International schools are truly remarkable human communities. Every school day, young people from all over our world walk through our doors bringing from home different languages, different habits for speaking and listening and very different social and cultural values. Every year, this extraordinary diversity is re-defined and renewed as over two hundred new students join our community. For some new families, AISB will feel familiar – another international school in an international life. For other families, who have moved from their home country to Bucharest, the norms of AISB may feel very strange indeed.
We are used to measuring this diversity in numbers of nationalities on campus. We have sixty flags represented at AISB. Yet, I don’t believe that such a number does justice to the richness of perspectives in our school. Our cultural diversity is so much more interesting and relevant.
Culture is one of those words in the English language that is used interchangeably and confusingly to mean very different things. Sometimes, the word culture describes the arts or entertainment. High culture equates to Wagnerian opera cycles or French cinema; low or popular culture denotes the World Wrestling Federation or cat videos on YouTube. Apparently, some yogurt can claim to have live cultures if you inspect the labels in your fridge carefully. So, we need to be clear what we mean by culture as a measure of diversity.
Here, we are referring to culture as the values, customs and social behaviors of different peoples around our world. Our personal culture brackets our basic assumptions about what is socially appropriate and normal in a particular society and breaks our perspective down into a ‘here’ and ‘there’. It informs our beliefs about the right way to speak, listen and interact with others, which may be very different from the odd things those strange folks do over there in their culture. I may queue politely for things; over there, apparently, they do not.
Dr Geert Hofstede, the pioneering Dutch social psychologist, has the most helpful and easy definition of all to grasp. He refers to our cultural norms as the ‘software of the mind’. This programming is partly inherited from our parents, but we mostly acquire it through our early socialization within our families, at school, in our religious practices and in our communities. As we grow up, what the people who surround us do, what they say and what they find important define us. From them, we develop core understandings of what is good or bad, what is clean or dirty, what is early or late, and so on. These fundamental precepts, Hofstede argues, cohere our basic operating system. The process of acquiring culture, what we call acculturation, builds the basic structures for how we think about the world.
This is the core business of a school – thinking about our world. I have come to believe international schools are characterized by tremendous cultural diversity, yet rarely do we mine this abundance of perspectives on what life is all about. If we are truly serving this generation of students, we must be intentional about nurturing cultural intelligence. Our AISB students, our global citizens, will live and work across borders in our evermore-connected world. To thrive they will need skills that help get the best out of people with very different cultural norms. This educational mission is a passion of mine. I look forward to sharing ideas and strategies about how we support our teachers to understand and leverage the cultural diversity in their classrooms.