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Reality Therapy for Intercultural Training

Fall 2010 vol. 11, No. 3

by Ray Leki

For decades now, the idea of preparing travelers for effectiveness in foreign environments through cross-cultural and intercultural training has developed into mainstream orthodoxy in the business, academic, and government communities. While the value of the return on investment of various training strategies and efforts is open to debate, almost all would agree that travelers are better served by having exposure to some form of cross-cultural training. Nevertheless, satisfaction with the efficacy of these efforts remains incomplete. Some travelers do quite well despite a lack of preparatory training, while others fall victim to intercultural failure despite very intensive and well-designed training. New understanding of the neurophysiology of the brain may offer an explanation for some of the gap between intercultural training and performance.

Tucked inside the brainstem lies the amygdala, a small part of the brain involved in the survival response of the individual. The amygdala is activated when an organism finds itself threatened by a stimulus in the environment. As activation occurs and the amygdala asserts a greater degree of control over the individual’s attention, a corresponding decrease in the activity of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) ensues. The PFC, one of the last of the brain structures to evolve, is associated with the executive functioning of the brain, the more complex and subtle thinking processes that involve analysis, the abstract, comparisons, and the higher brain functions. In other words, when an organism faces some threat, those very centers of thought that have been the targets of intercultural training efforts are inhibited and harder to access. The greater the threat, the greater the activation of the amygdala and subsequent inhibition of the PFC becomes. This makes experiential sense – few people have achieved or experienced that breakthrough moment of creativity, discovery or insight while looking down the barrel of some street hoodlum’s pistol.

But what would provoke that level of threat to a traveler crossing cultural boundaries? And why would a competently designed and delivered intercultural training program neglect to address something as simple as a basic survival response?

A survey of preparatory intercultural training design demonstrates a consolidation of thinking around the basic components of such courses. Most training programs of this type provide some opportunity for unearthing self-awareness and some reflection, for example, through an exercise to help the individual understand and articulate who he or she is and what is sought by leaving one’s culture to enter into another. From those activities, an awareness of the presence and power of one’s own culture (or cultures) can be built. It is here that the insertion of some culture-generic content can provide valuable learnings. Culture-generic content offers a review of basic concepts, such as defining and coming to an understanding of what culture is, how cultures vary, and the parameters through which all cultures can be understood and described. Here, old standbys, such as Hall’s Iceberg Model and other various systems for understanding and parsing cultures can be introduced. This can set an appropriate framework for carefully examining the target culture into which the traveler will be entering and allow participants to begin to identify and predict some areas of needed attention. That exploration can lead to a useful application phase of creating an individual-specific learning strategy for effective entry and success in a foreign land.

The content described above falls into the domain of cognitive learning. Simulations and other interactive activities can provide opportunities for affective and attitudinal growth as well as psychomotor skills development, but the learning impact of such activities is rarely specific to the target culture. In BaFa’ BaFa’, for example, cultural fluency in the Alpha or Beta culture hardly prepares one for effective entry into a real culture. In that respect, even important affective learning regarding the conflicts in an individual’s values and belief systems become abstract pieces of knowledge that must be applied through executive function cognitive processes to enhance performance upon entry into a real culture. That is, feelings of awkwardness or confusion evoked in a simulation only become useful to the sojourner upon encountering those moments in the target culture if the traveler is able to cognitively process and remember those affective learnings from a simulation and apply them in situ.

But what happens when one’s own culture is left behind and a new culture is entered? All travelers will feel some loss of agency, personal competency, and the disorientation that results from the removal of the familiar. Furthermore, there is the subtle, but powerful loss of what Herleman, et. al., conceptualize and articulate as ibasho, that place or sense of peace, security, satisfaction, acceptance, and coziness that is associated with the comforts of home. The relied upon infrastructure of daily living, from a favorite seat and a favorite drink at the corner Starbucks to the sense of connectedness that comes from a mail box and reliable computer connection, is suddenly no longer accessible. Furthermore, most sojourners endure the ardors of travel and fatigue, the blizzard of logistics, and the loss of control that comes from ever changing security measures, long flights, intimidating customs and border control agents and other stressors. Arrival introduces the traveler to a tsunami of unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, and behaviors that can overwhelm the senses and the mind’s ability to process stimuli. The reality is that entry into another culture can be a threatening experience. 

Particularly for the less experienced traveler, this assault on the well being of the individual has a predictable, but often unappreciated impact. The amygdala is aroused and a cascade of catecholamine hormones and neurotransmitters are released. The fight/flight/freeze response is invoked and executive functioning is put on the back burner so that the individual may focus on resolving the array of threat inducing circumstances and stimuli. Fear begins to drive not only behavior, but the perception of threat in the environment. The surliness of the passport official is attributed to meanness or unfriendliness, rather than to the more likely exhaustion and ennui of a person in what is after all, a fairly repetitive and uninspiring vocation. Through the lens of the threatened, behaviors that are either innocuous or open to intercultural interpretation can further demonstrate the negatives of the new culture to the traveler. With the PFC under wraps, the very tools that intercultural training has provided to deal with the challenges of successful entry are inaccessible. What might have been interpreted as the cheeky, but refreshing individualism, of a person cutting in line to grab the taxicab the traveler was waiting in cue for, becomes further evidence that this new environment is a hostile, intrusive, invasive and scary place. These cycles of stimulus, hostile perception, negative attribution and stimulus tend to create a negative spiral that can seriously complicate the traveler’s mission and enjoyment of the intercultural experience. 

It is, of course, the much attenuated sense of threat that makes experienced travelers more likely to not initially become “captured” by the amygdala response, and thereafter be able to use not only preparatory training but prior experience as a reference base with which to more accurately assess, interpret, compare, and interact with the target culture – essentially use the executive functions of the PFC.

While there is scant evidence of the empirical value of amygdala awareness and the use of calming techniques in the cross-cultural literature, these techniques have demonstrated efficacy in other areas of human existence from which parallels can be drawn. In the evidence based therapeutic treatment regimens for patients suffering
from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in both cognitive processing and prolonged exposure therapy the patient goes through a series of exercises that are largely designed to regain executive control over an overly aroused amygdala. The extraordinary success rate of these treatments suggests that re-gaining control over the amygdala is of central importance in building and restoring the resilience of the individual. Similarly, in a program known as Trauma First Aid, practitioners train police, firefighters, EMTs and first-responders to recognize their own physiological distress and quickly calm themselves before delving into the work of disaster mitigation. Even schools for young people with special learning needs, such as attention deficit disorder, have successfully trained students to identify their own physiological symptoms of arousal as a trigger to practice calming techniques. Kids acting out are said to be in “an amygdala hijack” or “an amygdala moment” and they learn to invoke simple calming techniques as a means of self-imposed behavior modification. As with PTSD therapy, these techniques serve to retake control of attention away from the amygdala and cede it back to the PFC. 

What does this mean for intercultural training? If indeed preparatory training is designed to facilitate the entry and success of the sojourner, then clearly some awareness of and practice in controlling the fear response of the individual takes on new importance. There are a variety of easy to teach calming and centering activities that can prove vital in restoring the individual’s ability to regain control of an over-aroused amygdala and return the brain’s attention to the pre-frontal cortex, where the valuable lessons of culture generic, culture specific and personal awareness content are processed. As a start, training individuals to be in touch with their own somatic realities provides a basis for building selfawareness. Participants can be trained to recognize their automatic responses to threat – elevated blood pressure and pulse, shallow breathing, a sense of urgency, “butterflies” in the stomach and a heightened sense of threat. After developing an ability to identify an aroused central nervous system, the next step is to introduce activities to calm the response. Simple skills like breath awareness and control, the use of calming mantras or thoughts and quick “self-awareness time-outs” can make a powerful addition to preparatory programs, particularly for students, and younger, less experienced travelers, or for those intrepid souls traveling into truly threatening places. Simply understanding that the amygdala will be aroused, why it will be aroused, and what can be done about it can help the traveler focus on those more subtle sources of fear and stress that are bound to be present in a new environment in the first place.


Hall, Edward T. 1959. The Silent Language. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications Inc.

Herleman, Hailey A., Thomas W. Britt and Patricia Y. Hashima. 2008. Ibasho and the adjustment, satisfaction and well-being of expatriate spouses. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 32, no. 3: 282-299.

Ray S. Leki is the author of Travel Wise: How to Be Safe, Savvy and Secure Abroad and an adjunct professorial lecturer in the School of International Service of American University. He has worked with students, business people, diplomats, development workers and others for 30 years and serves in the Senior Executive Service of the United States government at the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute.