Intercultural Sensitivity for Writers

One of my greatest frustrations with attempts to support diversity in writing and publishing is the assumption that if diverse people are hired or diverse writers’ books are accepted, automatically publishing itself will become more diverse. Writing across difference is not simply an instinct, a talent, or an innate skill. It has to be learned and practiced. Writers need support with this.

Intercultural Sensitivity in Writing (ISW) Goals

  1. Diversity in writing will be seen as a skill that can be LEARNED and IMPROVED by ALL WRITERS.
  2. Writers who identify as #ownvoices will not bear the full burden of responsibility for “diversifying” the rest of publishing.
  3. We will develop and embrace an ethic of diversity in our writing akin to the medical Hippocratic Oath that we can share no matter our own background and identities.

I hope that writers will develop a helping culture in which we can share actual skills that can be implemented in our writing, no matter who we are or how we identify.

Why I Hope You’ll Let Me Help

I want to break down the experience of difference specifically for writers and show how it can help us understand our characters, plots, and overall stories better than we do without this awareness.

What can I contribute? I have six years of editorial experience and I also spent 10+ years with on-the-ground mentorship and training with Milton Bennett’s fantastic Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). I’ve honed my knowledge of this intercultural sensitivity model in multiple contexts: international schools, foster care & adoption programs, study abroad, work abroad, daily life, interpersonal relationships, and more. I also have training and hands-on experience with models for ethics, including biomedical ethics. I have practiced non-violent communication and peace-building skills such as those advocated by Thich Nhat Hahn and Marshall Rosenberg.

I have seen from firsthand observation and experience that you can’t just pounce on a person who is “different” and expect them to solve a community’s problems. It’s unnerving at best to discover you have been brought into a space to be the token figure of diversity, like an exotic doll. When you try to change something or raise a real issue, there will always be a “good reason” to leave things as they are, often in the name of “efficiency” and “tradition” and “common sense.”

I want to introduce two approaches to diversity, both valuable but for different reasons. Then I’ll continue this ISW series with a post each the six experiences of difference, following Bennett’s model. I will apply these experiences specifically to writers and writing.

  1. Denial of difference
  2. Defense against difference
  3. Minimization of difference
  4. Acceptance of difference
  5. Adaptation to difference
  6. Integration of difference

Each one of these experiences of difference comes with moral dilemmas that individual people have to address on their own terms. I’ll share examples of those dilemmas and offer tips/techniques for resolving them.

Real-World Experience of Diversity

Diverse writers have “street smarts” in dealing with diversity issues: they have developed coping & survival mechanisms to handle conflict. They know from day-in, day-out experience what it’s like to be different from the majority culture around them. That’s massively important. This on-the-ground experience gives diverse writers the power to:

  • Help people discover themselves in and relate with characters, perhaps even for the first time
  • Offer fresh insight into an experience that has been otherwise stereotyped or become a “tired trope” or possibly is invisible
  • Encourage empathy in the majority of readers who wouldn’t normally identify with someone different from them
  • Validate their experiences and the experiences of others as real

At the same time, these on-the-ground experiences can also lead to some negative or harmful impacts/dilemmas in the writing process:

  • All the onus of sensitivity in the writing and publishing process can end up being placed on the writer rather than on the team of editorial, production, and marketing. They are treated like the “expert” when in reality they represent only one possible experience of difference.
  • The writer may not be emotionally ready to share some of their struggles and even traumas on the page.
  • The person who has the on-the-ground experience may not be in a position to tell their own story. For example, they may need to protect themselves from threats. They may have too much to lose to risk exposure.
  • The story may be foreign to too many readers’ immediate experience, making it difficult to form the empathetic bridge between reader and character. This issue is complicated, so I promise I will unpack it in later blog posts.

Professional Training in Intercultural Sensitivity

By comparison, someone with professional training in intercultural sensitivity can help people understand each other and communicate with each other across their differences no matter how they personally identify. Professional training in intercultural sensitivity gives the power to:

  • Notice your own biases and the biases of others.
  • Resolve conflicts and misunderstandings in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.
  • Help other people move from unhealthy attitudes toward difference toward healthy ones.
  • Find the words to address problems that result from difference even if you personally are not affected by it.
  • Write diverse characters with more awareness of how your own current experience of difference can shape the way you conceive of them and what kinds of conflicts you introduce in their lives on the page.
  • Notice more quickly and intervene more effectively when editorial or production or marketing recommendations will have an impact on how diversity in your writing is experienced by readers.

I believe that the on-the-ground experience of diverse and #ownvoices writers needs to be actively supplemented and supported by professional intercultural training and skills for ALL writers of ALL identifications. More anon, and thanks for any suggestions, ideas, and questions you may have about this new project!