Author: Karen Engel, Jeroen Warner
Because cultural aspects are present at multiple levels of an organization, of a group and of an individual, culture can be elusive and overlapping, which makes it difficult to ‘notice’. Misunderstandings can happen between people from a similar culture, so between two groups originating from a different faith, profession, or country, they are likely to have much greater consequences. And yet, recognizing it is challenging.
Based on a wide literature scan, we find the following traits of ‘culture’:

  • Cultural aspects are relevant and common to a particular group and subsequently binds the group members together;
  • Culture is meaningful and highly valued by a particular group;
  • Culture is profoundly implicated in motivating people to think, interpret and judge the world and do the way they do;
  • Culture is learned. It is transmitted from generation to generation and internalized to such an extent that it becomes ‘second nature’ and is largely taken for granted;
  • Culture is arbitrary and not ‘natural’. The actual nature of a group’s culture is the result of their decision-making processes. It could have been completely different;
  • Culture encompasses ‘problem-solving tool[s] that enable individuals to survive in a particular, environment’ (Schein, 1999);
  • People can belong to different cultural groups;
  • Culture and power are intimately linked. (Inglis 2005:9-10)

Different cultural elements can be differentiated:

  • Manifestations, such as art, ideas, communication, artifacts, tools, rules, and laws;
  • Beliefs, values, and worldviews, such as ideologies, assumptions, and attitudes;
  • Knowledge, such as scientific knowledge, local knowledge, and indigenous knowledge;
  • Social structure, such as agency, relationships, social networks, social control and power;
  • Behavior and practice, such as customs and norms, rituals, and traditions. (Thomalla et a. 2015: 9).

Some of these elements are more visible than others. Most are invisible and so fundamental to people that they are difficult to negotiate about.

‘to find culture, look below the surface’

While useful, these definitions are from the outsider view. From an insider perspective, culture is ‘that what which is considered „normal“; “the way it’s done ‘’round here”. Much of culture is hard to identify and explain to others, because it has been internalized, comes naturally, and this self-evidence facilitates routines and social organization. This is particularly difficult for newcomers who are not socialized into the culture and will have to discover it most likely through a process of trial and error. Generally, cultural differences come to the surface most frequently when two cultures come together and collide. In case of a collision, there will most likely be a clash (‘ouch!’) moment accompanied by friction and possibly even more overt conflict. This is because we inevitably see and judge our environment, our fellow human beings and ourselves through the lens of our own cultural background. When for instance, two aid workers work together on a case but learn that they interpret the risks of the situation completely differently. Is one wrong and the other right? Or are they interpreting the situation in accordance to different norms and values?

To meaningfully recognize culture it is therefore key to be continuously aware of one’s own reactions towards others and in particular the question marks that appear when interacting with others. One functions, interprets and more importantly judges surroundings and others in accordance to one’s own culture. However, what may be normal to one might not be to the other. So when interacting with others, be alert to feelings of perplexity and shock and before escalating the situation to hostile confrontation, wonder what it is that puzzles you and engage in an inquiring fashion with the other. Are there cultural assumptions underlying their act and/or your reaction?

Such question marks generally point at a possible cultural difference. Why don’t Dutchmen wear helmets when cycling through heavy traffic? Why do many Byzantine and Ottoman buildings have beams placed intermittently around walls of buildings (Bankoff 2014: 58)? Are they decorative or might they even have a seismic function? Such observations and questions allow one to learn about the environment one is in. One could, for instance, learn that when a community has areas where homes are built on stilts that flooding is a relevant phenomenon for the people of the community. In other words, recognizing culture will not just enable one to increasingly cooperate or understand why cooperation with others is maybe difficult, but it will also open the door to learn more about the environment one is in and the way people interpret and deal with that environment.

Beware: introspection can be confrontational. You will be looking into your most inner self and possibly have to question fundamental assumptions which have been, up and until that day, the basis of your essence, while realizing that they are arbitrary and can, if you want to, be different. The key is first to identify and reflect on the cultural differences and then find a way to move forward that is acceptable to both parties. That is when it gets difficult, especially when such inner elements as values and norms are being questioned.
There are various social interactions that require thoughtfulness in light of the possible cultural implications they could entail. Firstly, one has to be aware that people are generally part of different cultures. As a result, even though you are part of the same organization and share the organization’s culture, you might still experience culture clashes because competing cultural values or norms take the upper hand. For instance, families can have their own cultures and in a specific situation this culture’s elements might be considered more weighty than for instance the organization’s. In situations in which the organization’s culture does not provide sufficient guidance a member may resort to his or her own cultural values that would.

Part of these types of cultural interactions are interactions between people with different ethnic or religious backgrounds within one organization. However, people with the same religious and ethnic background can be part of quite different cultural groups. Secondly, cultures can interact between groups when working with different organizations. Civil and military organizations for instance can have very different cultures. A mission for a military unit, for instance, starts when you leave your home and ends when you get back home. For a civil organization, a mission is when you leave your quarters in the host country to, for example, do search and rescue activities and ends when you get back to your quarters. This different interpretation of a mission can cause friction. Similarly, there can be serious cultural clashes between a professional organization and a community one.

Culture is quite functional: it enables people to interpret and judge the world around them, i.e. order, and function more effectively without continuously having to cognitively engage with one’s surroundings. It prevents one from being taunted by hyper-reflection like the centipede in the following poem:
‘The Centipede was happy quite, / Until a Toad in fun / Said, ‘Pray, which leg goes after which?’ / And worked her mind to such a pitch, / She lay distracted in a ditch / Considering how to run‘ (Katherine Craster 1841-74).
Furthermore cultural elements have a cultural logic and function. In case of hazards for instance, communities tend to cultivate elements that will enable them to understand and deal with the events and prevent, as much as possible, dismay. As a result, culture affects how people understand risks and guide the way they act in light of these. A collection of cultural elements cultivated to deal with a recurrent hazard is known as a disaster subculture. Disaster subcultures emerge when communities are repeatedly affected by potentially disastrous hazards and members take each disastrous occasion to learn and improve their capabilities to deal with these phenomena so that they will be less disastrous in the future. Since these elements have meaning and are valued by communities experiencing disaster risk, they have to be taken into account in DRR (Warner and Engel 2014).

They can be valuable resources, but they could also be the cause for strenuous relationships. They can for instance be the reason why a certain community does not want to implement some solution experts have come up with.
Since it is known that cultural interactions will be an important part of one’s work in DRR and the success of one’s interventions will stand or fall by the way they are dealt with it is worthwhile looking into cultural implications in ‘peacetime’. As such, one can determine to what extent culture can be an opportunity or is rather a challenge to be dealt with and identify ways to deal with these. When you have to do this during an emergency, you are too late. In an emergency there is no room for hyper-reflection and the possible immobilization this might entail. People have to largely turn to automated behaviour, particularly also to have enough cognitive space to deal with unexpected situations. This means one should focus on encountering and dealing with different cultures in the preparation phase. This can be done in different ways. For instance, one could include in every after-action report an appraisal of cultural matters. Also one could make it part of the preparation phase by including a cultural appraisal when doing for instance a network analysis. Key tools are generally, qualitative in-depth and group interviews and continuous interaction and reflection with relevant people.

It is also recommended to not just think of potential ‘problem groups’ when it comes to planning and preparing for disaster. There are cultural groups networks that could contribute to one’s DRR efforts. Take for instance, boy and girls scouts, voluntary rescue brigades and hobby groups like electrical clubs or radio aficionados. Such groups might have certain knowledge and technical skills that can prove really helpful during a disaster.

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Complex technological systems tend to be seen as the most optimal way of dealing with various natural hazard related problems. While these can be of help, a sole dependence on them can have adverse effects. In Dordrecht, for instance, the decreasing exposure to flooding has brought complacency and forgetfulness. In the South of the Netherlands, however, (non-life threatening) flooding used to be frequent and as a result relevant risk awareness, knowledge and capacities tends to be more widespread there than in the west of the Netherlands that has already been fully diked up. Today embankments have been installed in the southern province of Limburg and communities there are being told flooding will no longer be part of their lives. This will most likely lead to a reduction of flood preparedness, even though the possibility of flooding remains. The probability might be small, but is still above zero (Engel et al 2014).

Unnecessarily exposing people to disaster risk is not an option. However, believing that one can master nature is not either. A middle road would be to cultivate an intelligent mix of technical and human capacities that will not just enable higher levels of resistance, but also significant levels of resilience. Also, to ensure technical systems are properly embedded in a community and do not force communities into highly dependent relationships with for instance experts, especially when it comes to early warning systems. In light of DRR it worthwhile that people can interpret their environment and in particular threats that might be imminent. Often time is of the essence and it is thus disadvantageous for people to have to wait for vast complex socio-technical systems to inform them. Such systems generally require time that is unavailable and in addition often encompass numerous linkages that can fail. It may be better to make tools or facilitation availability for community members to be actively involved in their own safety and prevent a false sense of security from arising, confer, for example, Dutch dike teams (trained to put metal sheets in front of vulnerable buildings) and ‘dike armies’ (patrolling the defences when the weather gets rough).

Suggestions for Further reading

It is recommended to map local skills and repertoires, as well as the ‘risk landscape’ people perceive. There are good guides to participatory action research
You may find the handbook useful in this respect.
A Swiss example:

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Author: Peter Tamas
When we are under stress, as in a disaster, we will revert to known familiar patterns. These patterns tell us where to go for information, who to trust, what we should do and with whom we should do it. They will tell us who we must look after and they also tell us who is obliged to look after us. Most of these patterns will tell us to trust, to share with, to help, and to be helped by the familiar. All of this happens without our thinking. These patterns are conditioned. This means that when there are distinct groups in a city they will have strongly conditioned patterns that link them to other members of their group. These patterns are usually difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to see. They, however, are far more durable than what people have learned, for example, in training sessions in which people are told about early warning systems for floods. This conditioning will survive a generation or two after a population immigrates. If disaster responders rely on training and information, they will likely fail. This information provided by outsiders is easy to reject. If disaster responders partner with members of the community and if, together, they become part of the tendencies, the conditioning, of that population, then they we will be able to leverage the assets, the strengths, the conditioning of that community so that they both look after themselves better (they will be first responders) and such that their actions are more compatible with those of the professional disaster response community.

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When we have time and energy and when we are feeling relaxed and competent, we willingly work at the edge of our comfort zones. This is when we are happy to try chicken feet stew for supper and shisha for desert…and find both desirable though perhaps not in the same night. The minute we are stressed, however, we will snap back to where we are comfortable. There is no way to avoid this snapping back and it would be foolish to try. When we are in our comfort zone we can think and act faster. We get in trouble when our comfort zone is not where we need to be to perform well. The only strategy available is to change what we find to be natural, to change what is comfortable, to change what counts as our comfort zone so that it is where we need to be when we are under stress.

The things we do, and the things that we do not, talk about – they matter.

Professionals do particular things in particular ways that are recognized to work. In addition, we are professionals in part because we talk about the right sorts of things in the right sorts of ways. Sometimes having some topics off limits is a good thing. There is no reason in professional conversations to talk about how bloated and constipated you are today…unless you are an adult performer preparing for a scene in which your bowel condition matters. While both may be very important, neither belong in most professional discourses. What counts as professional, like our culture, has taken generations to form and it changes slowly. Some of the things that we talk about do not help and there are some things that we avoid discussing that we should talk about. For example, both police and the military are still figuring out if and how to talk about mental health. Real men, they are learning, do cry and this, it seems, might be good to make part of professional talk. When disaster responders look at other communities there are all sorts of things that we do not think and/or do not say. We might, for example, label a Muslim community in some slightly insulting way and not talk about how in makes us uncomfortable to deal with women wearing head-scarves: it might be OK to label others but not OK to talk about our own discomforts. These patterns matter. Talking about others in simplistic terms draws lines that then become harder and harder to cross and not talking about our own discomforts makes it impossible for us to take the first, and necessary, step.

It is difficult to identify and deal with ‘unmentionables’ and ‘undiscussables’. For those who are in a culture, one way to begin to find undiscussibles is to look for discomfort. Discomfort is a flag that we have talked about something that is not proper. In most situations our reaction to mention of an undiscussable is analogous to a loud belch at the dinner table: we don’t see it, we minimize it, we make a joke of it, and, whatever we do, we quickly move on and pretend it did not happen. These strategies minimize disruption. They help us keep on with business as usual. Too bad for us that our business as usual is not good enough. If we have decided that the way we do things is not good enough, when we trip over an undiscussable the correct strategy is to stop, to flag it with a statement along the lines of ‘I just saw/heard a belch. That didn’t feel right.’

Having undiscussables makes our work efficient. It reduces what we can and need to think about. They work great until we are in a different world. The minute we are in a different world, we need to question what we do and do not talk about. Fundamental to these discussions is something called ‘metacognition’ which is essential to something called the relational model of intercultural communication (Imahori and Lanigan 1989).

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When we look at people we make intuitive judgements about them. The Dutch, for example, say ‘trust me by the blue of my eyes.’ In this case blue eyes are a proxy indicator of trustworthiness. We have all sorts of proxy indicators that matter in a particular culture: the firm handshake, the straight gaze, the confident voice, being male, being clean shaven, being well dressed, using appropriate vocabulary, driving the right car. None of these measure what we are actually interested in. They, and many others, might work well enough in some contexts. When we move to new contexts, however, these proxy indicators might not work and we won’t know when they fail. This means that when we are working in new environments we can’t trust our intuition. Intuition, however is very convenient. It lets us make fast decisions that, when in the right circumstances, work well enough. Intuition will get us in trouble unpredictably when we are not in familiar circumstances. This means that we have to make every decision deliberately. This takes time and effort. In a disaster, when the unthinkable happened nevertheless, we don’t have time and we are exhausted. This means that we will not be able to make deliberate decisions. We must, therefore, train our intuition before a disaster so that the proxy indicators we have are good enough for the full diversity of communities we will work with in a disaster. This will take time and energy up front.

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Author: Peter Tamas
Today disaster responders have to deal with many different kinds of people. We will take a quick glance and make initial decisions about the characteristics of that group and, on that basis, decide what we can and should do. If we are going to deal with people from that group, we will use our group based classification as a starting point for figuring out who that person really is. While this sort of decision making serves us well most of the time, there are a few ways in which they get us in trouble.

  1. The rules we have for classifying people took many generations to evolve. They might fit the world of our grandparents. When we are in new circumstances, as we are in any major European city, and we use old rules to classify new people, they will fail in ways we cannot predict and often cannot even see.
  2. We are invested in our rules. We do not like it when they are wrong and we will persist in using them even when they don’t fit quite right.
  3. When our rules do not fit quite right, rather than parking the rules and starting from scratch our initial response will often be to get a bit grumpy and try to make them fit.
  4. Once we have figured out that they do not fit and we start from the ground up, the group based decisions we make will still be sticky. It will take time and effort for us to adjust
  5. When we are under stress, we do not think twice. We will revert to simple rules and stick with the group based decisions they suggest
  6. Most of what is happening here is not conscious. This means that just learning will not fix what we do. Learning happens between our ears. Most of the decisions we make here are more gut-level intuitive calls.It is possible for us to learn new things. We may, for example, learn how to work with people who are really quite different, people who behave in ways we initially thought were not good. This sort of boundary crossing work has to be done in consort by people on both sides. This is extra work that takes time and effort. In normal circumstances this if fine. We have the time and head space required to reach out, to make links, to figure out what is going on and how to work together. Under stress, however, we will all revert to the familiar and the efficient.

Putting this all together, all of the work that we do figuring out contact people in distinct groups, all the time spent going to meetings, all the time we spend building trust, may very well come to nothing. When the disaster strikes, we will all tend go back to are primal thinking: making quick judgments, clumping people into groups that are easy to think about, sticking to the familiar and doing what makes sense to me and those who think like me. Under stress our natural reaction is to kill off all of the careful thinking, all of the nurtured relationships, all of the individual understandings that let us see people rather than classes. In a disaster, our natural tendency is to crawl back into the culture, the shell, that is most familiar.

The only way to get to the point where, under stress, we go in the right direction is through conditioning. This is well known to the military whose training revolves around the saying ‘train as you fight, fight as you train.’ The only way to work effectively with diverse cultures in disaster is to fully integrate that diversity into preparation…so much so that it becomes impossible to think any other way.

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To work effectively across cultures both disaster responders and members from the diverse groups who make up their cities must be conditioned. This means that, at every step of the way, we must not only be sharing or informing, we must be behaving in ways that build and use the relationships and the trust on which lives will depend in a disaster. This will be difficult because conditioning is far more expensive than training.

When the disaster is not pressing, with the exception of one organization, it is very hard to justify the time and money required for conditioning. Armed forces know about conditioning. They regularly second staff to work in other organizations. These other organizations are pleased to host these seconded solders. Further, in the military, approximate 1/3 of staff hours are spent in some form of training and this does not count all of the rituals that structure feelings and behaviour in ways that are useful for combat. This ratio is not supportable in almost any civilian organization. In civilian organizations, people are paid for what they are doing during a day and hired because they know how to do it. This means that time is fully committed to immediate tasks. Resourcing for current task loads means that there is no time required to design and undertake the sort of conditioning that will save lives when it matters.
It is difficult to talk about building conditioning into civilian organizations but it is possible. It can be made part of our jobs, our job descriptions, our performance review, our organizational culture. Our jobs can pay us to engage and our organizational culture can encourage us to find comforts in the diverse communities in our cities. This may be as simple as where we choose to get lunch together, who we work with on the annual litter picking day or where we recommend incoming colleagues look for housing.

It is, however, illogical to talk about building conditioning into the diverse communities that make up our cities. People do what makes sense to them today and our organizations can change what makes sense so that we are nudged towards engaging across difference. This does not work in private lives. The only way to build conditioning into the cultures of those we wish to serve is by going to them, by working with them on their terms to do what is important to them today, recognizing that what is important to them today may very well not matter all that much to us. If we do this for a long time we will build relationships, we will build trust. Working with each other will become part of who we are It is precisely the relationship and the trust that will matter in a disaster. Police have known this for at least a generation. The whole institution of community policing was and remains a seismic shift in what it means to police. More importantly, it is a fundamental change in what it means to be a police officer.

If we are to work effectively in our increasingly diverse and always changing cities, we can learn from the police and the armed forces. With the armed forces, we must make the time, the resources and the effort required to condition ourselves such that, when stressed, we behave appropriately. With the police, we must change how we are in our cities so that the time we spend those who become our neighbours and friends alters their conditioning such that the, under stress, also behave appropriately.

If we get culture right, then the improbable and the illogical becomes instinctive.

  • we will leverage the bonds from which the diverse communities that make up are cities are built.
  • we will see ourselves as part of those communities, as supporting them so that our new friends and neighbours, when they respond first they will do so in a way that both preserves lives and integrates with the professional response that will quickly follow.

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