Irishman Joe Kearns worked as a software engineer and businessman before turning to the intercultural field. Today he is the director of Carmine Training, an intercultural consulting firm. He served for several years as SIETAR Ireland’s representative on the board of SIETAR Europa and was the driving force behind the creation of the SIETAR Europa Special Interest Group on Migration.
At SIETAR Switzerland’s 2018 congress in Lugano, Joe, along with colleagues from the SIG, will present a pre-congress workshop on Friday, May 25, examining migration as a focal point for intercultural involvement.
Below he explains what inspired first his career as an interculturalist and, more recently, his activity in the field of migrant integration.
What started your interest in intercultural issues?
My interest in cultural difference actually came from business experience. I was involved in the merger of two US companies back in the early 1990’s, Borland and Ashton-Tate, and it was a revelation to watch the two corporate cultures merge – two very different cultures. Later in my career I was involved in the merger of Hewlett Packard and Compaq, and subsequent to the merger I managed a team made up of people from both companies. Observing how the two different corporate cultures had conditioned the behaviours of both sets of team members made me realise just how powerfully cultural conditioning affects behaviour. But more interesting by far was watching people adapt to a new culture.
Once I was introduced to SIETAR by my good friend, the late Maura Gallagher, I was able to draw on my previous experience of corporate cultures in understanding the much bigger, but related, subject of “national” or ethnic cultures.
What drew you to become involved in the intercultural field?
My professional career was in engineering, IT and management. I came to the intercultural field late in life. I was completely unaware that it even existed as a field of study until about 10 years ago! I attended my first SIETAR Congress in Sofia in 2007 and could not believe the depth and complexity of the topic – and was amazed at the number of interesting presenters and experts. I came to realise that not only was it a topic of great interest to me, and tied in with much of my previous experience, but also that it was one of the keys to understanding many of the problems of human interaction and communication.
As an interculturalist with a keen interest in migrant issues, what do you see as some of the key challenges our society needs to face today?
Migration has been a part of human experience since we evolved. People migrated out of Africa approximately 100,000 years ago and we have been on the move since. As I explained in a presentation at SIETAR Poland in 2016, while we started out the same or very similar, migration led to wondrous variety. Variety of appearance, language and most importantly of culture. In our modern world, which is so crowded compared to the world of even 10,000 years ago when the population of the whole world was only 10m, migration in all its forms leads to mixing of people with different appearances, languages and cultures. Of these I believe adapting to different cultures is the most challenging. We, as interculturalists, are uniquely placed to help both the receiving and the incoming communities to greater understanding and mutual benefit.
Can you tell us more about the SIETAR Europa Migration Initiative (SIG), its purpose and current outreach?
For many years SIETAR members have come together to talk about common interest areas within the intercultural field – I lead a number of week-end events on the topic of culture and technology, for example. The SIETAR restructuring work I was involved in identified the need for special interest groups to broaden member activity. This coincided with the huge influx of migrants to Europe triggered by the war in Syria, so it seemed appropriate to create a Special Interest Group on Migration. The initial meeting in May 2016 in Brussels, which was open to all SIETAR members, helped to consolidate some ideas as to how the SIG might operate. The next big event was the World Café at the Dublin Congress in 2017. Anyone who is a member of a SIETAR anywhere in the world is eligible to join the SIG, and we now have 100+ members. Current activity is focussed on how the SIG should operate, and we are also trying to create a template or handbook for other SIGs that may wish to form. More can be learned about the group here and any questions or requests to join the group should be sent to SIG_migration@sietareu.org
Supporting the integration of migrants opens up a new business market – and model – for intercultural trainers, as it is clear government authorities and NGOs can’t do it alone. Do you have any comments or suggestions about that?
This is an interesting question. To date most of the discussions in the SIG have been focussed on a more volunteer and pro bono approach to offering help with migration issues. But of course many SIETAR members are keen to seek out new business opportunities, as this is their raison d’être. I believe the identification and creation of business opportunities, which undoubtedly exist, is something individual members or companies should pursue. It may be something that the SIG should specifically examine in the future.
How do you see the profession of intercultural training evolving in the next five-to-ten years? Any caveats for intercultural trainers?
This question leads to one of the perennial debates within SIETAR and among interculturalists: recognition of the profession. Most of us in SIETAR would love to see the profession and SIETAR be more prominent in public awareness. Too often people in positions of decision making or public policy are either unaware of or don’t see the importance of interculturalists or the skills they have. Until there is a change in awareness of what interculturalists can offer, I believe we will struggle to make the impact we should. The tough question is, though: “How can we raise the profile of interculturalists to the point that we are always called upon in situations where we are needed?” The migration issue is a case in point – too rarely are interculturalists brought in to ease the communication between different cultures. It is obvious to us that are needed, but not so to the many policy makers who are unaware of us or our organisation.
Do you have an anecdote or a funny story about intercultural training or even something you experienced yourself?
I worked in Ethiopia for two years in the early 80’s. I look back in horror now at my complete lack of awareness of cultural difference, and that lack lead to what now is one of the funniest things to happen to me.
It is quite common in much of Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Sub-Continent for men to hold hands in public. I was unaware of this when I went to Ethiopia. A few weeks into by stay I was standing with an Ethiopian colleague when he took my hand. One has to bear in mind that this was in the early 80’s and I was from a culture where physical contact between men was limited to a firm handshake or physical violence on the sports field! I was gripped by fear and embarrassment in equal measure. What if someone sees this! What will people think? Equally of course I didn’t want to create a “scene” – again something my own culture avoids.
In time I came to realise that this gesture not only did not represent an unwanted advance; it was in fact a sign of friendship, something I really appreciated. And in time I got so used to it that I even ceased to remark on it when it happened. This in turn lead to some confusion for visitors from Ireland – but that is another story.