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Research seminar 12 December 2019

There are many issues related to communication between e.g. municipalities or institutions and people who are not (fully) proficient in the Dutch language. This seminar aimed to disclose these issues and open up the debate on how to improve intercultural communication.

Warda Nejjari

The seminar is opened by Warda Nejjari (RU, Language and Communication), who researches the impact of cultural differences on communication from a business perspective. She offered some tools on how to go about intercultural communication as an organization or business. What is key is that you treat the other how they want to be treated. What is vital here is that it is not about what you show or what you say, but how it is seen and heard. As an organization, it is important to establish a vision on how you see cultural diversity based on theoretical knowledge and experiences.

Warda discusses Hofstede’s ‘onion-model’ of culture. At the core of a culture are its values. But in terms of understanding cultures, it is interesting to look at the actual practices. In intercultural communication, you look at heroes, symbols and rituals as expressions of cultural values. However, categorizing human value systems is far more complex than applying distinctions between countries in terms of their core values (for example collectivism vs individualism). Note that it is important to avoid black and white judgements.

Is national culture still as relevant as it used to be, in a time of globalization/global culture? Is global culture accessible for everyone (in terms of technology, language)? Different cultures influence each other, sometimes leading to the co-existence of contradicting values (for example ‘Westernization’ of Eastern cultures or vice versa).

Culture is of huge interest to international corporations. Warda gives three examples of corporate communication:

  1. Paternalistic leadership: usually found in collectivistic societies with high power distance (i.e. inequalities are generally accepted). Paternalistic leadership styles are found to be positively connected with organizational commitments in India and the US, even though they can be seen as opposites in terms of cultural values (collective vs individual, high PD vs low PD). For an organization, using paternalistic management styles could potentially lead to more organizational commitment.
  2. Word of mouth is a highly valuable way of advertising, first of all because it is free and second of all because people hear information from someone they know and trust. This is also happening via social media. In a comparison between the US and China, Chinese social media users had higher levels of trust. The authors speculated that this was due to collectivism. This is something to think about when spreading information to audiences.
  3. Corporate social responsibility (CSR). Corporations are expected to be in some way socially responsible. Comparing the US and Germany, German respondents showed higher links between CSR and satisfaction, higher loyalty intentions, and likelihood of word of mouth advertising. This might indicate that communitarian values are preferred over individualistic values in Germany.

Language can serve as a bridge to transfer ideas between groups. Generally, organizations choose and implement a particular language as the ‘official’ language. But language is not the ‘cure’ for intercultural differences. Plus, non-native speakers can feel vulnerable and judged. There is a constant feeling of ‘lacking’. The research focus is often on how the non-native speaker is deficient.

How do you make sure that people who are learning the language can make themselves as clear as possible? Is everything about being understandable? If people perceive their level of understanding as low – even if the actual level of understanding is fine – does that obstruct them in intercultural communication? Warda sums up a few research possibilities:

  1. How can/should you deal with people in terms of cultural values and management?
  2. How can you persuade certain target groups into healthy behavior?
  3. How can you market certain behaviors to people?

José Renkens

José Renkens (Radboud UMC) studied interviews held by the immigration office with asylum seekers who claimed to be LGBTI. In 2017, there was a lot of controversy on this subject because asylum seekers were supposedly rejected for being ‘not gay enough’. The question arose how to interview people who claim to be LGBTI and know if what they are saying is true? The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person with a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group’. In 1981, the Netherlands decided to imply LGBTI people as a ‘social group’. But how can you prove that you’re part of the social group LGBTIs? Your testimony is the only prove you have. Using psychological tests or stereotypes would be unethical.

In the western world, we have the concept of ‘coming out’. So we expect LGBTI people to have a story about this experience. When you are looking for a story, you are looking for recognition: specific words through which you can recognize someone as LGBTI. But in many countries, ‘coming out’ is not something that happens. So you are looking for a story that is not there. Does this make the case less credible? Another example is that in many parts of the world, people get married and have children, and then flee because they are gay. This makes their case less credible. The same goes for monogamous gay men, because gay men are stereotyped as polygamous.

José studied the interview questions (without looking at the answers/story as told by the respondent) of interviews with asylum seekers who were rejected. She looked at which patterns can be discovered in the interviewing method of the immigration office that substantiate the rejection of LGBTI asylum seekers. What do we see?

  • The interviews have a very western-centric perspective.
  • The questions are not asked in the context of the country of origin: it is not asked why respondents feel at risk.
  • The questions require a high level of introspection: thinking about how you feel. This is a difficult task in general, and perhaps particularly for people in a vulnerable position.
  • The questions are only about feelings, and not about practices.
  • There is no room for pride. The respondent is not allowed to be happy; he/she is supposed to experience trouble.
  • The interviewer is focusing on a moment, something out of the ordinary, asking whether the respondent thinks this is normal.

Several questions arise:

  • Is it possible that asking about a moment is a way of looking for facts, looking for consistency in the story? Yes, certainly, but there is still a high likelihood that the story is inconsistent because there was no moment. Or at least it is not experienced as such by the respondent.
  • How likely is it really that people lie about being LGBTI if they are from a culture where that is incriminated?
  • If the respondent ends up with someone who is of a different gender, does that mean they weren’t telling the truth?
  • Shouldn’t the focus be less on whether or not someone is gay, and more on whether they are at risk?

We learn how logical stories go from when we are young through fairytales. But that is not the same everywhere. On the one hand, you are looking for a kind of story/script that has to be logical, but on the other hand it shouldn’t sound fabricated. So this makes the situation very complicated. Moreover, people with traumatic experiences sometimes use ‘active forgetting’, resulting in the traumatic event being left out from the story. This can affect asylum seekers’ credibility. But this does not only apply to traumatized people. Everyone’s mind is selective. Stories also change through time, they have a fluid character. If you tell a story ten times, the tenth time will be different than the first time. If you don’t follow the western ‘rules’ of storytelling and conversation, you are not perceived as credible.

For LGBTI people, it is also a taboo subject. Maybe they have never talked about it before. In the interviews, trauma, trouble and suffering are very centered. There is no room for pride or happiness. Maybe the interviewers are looking for a narrative of fear: if you’re not afraid enough, then maybe you’re not gay enough. It could possibly be of interest to compare questions to people who were granted asylum vs to those who were not.

Rena Zendedel

Rena Zendedel (UU, Language, Literature and Communication) studied informal interpreting in the context of Dutch general practice. First generation migrants often deal with language barriers when visiting the general practitioner (GP). They often use informal interpreters – generally family members. An interpreter can fulfill many roles. The ‘machine metaphor’ is sometimes used to describe these roles: put the message in on one side and it will come out the other side in the right language. However, in reality the interpreter often has a more active role in the conversation.

Rena tried to relate the roles of interpreters to control, trust and satisfaction as perceived by the patient and the GP. She conducted four separate studies analyzing verbal behavior through audio recordings. Importantly, she found that about half the time, something else than translating was going on. Interpreters were generally very active participators of the conversation – to a point of excluding the patient.

A patient’s trust in the interpreter depends on several elements (e.g. honesty, confidentiality, competence). Patients and GPs had different perspectives on the interpreter’s role, trust and control issues. Sometimes the patient felt excluded from the conversation, while other times the GP felt excluded. In practice, the patient was indeed often excluded, while the GP was rarely ever excluded. The expected role of the interpreter is the role of advocate, but in practice they act as an excluder.

Iclal Yildiz

Iclal Yildiz (RU, Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies) is studying intercultural communication difficulties in the primary care context. Migrants encounter several barriers to health care, such as organizational and micro-level barriers. The focus of Iclal’s research is on the latter, looking at the interaction between Turkish-Dutch patients and Dutch health professionals.

Communication difficulties are not always of a cultural nature, but they are often interpreted this way. A language barrier can be solved with interpreters, but communication difficulties can still remain. There are differences in cultural values, in explanatory models (i.e. different underlying notions of health and illness), and in perspectives on professional-patient relationships. For example when making a treatment decision: egalitarian (making the decision together) vs paternalistic (professional making the decision). Finally, there can exist a (mutual) bias between patient and professional. For example, some Turkish-Dutch participants experienced that their GP didn’t explain much or give them more information. This might be explained by GPs assuming that their Turkish-Dutch patients will not be interested in that, or not knowledgeable enough to understand.

Mental health care communication is even more problematic, because language and communication are the only means to express psychological distress. Explanatory models of professionals are usually more based on biomedical perspectives. For patients, this can be based for example on cultural environment or family expectations. ‘Lay’ beliefs about (mental) illness are often culturally determined. This can be related to the causes of the illness as well as to coping strategies and treatment preferences.

Iclal will use a qualitative approach by using focus groups. These focus groups will be brainstorm sessions about cultural differences Turkish-Dutch participants encounter with Dutch GPs during examination, diagnosis and treatment recommendation. She will also ask participants about their own perspectives on mental illness (depression).


The general impression of the four presentations is that every case suggests the existence of expectations, prejudice and bias on the Dutch part of the communication. Dutch people often consider ‘culture’ as belonging to migrants and not necessarily to themselves. This is affirmed by someone in the audience who works for VluchtelingenWerk Nederland (VWN). Volunteers (and sometimes professionals) at VWN have certain expectations of the refugees they deal with. They do not expect them to be self-sufficient. Even though that is the goal of the organization, they do not encourage refugees to be more self-sufficient. The volunteers are often ‘too involved’ (perhaps a lack of professional distance). It is also possible that volunteers are too impatient and take over the process. Three main themes can be distinguished from the seminar: migrant perspectives and experiences of public service provision, the role of (informal) interpreters, and new teaching approaches on intercultural communication in public service provision.

Migrant perspectives and experiences of public service provision

Public service providers often have particular expectations and perceptions about the nature of migrants’ needs and how best to treat/work with migrant clients. This stereotyping may lead to misinformed decisions on suitable service provision in different domains (medical consultations, municipal service provision, IND decisions, volunteers of Vluchtelingenwerk). More insights are desirable on migrants’ perspectives and experiences in these settings, to enhance the public service provision.

The role of (informal) interpreters

There are general problems with getting proper, professional interpreters, and getting the costs reimbursed. Problems with interpreters are also related to the people working with interpreters, sometimes addressing the interpreter rather than the patient/respondent/etc. Should there be training to work with interpreters? This is relatively easy to master. However, informal interpreters may have a motive not to be trained and continue in their current role. Professional interpreters are often asked in different domains. But there is a specific jargon to specific domains, for example health care. How can you guarantee the same quality? Even if you have a professional interpreter, there exist language and underlying cultural differences that are very difficult to translate. Also, the roles of professionals differ across countries, which results in different expectations migrants may have of healthcare professionals in the Netherlands .

New teaching approaches on intercultural communication in public service provision

There is a need for research on the best way of teaching the use of intercultural communication in public service provision. Is treating people the way they want to be treated really the best way? Is it not more important to negotiate and clarify misunderstandings? What are the issues at stake? There are many things at play when people interact with each other. The term ‘culture’ simplifies and stigmatizes everything. You should be careful with treating ‘culture’ as different. Especially with the terms ‘collectivistic’ and ‘individualistic’, can you use these terms to define a single person? If you are talking about intercultural communication, be careful that you are not only using stereotypes and prejudice. Or at least be aware of doing so. But you have to be aware of possible differences to communicate better.

Possibilities for follow up

  • Perhaps a focus group with GPs with Turkish/Moroccan background might be interesting, because they have a lot of experience with informal interpreting while doing their job.
  • Interesting initiative for the RUNOMI migrant event might be a training for informal interpreters. Maybe include professional interpreters as well.
  • Collaboration with Sietar, a platform for all intercultural communication specialists in the Netherlands.


Warda Nejjari: w.nejjari@let.ru.nl
José Renkens: jose.renkens@radboudumc.nl
Rena Zendedel: r.zendedel@uu.nl
Iclal Yildiz: i.yildiz@maw.ru.nl