Shilpa, Jade, Big Brother and the Need for Intercultural Skills

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The recent racism debate emanating from the Celebrity Big Brother TV show in the UK demonstrates the need to incorporate intercultural skills into the education system says intercultural communications expert.

The recent debate and media frenzy over the racist bullying of Shilpa Shetty in the Celebrity Big Brother TV show illustrates the importance of educating future generations to be culturally-savvy.

This is the opinion of Kwintessential's Managing Director Neil Payne, a consultant to multinational businesses and organisations. Rather than see it is primarily an issue of racism, Payne suggests it reflects a lack of knowledge of other cultures, their beliefs, worldviews and especially how to interact with them effectively. It is this lack of intercultural skills that could see the UK lose its place as a world economic powerhouse.

It is undeniable that the world has become smaller. All of us from Canada to Congo have more exposure, contact and dealings with people from other cultures and countries. Within this global, intercultural web we often come across examples of companies, organisations or people who commit cultural faux pas with embarrassing and often costly results. The majority of these incidents come down to simple lack of cultural understanding and soon blow over. Very few stir any real debate and discourse about serious topics such as racism, ignorance or the need to nurture intercultural tolerance. This all changed, in the UK at least, with the "Celebrity Big Brother saga" that has dominated headlines in Britain for over a week.

Jade Goody and housemate Shilpa Shetty fell out in rather grand style. This led to Goody, along with two accomplices, making comments about Shetty that have been interpreted as racist. This led to a record 30,000 complaints to Oftel (the TV regulator), the Chancellor Gordon Brown apologising for the behaviour on his tour of India, Carphone Warehouse pulling its multi-million pound sponsorship with Endemol (the creators of Big Brother), street protests in India, Channel 4 (the broadcasters) coming under huge pressure due to not acting sooner and of course massive amounts of column inches in newspapers as well as becoming the lead story on most domestic news programmes for days. It would be no exaggeration to say that the incident could be the news story of 2007 even though we are only in January.

Whether or not the actions or comments of Goody and her accomplices were racist, as many uphold, is difficult to prove. However, what can be proved according to analysts at Kwintessential (http://www.kwintessential.co.uk) is that what led to the whole situation was ultimately down to intercultural communication issues.

Intercultural communication looks at the ways people from different cultures behave, think, speak, eat, etc. By understanding these differences intercultural consultants seek to help people working in foreign or multicultural environments to do so more effectively through educating them on how and why cultures differ and the means of creating synergy between them.

For those that work in the intercultural training field, the events that led to the tense situation in the Big Brother house are all too familiar. In multinational companies many of the same scenarios are played out on a daily basis when multicultural teams work together. People misunderstand and misjudge one another due to their intercultural differences. Communication breaks down completely and a paralysing wall is built between people that seemingly offers no way out. It is only once parties are able to re-trace their steps, analyse situations objectively and apply some intercultural know-how that they start to knock down this wall.

Neil Payne, Kwintessential's Managing Director, believes that what led to the explosive events in house emanated from intercultural differences. "You need to go back and analyse how and why things were said and especially how this was then interpreted, or misinterpreted, by the other party," states Payne. In order to illustrate the intercultural breakdown in the Big Brother house, Payne offers two brief examples of how the Indian and English cultures clashed in the house.

"Jade's and Shilpa's communication styles were like chalk and cheese," continues Payne. "A major factor in Shetty losing respect for Goody was due to the latter's communication style. Indians always make sure they protect both their own and others' face, honour and reputation when communicating. Therefore their tone will more often than not be soft, words are used diplomatically, people will never be criticized in public and expletives are a serious no-no. For Shetty to come face to face with someone that called her a liar in front of others, who swore constantly and spoke in an extremely aggressive manner was shocking to the system. She lost face and as a result Goody lost face in her eyes."

On the other side Payne explains that Goody, used to a more expressive form of communication, interpreted Shetty's tendency to be tactful, non-confrontational and seemingly secretive as suggestive of her hiding something and not being genuine. As a result both felt little warmth to the other's character.

"Another flash point was over food," explains Payne. "One of the comments made in relation to Shetty was in regards to her touching food with her hands. A housemate commented she did not approve of that as she did not know "where those hands have been"; the implication being that she was dirty. Coming from a culture where food is primarily eaten with utensils can make the British rather sterile when it comes to food. In contrast much of the rest of the world is far more comfortable eating with their hands and as a result is probably rather more conscious of hygiene as a result. Again, this intercultural gap between the two sides meant one was offending the other without knowing."

Payne maintains that in these situations no-one is to blame. In both cases had each side been aware and open to the other's cultural norms there would probably have been no issue, which may have led to a more peaceful household. However, as the news demonstrates these issues did occur and as a result tensions rose. This is when parties became liable to slip into a "them and us" mentality where the person they have fallen out with no longer becomes a person but rather a member of a "foreign" group, in this case as commented by one of the housemates "the Indian".

As a result of this pariah status Shetty soon became on object of ridicule and seemingly racist jibes. Her accent was mocked (even though she spoke more clearly than the mockers), her countrymen were stereotyped as "skinny" due to being constantly sick (a remark made in response to Shetty undercooking some chicken) and was told to "f**k off home" (a term used within the British context to immigrants and foreigners). It was these scenes and remarks that caused outrage in among the public.

Payne sees a positive from the whole scenario. "I think what it has done, apart from create a healthy debate about race, class and behaviour is that it has demonstrated how important intercultural knowledge has become in the modern world." Payne feels that what we witnessed on Celebrity Big Brother is taking place across the world in schools, offices and organisations where people from different cultures, faiths and nationalities come together. It provides an insight into the frustrations of immigrants; it illustrates the experiences of expatriates working in foreign environments and it paints a very vivid picture of what it must be like to work in a multicultural environment.

Above all it shows that intercultural know-how is a key skill for the future and that if today's students are not leaving school or university with this know-how, which enables them to deal with international or multicultural clients, then the UK risks losing its place in the league table of economic powers. "We need to start thinking globally. What will help the UK get ahead of the rest is educating our future business people, politicians and leaders in being able to work effectively with people from across the word," concludes Payne.

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