4. Intercultural Awareness

Intercultural information on the case study ‘The Bicycle’

In Muslim societies a man usually has a higher position than a woman. The reason for this is that the Koran (Surah 4, 34) grants men more personal endowments and the capability to sustain women economically. Consequently, male predominance is divinely ordained.

This means that the reasons given in question 1 are not likely to be probable motives for the young man’s behaviour. The young man’s behaviour is due to this religious belief which makes it difficult for him to accept a woman’s authority. In his understanding the male colleague ‘must’ have a higher position.

It is part of the self-conception of Muslim cultures that the honour of men and women has to be preserved under all circumstances. An honourable woman has to behave demurely (Surah 24, 31) in order not to provoke the man (sexually). A woman, who according to Muslim understanding talks too openly to a male stranger, compromises her own honour and that of her husband and harms his reputation.

In the case study ‘Bicycle’, this means that the topic of gender in question 3 is very likely to be the real cause of the conflict. In the eyes of the young man, the woman police officer, acting according to her code of conduct as a member of a western police force is probably not an honourable woman, because she behaved contrary to his understanding of female honour. His behaviour may reflect the negative, stereotyped image western women have in the eyes of some Muslim men because they do not comply with the role religious rules set. But there is another possible explanation.

In Muslim societies a strict code of conduct has to be followed. Eye- and body-contact between Muslim men and women not belonging to the same family is extremely rare. Even a handshake can be compromising. In Muslim cultures it is always the woman who decides if she agrees to shake hands with a man. In the case study ‘Bicycle’ the young man may act according to his code of conduct. In this case not looking at the female police officer would mean that he treats her respectfully.

Muslim religion is based on five pillars: statement of faith, prayer, charity, fasting (Ramadan) and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Practitioners of the Muslim religion should pray five times a day. It is up to the individual to see how they can combine praying hours with other duties. Many Muslims place particular importance on Friday prayers, especially if they have not had the opportunity to follow their praying duties during the week. It is likely that this explanation also plays a role in the case study (question 2).

Although it is understandable that the young man was under emotional stress, it is rather unlikely (question 4) that this is the reason why he only spoke to the male officer. The gender- issue explained above is much more likely to be the real motive for his behaviour.


  • Don’t take behaviour personally – it could have cultural reasons.
  • Accept that in other cultures the topic of gender is treated differently.
  • Accept that in other cultures religion is practiced differently.
  • Don’t lose confidence in your professional role and status.
  • Stay calm and keep in mind the cultural differences in gender attitudes.

Intercultural information on the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’

It is unlikely that the social worker didn’t get through to the upset group because his voice wasn’t loud enough (question 1) or because he didn’t try hard enough (question 2).

The cultural dimension ‘collectivism – individualism’ might play a role in the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’. North Africa, with countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, together with other countries from the Middle-East, have a higher score in collectivism than for example Poland, the Czech Republic or Germany and Austria.

In more collectivist cultures the group and group’s interests count more than the wishes and expectations of the individual. The individual identifies with and through the group. Therefore, the announced deportation of one refugee is a concern for the whole group and not just for a single member of the group. This is probably the reason why in the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’ the whole group was upset.

In collectivistic cultures with strongly defined authority structures, such as in North Africa, some individual members have a higher position in the group and can be regarded as the respected authority. In many collectivistic and hierarchical cultures, for example some Arab and African ones, a strong tribal authority carries the decision-making power and is the spokesman for the group. As the social worker in the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’ is not a member of the group it is very likely that he lacks the required authority (question 3).

In the case study ‘Commotion in a refugee centre’ communication would probably have been easier if it had gone via the person with the highest authority in the group. In the example, the social worker could have tried to single out the most respected person in the group and explained the situation to him. This person would then communicate the information to the rest of the group. In this respect it is quite likely that the social worker lacked adequate communication skills (question 4).

Another point is that in North African countries,   such as Morocco, ambiguous situations trigger a high level of stress. The announcement of a deportation is in itself a highly unclear and stressful situation – even more so for cultures with a low ambiguity tolerance index. This also partly explains the commotion in the group. The moment the situation becomes clearer (thanks to the information given, by the authority of the group) the entire group will calm down.


  • Determine who is the person with the highest authority, for example by trying to find out who the oldest person is or by observing who the group is referring to.
  • Communicate only with the person who appears to have been given higher authority by the group.
  • Be as reassuring as you can.

Intercultural information on the case study ‘Individual coaching session’ à cultural advice section

In some countries, such as in the Middle-East but also in Eastern Europe, people are more used to communicating on a relationship level. In other countries, such as Germany for example, people are more task-oriented. In these countries communication is about the task at hand more than about building relationships.

For people from countries where communication is more about building good relationships it is important to establish a personal relationship first before moving on to serious topics or business. This was very likely the young man’s intention in the case study (question 3). He tried to establish a personal relationship with his counsellor. It is, therefore, very unlikely that the young man doesn’t respect the counsellor (question 2).

On the contrary, as the meeting was so important to the young man, he probably did his best to be friendly by asking a lot of questions about topics others could perceive as private. Whether a topic is perceived as private or not can be a matter of culture. Some Arab and African cultures have complex and highly formal greeting patterns with ritualised questions for example about family, health and general well-being. It is rather likely that the young man reproduced the communication patterns which, from his perspective, he knew to be the most appropriate for this important situation (question 4).

The counsellor on the other hand, probably preferred to finish what he was doing before giving the young man his full attention. If the counsellor were a little more experienced, he would probably have taken the opportunity to ask some questions in return to demonstrate politeness and at the same time increase his level of information about the young man. This would have improved the level of trust and congeniality on both sides.


  • Accept that questions that seem ‘private’ to you may just be polite for other cultures.
  • Remember that other cultures have different communication patterns that may seem strange to you.
  • Try to respond by asking the same type of questions in return. Your counterpart may well reward you with trust and openness.