Intercultural Training through Fiction

One of the most valuable sessions that I attended at the NAFSA bi-regional conference last week was “Thinking Outside the Book: Accessing the World through Words.” This session was the brainchild of Nancy E. Young, Associate Director of the Office for International Students and Scholars at New York University. I was very fortunate to have the honor of working alongside Nancy early in my career and know firsthand that she is a very gifted adviser, educator, trainer and writer. She presented this session with James Leck, another incredibly talented international educator from Boston University.

Nancy began the session by having audience participants read quotes about reading – this set the tone for the importance and value of words and their meaning, or perceived meaning. My quote, by Thomas Carlyle, was one that I would have hand picked if given the choice: “What we become depends on what we read after all the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is the collection of books.”

Nancy described how her passion for reading became an opportunity for not only personal development, but professional development. Each book we read tells us a story, but it also provides us with many hints about culture. Why do the characters behave a certain way? Why do they respond (or not respond) in a particular manner? How would we, based on our own cultural upbringing, react to the characters and circumstances? What influences these behaviors and decisions? How can we better understand ourselves and the characters through works of fiction?

Nancy offered guidelines to consider when reading intercultural fiction. Areas such as gender, daily habits, individualism vs collectivism (Hofstede), time, and the author were outlined as a starting point. A series of questions about each of her guidelines were provided and then we were asked to listen to a snippet of a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, read quite gracefully by James. We drifted into story land, absorbing all of the cultural cues provided in Lahiri’s work. I closed my eyes to imagine the scene that James was describing, began to feel the characters near me, smelling the food that was described, hearing their voices develop as the plot did.

James and Nancy then had us break into small groups to discuss Lahiri’s words against the 12 “frameworks” provided. My group quickly addressed gender and time/time period while others focused on cultural issues that were less visible to the reader, such as communication style. It became quickly apparent that this type of exercise would facilitate dialogue about cultures with our students, faculty, administrators, staff – even friends and family – in a non-threatening manner. After all, we were not talking about ourselves, but characters from a story. This model adds tremendous value to our ability as educators to create opportunities to dialogue about cultural differences and to surface similarities that may not have been immediately visible.

As international educators, we have a responsibility to develop and maintain our own tool kits to refer back to when working across cultures. I am very appreciative of the value of the tools that Nancy has made available at This beauty of this tool is that it can easily be used with a variety of populations on our campuses: ESL classes, international students’ orientation, study abroad students pre-departure and re-entry orientations, across diverse teams and via campus wide/community reading programs. I would encourage you to visit this site and explore some of the readings suggested by Nancy and James. And as soon as I finish my latest read: “The Thing Around Your Neck” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (from Nigeria), I will incorporate one of her short stories into an upcoming training or orientation.

I’m curious to know what works of fiction you will be using in future intercultural training. Add a comment with the name of the author and book title for others to consider.