Getting closer at a distance

Glenn Fajardo
Jul 10, 2018 · 4 min read

“Importantly, the current findings suggest that people cannot simply collect intercultural relationships at a superficial level, but instead must engage in cultural learning at a deep level. When in an intercultural relationship, an individual should not as eschew cultural differences but rather embrace them, because such differences enable one to discern and learn the underlying assumptions and values of both the foreign culture and the home culture. Without close social interactions, it can be difficult for individuals to juxtapose and synthesize different cultural perspectives to achieve cultural learning and produce creative insights.”

— Jackson Lu et al, “Going Out” of the Box: Close Intercultural Friendships and Romantic Relationships Spark Creativity, Workplace Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

I was fascinated by this article by Jackson Lu and his colleagues because it makes a link between depth of relationship and ability to derive creative insights from cultural diversity.

That got my attention.

I’ve noticed in my experiences working with partners from all over the world — people based everywhere from Kenya, Argentina, Malaysia, Egypt, Italy, Chile, Japan, and many others — relationships matter. To me, they’ve felt like they matter more than they do in the United States.

And it’s not just my experience. Erin Meyer maps this out in one of the eight scales of The Culture Map, where the United States is on the most extreme “Task-based” end (vs “Relationship-based”) on the Trusting scale.

So if you believe that relationships matter, and that depth of relationships matters in ability to derive creative insights, what would you do to build and deepen these relationships in international collaborations?

Today, experts on managing remote teams give this simple advice: Prioritize the budget and time so that you can fly all of your team members to one location to spend time with each other and build personal relationships.

And if you have the money to do this, I totally recommend it! But in a lot of contexts in which I’ve worked, collaborating with local civil society organizations, this kind of budget simply doesn’t exist. Plus sometimes you first want to get to know someone a little more before making the investment of international travel.

Where a need meets a constraint, we can attempt to articulate a design challenge:

How might we help team members have close social interactions when they are far away from each other, in different cultural contexts, and might not ever meet in-person?

I think this is an area that is ripe for experimentation.

I haven’t (yet) done super rigorous user research on this, but based on my observations and interviews, I think that people can have the following needs when getting to know someone from afar in the context of an international collaboration:

  • I’ll be respected
  • I’ll eventually be understood
  • I will be valued not only as a producer but as a person
  • I feel valued / needed / essential
  • People will be patient with me
  • People won’t assume I am not smart because I can’t speak English well
  • People understand my strengths and weaknesses
  • People understand what I love to do and what I hate to do
  • We can count on each other
  • We will be responsive to each other

In classes on Long Distance Design and Design Across Borders, my teaching teammates and I have experimented with some activities.

One is called “No Words Conversation,” where participants are paired up. On one day, each person uses their phone to shoot photos and/or short videos from their regular, daily life. The next day, using the pictures and videos they shot, the two people have a “No Words Conversation” over WhatsApp. They try their best to “listen” and “relate” to each other entirely through pictures and video. (When done as an initial icebreaker, and with multilingual instructions, this exercise can create a first interaction that feels more “equal” because it doesn’t matter how well you speak English.)

Example of a No Words Conversation

Another is called “Personal Tour.” Pairs of participants move through their physical space with each other over a video call, giving each other a more three dimensional sense of each other’s world. (This exercise works better when you use a phone, and flip back and forth between the front camera — so you can see the person in the space, and the back camera — so you can see the world from that person’s point of view.)

Example of Personal Tour

There plenty of other icebreakers and routines possible. One is to have a virtual coffee/tea/beer with each other, where participants have their own beverage and perhaps even go to a cafe or bar where they are as well. Another one which Jim Kalbach uses is to simply schedule a “personal time” video call, where you simply catch up on life and are not allowed to talk about work.

I’m also experimenting with how we might use video messages for regular social interactions. There’s something about the human face and voice, and the ability to use those in asynchronous communication in a low-friction, informal way. There are uses of video messages that feel a lot less like Snapchat and Instagram Stories, and instead feel much more personal and intimate.

Lots more experimentation and user research to be done in this area!

Is there anything you’ve tried, or that you’ve seen others do? Or have you run into particular stumbling blocks or nuances?

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