate behavior in a new context.

If this post has made you curious about the reactions of your own body when dealing with difference, try to look inside yourself next time you are in an unfamiliar situation. What do you feel? How does your body react? What can you learn from it?


[1] Castiglioni I. (2013). Constructing Intercultural Competence in Italian Social Service and Healthcare Organizations. Research Series published by the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Pages 1-6.



6 thoughts on “Culture: a primarily physical experience

  1. Pingback: Culture: a primarily physical experience | Mind...

  2. Loving Language

    Thanks for a great post!

    One of the best things studying languages and traveling has taught me has been empathy. I find that the result has been that I treat others with empathy in every area of my life.

    • Jenny Ebermann (bxljenny) Post author

      Hi there, very true! Once you can feel what the other person is feeling (and speaking the language certainly helps) empathy comes nearly automatically. Which does not mean that you have to agree with everything the other person does or says. Thanks for stopping by! Jenny

  3. Pingback: Culture: a primarily physical experience | find...

  4. Alice Keys

    Great post. The past six months have been a wild ride of cultural transition for me and my family.But France is not so different from the U.S. in many ways. There are burbs and cars and malls and schools and fast food only mostly smaller and less.

    It’s unsettling when I don’t understand what’s being said around me. But when I was last in the U.S. I realized I don’t normally understand everything that’s being said around me. And I often have to ask people to repeat in English (my primary language) to be clear.

    Somehow I’m more sensitive and self-concious about not understanding since I’m in France.

    I want a trip to Italy soon. And I only know about a dozen words in Italian. Should be another interesting cultural experience.

    I’m not brave enough (yet) to visit a very different (non-western) culture.

    All the best.

    • Jenny Ebermann (bxljenny) Post author

      You definitely have to write a guest post for me about your experience in France! Have you ever taken the time to feel what your body is telling you in these times of uncertainty in a new environment? When you say it’s ‘unsettling’, where do you feel that in your body and how? Very often you will find that your body knows before your brain does that the situation is frightening or difficult for you. In Italy, many things are said non-verbally, i.e. through hands, gestures, eyes etc. Very interesting indeed, also the way they drive 😉 LOL… I would be happy to coach you in your cultural adaptation helping you to understand what you feel and why… let me know! Jenny

Comments are closed.