Exercise 4: Cultural shock – a method for addressing intercultural conflicts by M. Cohen-Emerique

Exercise 4: Cultural shock – a method for addressing intercultural conflicts by M. Cohen-Emerique

The educational approaches and methods of teachers and parents can be different and lead to an unpleasant situation – a culture shock. When facing parental practices that are far removed from their own, teachers may judge the parents (“These parents cannot deal with their child”) or impose their norms (“Here, we do like this; it is the rule”). Both these attitudes are harmful to the child and to the respect for her/his identity because he/she feels that his parents’ cultural belonging is being denied.

These attitudes of judgement spring from an identity threat on the part of professionals, because these shocks have not been addressed. Their professional culture is often centred on theories of child development, which refer to a Western and normative concept of education.

When facing parents who have practices which do not correspond to these models, teachers struggle with a cultural shock. According to Margalit Cohen-Emerique, psychologist and specialist from France in intercultural relations, a cultural shock is the emotional and intellectual experience experienced in contact with what is foreign to us. These results in emotions such as incomprehension, fear and surprise.  These cultural shocks can not only remain undetected, but are also not properly processed, which in turn can lead to defensive reactions. Some examples in this context would be:

A father picks up his son and says: “You don’t have to clean up, that’s a woman’s job…” or a mother thinks that it’s perfectly okay if the son eats chips and sweet things instead of fruit and vegetables, or parents have absolutely no problem with the fact that the fourteen-year-old daughter has already incurred debts with her smartphone.

Questions that will arise in this context may be: How can a judgement of behaviour be prevented? Is there an open space to discuss things? Is it possible to develop methods that respect both sides so that all expectations and values can still exist?

At this point, Margalit Cohen-Emerique recommends that a cultural shock should be systematically processed so that there can still be an open mind in this context. The opposite behaviour, denying the cultural shock, prevents any process and cannot protect against the effect. The cultural shock must be recognised, identified and processed. 

Please go through the description of the three steps that M. Cohen-Emerique suggests and the example presented below. Then think about a conflict that you have experienced your own that challenged your personal values. Try to go through it by using the three steps introduced.

Margalit Cohen-Emerique (1999) describes three steps that can help to overcome the cultural shock:


First, the shock on the emotional level should be clarified: What do I feel? Fear? Disgust? Outrage? Rejection? Also the background of the shock should be known: space, time, the spoken word, one’s own posture as well as the posture of the other, so what exactly shocked, irritated, disturbed…?

Then it is necessary to explore one’s own frame of reference to determine which values and principles were shaken by the shock. The different components of the reference system must be taken into account: ethnic, sexual, social, professional, religious, national and political affiliation. For example, it can be seen that the father, who tells his son not to clean up, endangers gender equality. However, this equality is very important to me as a woman and I attach great importance to it. The father’s attitude touches my view of education very sensitively…

This self-reflection contributes to broadening the ability to experience. It helps to practice self-distance, especially with regard to the first emotions triggered by the shock.

Entering the other person’s reference system

The next step is to give meaning to each other’s attitudes by exploring their different cultural affiliations. It is about observing which elements of one’s social and ethnic culture can explain one’s attitude. This will be achieved by a better knowledge of his values and his system of reference.

In a conversation with the other side, the respective position can be presented. Attitude and point of view should become comprehensible.

If no dialogue is possible, several hypotheses can be put forward to explain his/her attitude and thereby avoid generalising or stereotypical interpretations: the behaviour can be influenced by the country of origin, or an “idol ” can be imitated. It is not about maltreating the person.

Through the analysis of the reference system, the attitude of the other is given meaning. This analysis requires openness, as well as personal effort and curiosity, in order to experience the meaning of the other’s action from his perspective. What values the other person possesses through his culture, his migration history and his individually experienced adaptation and acclimatisation to the host country.

Through the analysis of the other’s reference system, common points of identity are often found which can form a basis for the continuation of the relationship. In this way, they can come into contact again and discover that their disagreement is only about the way they perceive something.


Negotiation means neither submission nor passive resistance from one or the other. It is a true encounter in which everyone “let’s go” of something in order to approach the other without questioning the essential principles of their own identity. Here it is a matter of finding a new norm, a common field or a “3rd space” in which everyone preserves his or her identity and at the same time enters the path of the other.

"Cultural Irritation" - An example from a German school

The teachers of a small secondary school in Germany are really angry: A student who is just about to finish school keeps on telling his classmates that he is not willing to get a job or a training after school. His parents are without work. They get 1400 € Hartz IV (social services from the state). When he finishes school they will even receive more money from the state, if he is without work. The family soon wants to go to Lebanon for three months – to build a house in Beirut!

The teachers team reflects on this incident:

Step 1: Explore your own frame of reference: What feelings does the case trigger in me? What bothers me? Which of my values are attacked or questioned?

The teachers take the opportunity to express their indignation and anger. A long list of points is created, which disturbs them. Then the values: The participants name values such as “honesty”, “justice”, “gratitude”, “decency”, “loyalty to the state”, “adherence to the law”, “no hard work, no price” – and begin to discuss. Sometimes honesty is of no use to a person, justice in this country is such a thing, some people cream off quite officially without being diligent, the solidarity community no longer functions for other reasons either…

Step 2: Explore each other’s frame of reference and form hypotheses: What do I know about the family`s situation and values? What do I suspect? How do I suspect the student experienced the situation? What do I want to know in order to understand better?

The participants gather what they know about the family and find that neither the migration history of the family nor their plans for the future are clear to them and they do not know what significance a house in Beirut has. Since they are very well aware of parent‘s aspirations for their son’s future (he should learn German, have contact with Germans so that he can have it easier later in school…), they now notice that these are not discussed with the family. The assumed possibility that the family supports relatives in Lebanon puts the anger about the family’s “irresponsibility” into perspective. Perhaps for the student, the family is the community of solidarity for which he feels also responsible for? The student is a “show-off” in financial matters, does he possibly want to keep up his face and his pride, not appear as a loser?

Step 3: Have a negotiation – develop a solution: What do I want to achieve with the conversation? What questions do I want to ask? What do I want to say about myself?

The teachers develop possibilities to address the irritation in role plays. They recognise that they have problems to focus on the main issue or that they tend to moralize. Because it is not so clear to them what they want: Do they want to communicate their personal position on undeclared work? Do they want to show, as representatives of the school, that they perceive illegality and threaten consequences? What is the school’s mission here and what is its role for the head of the school? In the end, the participants find out what the focus should be for them as professionals: They try to focus on the well-being of their students. They develop an approach to talk to the student and his parents without condemnation. They will try to hear their position but at the same time explain to them that they need to take care of the rest of the class who needs to be supported and encouraged in finding a job or a training after school.

The example was translated and slightly modified on the basis of a text from a German text provided by Kinderwelten Projektmaterial (2007).