Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do: Taking a Closer Look at Intercultural Interactions

An Interview with Arjan Verdooren By Eva-Maria Hartwich

What started your interest in intercultural issues?

It’s difficult to mention one specific experience, but I guess it had to do with how I grew up. I was raised in a suburb of Amsterdam with people of over 150 nationalities. In primary school, I was at one point the only pupil with at least a partly Dutch background (my father has Indonesian roots). My ‚culture-shock’ came later when I realised that this situation was not normal for many other people. What this taught me is that you can always find commonalities with people, no matter what their backgrounds are.  And that differences between people are not necessarily tied to nationality, ethnicity or religion. Since then I’ve also spent quite some time abroad (i.e. in Mexico and in Sweden, where I live nowadays), but my perspectives on interculturality haven’t fundamentally changed.

I studied communication at university, and that is where I first learned about the study of intercultural communication and diversity. At that time, an intense public debate had started about multiculturalism and globablisation, and I realised this was a topic that I found both personally and intellectually compelling.  I ended up working as an intercultural trainer for KIT – a knowledge center in Amsterdam – for over ten years. A year and a half ago I moved to Sweden, which gave me the opportunity to write a book. 

Diversity competence – Cultures don’t meet, people do is the title of the book that you co-wrote with Edwin Hoffmann. What motivated both of you to write this book? 

Several things contributed. First of all, we felt there was a need for a book with a modern approach to culture and interculturality that was theoretically grounded but also provided practical guidelines. A lot of the literature is either quite theoretical or very practical, and we hoped to bridge that gap somewhat.

Additionally, we really wanted to focus on intercultural interactions in today’s world. A lot of methods and models, explicitly or implicitly, focus on cultural transitions – people moving or travelling to other countries. There is nothing wrong with a focus on cultural transitions, but in today’s world, the context of intercultural contact is often a different one. People meet in ‘superdiverse’ societies with differences between communities and within them, in organizations with people of dozens of nationalities, or while doing business or cooperating in a variety of settings and constellations. In those situations, the challenge is not so much to adapt to another culture but to build connections and set and reach mutual goals.

Last but not least, we felt that a lot of the traditional literature on interculturalism overlooks critical issues in intercultural contact like power and ethics. So we wanted to mention those issues explicitly and integrate them into our approach.   

Why do you suggest that intercultural communication should go beyond the simple knowledge of cultures and cultural differences? In what sense can knowledge like this even be counterproductive?

First of all, such knowledge can be helpful, for example by helping you to ‘decentralize’ your own perspective and be more open to others.

But it is of limited usefulness for interaction: We’ve established a difference, and now what? So we need to look at how to respond to challenges, misunderstandings and dilemmas as they occur in encounters.  A key question is then: What cultures are we taking into account? It’s widely accepted that culture is a characteristic of any group; cities, professions, generations, etc., all have a certain culture. Hence people are always members of several cultures. So even if we want to focus on interactions between people of different nationalities, ethnicities or religions (which is generally what we do as interculturalists), we should take other group memberships into account.

It can then be counterproductive when knowledge reduces people to their ethnic, religious or national belonging. This leads us to ‘culturalize’ situations and interpret interactions based only on ‘cultural’ explanations. We tend then to stereotype on the basis of a single group-identity, which makes us feel uneasy or even hostile to intercultural contact because these ‘cultural others’ seem so alien and different. (Supposed) cultural differences can even be abused to create us-versus-them scenarios like ‘the Clash of the Civilizations’. So all in all, I think we should be mindful if and how we mention and emphasize cultural differences.

The book describes the so-called ‘TOPOI-model’. What kind of model is this and why do you use it in your book? 

This is where I really have to give credit to Edwin [Hoffmann], because he has developed TOPOI, which so far has only been published in Dutch and in relation to Dutch multicultural society.  I have been an avid fan and user of his work. Part of the book is devoted to describing and applying the model to international interactions, as well as to interactions in multi-ethnic societies.

TOPOI is different from other models in that it doesn’t describe cultural dimensions or even competencies. The starting point is not culture, but interaction and communication. It describes the different areas of communication where misunderstandings or confusion can arise, and where interventions can be made. We mention different intercultural and cross-cultural theories but ‘translate’ them into communicative situations. TOPOI is based on a system-theoretical perspective that views communication as an on-going process between actors and their environment. This enables us to integrate aspects of power into the TOPOI areas, as well. And last but not least, it is an inclusive model, which means that not ‘cultures’, but people and their multiple cultures and identities, are taken into consideration. Hence the subtitle of the book: ‘Cultures don’t meet, people do’.

On top of its theory, what type of practical examples and guidelines does the book offer that are helpful for interculturalists in their daily work?

First of all, even though we discuss a lot of theory and research in the book, we provide examples and illustrations throughout all the chapters. Many of them come from our own training and consultancy practice. Additionally, there are separate chapters devoted to interventions and case discussions based on TOPOI. And there are study assignments for teachers and lecturers at the end of every chapter, with additional cases and study assignments that will be published on an accompanying website.

Apart from providing such elements and guidelines, it was our aim to describe a certain approach to intercultural communication that helps people relate to interculturality in a different way.  We believe our approach can make a significant difference in how all sorts of interactions are experienced and handled.

Arjan Verdooren (1980) grew up in Amsterdam where he studied communication. As an intercultural trainer and consultant at the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), a knowledge centre of culture and intercultural cooperation, he worked with a variety of organizations, ranging from schools to corporations to professional football organizations. He now lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he works as a freelance trainer and researcher on intercultural issues. He remains associated with KIT around the development of methods and approaches for training. His book, written together with Edwin Hoffman, is called Diversity Competence- Cultures don’t meet, people do and was released in March.

Arjan Verdooren can be reached at or through

To order the book:

This article was prepared by SIETAR Switzerland member Eva-Maria Hartwich, the  intercultural trainer, consultant and coach behind


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