Erzählcafés in an intercultural context by Gundhild A. Hoenig

What follows is based on an interview with Johanna Kohn, a professor of social work and co-founder of the Netzwerk Erzählcafé Schweiz

Definition: An Erzählcafé is a moderated group conversation on a particular topic that allows the participants to talk about certain aspects of their past, to view their experiences in a broader context and to develop perspectives for their future. The method was designed to be a low-threshold and participatory tool for fostering exchange between people who might not otherwise have a chance to share their life stories. It often serves as a healing experience.

What is inspiring about Erzählcafés?
An Erzählcafé encourages people who may think they have nothing to say to present their stories. It is not a forum for discussions about who is right or wrong. It is a place where participants become visible through their life experiences and receive recognition. At the cafés, people come together to share something with each other and at the same time to remind themselves and each other of their distinctiveness, which is part of a healing process. They may also create a new bond with someone.

Does an Erzählcafé follow proven concepts like “story telling” or “living library?”
There are similarities with these other concepts. What makes the café format special is that it happens within a group, and the shared life experiences of all the participants are the central focus. There are no “made-up” stories.

Where does the Erzählcafé have its place in the academic field?
Scientifically, it grows out of various research traditions, particularly in the fields of communication and education. But it isn’t a means of research. Research as a whole is interested in generating, collecting and processing data and then distilling it for certain cohorts. The Erzählcafé is interested in allowing people to tell their life stories in small groups, in order to create societal cohesion and to foster respect for the diversity of people. It is an intervention, a means of helping, not a research method. The goal of the cafés is to encourage talk. What is said can become the basis for research, but that is not its main purpose.

I will give you an example of what can emerge from the sharing process. When Tamil refugees met with Swiss participants, we shared stories and experiences concerning favourite foods. They differed a lot. Then I asked: How does it feel when you have nothing to eat? Some of the Swiss participants could answer this question because they had been Verdingkinder (indentured children) and hadbeen forced to work on remote farms in the mountains where they had suffered from hunger. The Tamil refugees went hungry when they had to flee their country.

Suddenly, the two groups began to listen to each other differently and to perceive each other in a new way. Before this exchange, the Tamils thought that Swiss people always had everything and never had to suffer, and some of the Swiss participants had the idea that Tamils came to Switzerland to take advantage of its social system. Afterwards they saw each other in a new light. As this example shows, specific questions help us to uncover connections that were not visible at first glance.

Our multicultural world brings together people who might not have met 25 years ago. How can the café format help to bridge the gap that separates them so that they may find common ground?

Based on my experience working with people of different cultural, religious and national backgrounds, I’d say that Erzählcafés make common human concerns visible. Interestingly, we often believe that the other person either already has everything or is taking something that is meant for us. But in fact we all have the same basic needs for food and safety. After these are secured, we all need communication, orientation, information, recognition and respect. Those are the unifying factors. But to see this, I need to know more about the others’ experiences. With that knowledge comes respect and the recognition that the other person’s life is meaningful. I see that each person is unique, through his or her story, but I also see that we make up part of the same whole and that we need to look after one another.

The SIETAR Basel community had the pleasure of experiencing an Erzählcafé moderated in English by you. Does it matter whether participants talk in their native or preferred language or instead have to speak in a single common language?

Language matters! For this event we chose English, a foreign language for most of us, and tried to express ourselves as simply as possible. It was a challenge for all of us to find words for what we really wanted to share, but we also helped each other. So the experience turned out to be a positive one.

There are other interesting effects, like the use of majority or minority languages. It seems to be useful for the intervention if there are participants who speak both languages and can help with translation. The common task of everyone is to better understand each other. This ultimately fosters the goals of the Erzählcafé, which are societal cohesion and sensitivity toward each other.

Erzählcafés are not places for psychotherapy, by the way. They are not about expressing my personal feelings but about my communicating verbally and non-verbally so that others can understand what I mean.

Do you recommend a one-time experience or a series of Erzählcafés?

It depends on why you use the method and what your objective is. For example, are you working with people in crisis? Or do you want to use a café to enhance an exhibition about refugees in a museum? In that case, a one-time event might be sufficient.

You can also use Erzählcafés with groups, teams, and departments to trigger cultural change. If you use the method at appropriate intervals – say every three to six weeks – then people get used to keeping an eye on each other. With every Erzählcafé, co-workers have the chance to enrich their perspectives on each other in addition to having everyday chats and short meetings in the hallway. The experience slowly increases mindfulness.

How can Erzählcafés facilitate familiarization and a sense of community among people who are often on the move?

Erzählcafés have a huge community-forging effect and foster inclusion. People can slowly increase their feeling of belonging by attending one regularly. It will encourage the growth of cultural roots and of feeling at home.

An Erzählcafé is a place where people can share their experience of a loss of belonging. Paradoxically, if they can affirm their identity as individuals who have lost their home, it helps them to be accepted in a new home. Affirming their personal identity gives them a place in the present – even if they were somewhere else in the past or might wish to be somewhere else in the future – and being acknowledged helps to relieve tension. The next step is to feel part of a group.

What are the sustainable results if diverse groups of people, with various joys and hopes, needs and difficulties, meet and listen to each other?

Sustainability does not necessarily come from the Erzählcafé itself, but from the follow-up activities that can grow out of it: the walk, the lunch, the coffee and cake afterwards. It stimulates further activities, and these can be community-building, healing or meaningful. The café can also accompany meaningful processes: the transition from psychiatric care to daily life, for example, when patients want to make sure that others recognize who they are. “I am more than someone who is mentally ill or cannot cope with the reality,” they need to say. “I have a life, I have abilities. My illness is part of my life task – but only a part.” In a case like this, when the cafés are used with mental patients before and after they are discharged, the preparation and the aftercare are essential parts of the complete program.

Erzählcafés can work for traumatized people, too, or those with burn-out, helping them to build trust. If we want to re-integrate a burnt-out person into a job, for example, not only the individual has to change but also the whole team. Nowadays we have many way of encouraging group transformation. Still, most people do not want to change. Erzählcafés can help with that process by offering the chance to share, learn and experience together.

How would you recommend that the members of the SIETAR community who work in an intercultural context extend their knowledge in this field?

Everyone who has completed some sort of vocational training can join seminars at the FHNW (see www.erzä So a first step might be to participate in such an Erzählcafé event. Check out the webpage www.erzä to network, learn about events, look for qualified moderators for your own events, find information about the yearly conference, and, last but not least, get guidelines for Erzählcafés.

Johanna Kohn is a professor at the FHNW – University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, School of Social Work, Institute for Integration and Participation.

Gundhild A. Hoenig: Accompanying people and organisations in transition. Hoenig is a member of SIETAR Switzerland and the ambassador of the Basel MeetUps
For more information, see her LinkedIn profile.

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