Developing intercultural competence through Avatar, Black Panther and the Jungle Book?

Book cover for The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural CommunicationWritten by Guido Rings – co-author of The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication

In a connected world, the ability to communicate effectively with people from other cultural backgrounds is a necessity. It is also an opportunity to widen our horizon and learn from good practice elsewhere to improve our lives.

But how can we improve that competence?

There are numerous ways, but we could for instance choose more wisely what we watch and read, and could do this more consciously. We may have already actually watched or read something that enhances our intercultural competence, but we are not aware of it.

For example, who has not watched Avatar, Black Panther or The Jungle Book, some of the highest-grossing movies of all time? Or more recently The Green Book, Blackkklansmen or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Or perhaps you read some of the Black Panther comics and/or the Jungle Book stories.

Watching or reading these stories for entertainment, can also connect you with other worlds and worldviews. Many people feel inspired learning from these other perspectives.

Avatar, connects you with the Omaticaya, a Na’vi forest tribe from Pandora that cherishes nature and fights under Jake Sully and Neytiri’s leadership against a global company, aiming to exploit Pandora’s resources. It is Science Fiction – the Omaticaya are a fictional tribe, living on a fictional planet – but there are parallels to the destruction of our rain forests today.

When Neytiri explains the importance of the Home Tree for her people, she highlights an essential link between tribal people and their natural surroundings that is echoed ‘in real life’ by people from the Penan tribe in Borneo. One Penan man highlights: ‘The Penan people cannot live without the rainforest. The forest looks after us, and we look after it. We understand the plants and the animals because we have lived here for many years, since the time of our ancestors’ ( Survival, 2010).

This is of course only one example of a different world view.

Black Panther, The Green Book and Blackkklansmen are examples of films fighting racism, in future and past worlds as well as ours (watch out for the documentary link to Trump and white supremacist perspectives at the end of Blackkklansmen).

On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sheds light on fast pace change in the Hollywood film industry, which you might recognise from your company or institution. The film makes the point that fast pace change consumes us and could be handled better if we were able to learn from others – in this case people from another class, rather than a different ethnicity.

In this sense, intercultural competence is really an ‘action competence’ and the ability ‘to handle uncertain situations in a constructive way’ (Bolten, 2020: 57), be it in encounters with people from another nation or ethnicity, or simply with people with another worldview.

It is worth stressing that we don’t really think a lot about our own worldviews, and often do not even see them as a worldview, rather as the only ‘natural way’ to understand and handle things, implying that other ways might be wrong.

In this ‘single story’ context, the numerous and often competing stories developed in films, TV episodes, novels and short stories are useful, because they can describe other worldviews developing cognitive competence by presenting knowledge about other cultures, and enhancing affective competence by awakening our emphatic and even compassionate interest in other cultures. And they can help to develop pragmatic competence by projecting and examining the communication standards in another culture. In all these ways, a narrative can ‘become an agent in advancing intercultural understanding’ (see Neumann 2020: 138).

Does this mean we can understand your ‘Greenpeace obsessed’ neighbour, who keeps donating money for the preservation of the Borneo rainforest, better by watching Avatar?

Yes, we can. The Omaticaya stories and the Penan stories address a very similar existential problem, and your neighbour might actually want to help the Penan, or shares the same basic concern about the destruction of the rainforest without knowing about the Penan at all. In both cases, you experience a different worldview, connecting tribal concerns with your neighbour’s concerns, and that helps to address a key issue in contemporary public consciousness: global warming.

You might simply not connect to their genres or particular stories that much, everybody is different.

If you have examples of how your intercultural competence has increased thanks to film or literature, leave your comments. Which films/TV series/novels/short stories gave you a different worldview and why? How and when did you watch/read them, e.g. with your partner after a stressful day, and did that make a difference to your experience?

This might help you to reflect, and it could also help others to find the best text for the development of their intercultural competence.

 

References

Bolten, J. (2020). Rethinking Intercultural Competence. In: Guido Rings, Sebastian Rasinger (eds.): The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neumann, B. (2020). The Power of Literature in Intercultural Communication. In: Guido Rings, Sebastian Rasinger (eds.): The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Survival (2010): ‘Avatar is real’, say tribal people, in: Survival International, 25 January 2010 (https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/5466) (last accessed 8 February 2020).

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