See You in the Stretch Zone! Becoming Culturally Competent

After a week of snow, the weather is looking better in Finland. The weather experts say that the weather in Finland this May has been the coldest in 60 years.  I’m happy I didn’t come here for a beach vacation.  But the weather was absolutely perfect for the half-marathon last weekend – a sunny 50-degrees (10 C).

One of the best aspects of my experience professionally here has been that every day I feel very concretely that I am growing.  That’s an interesting and amazing feeling. That’s called a stretch zone.  That’s the optimal zone for learning and growth. If my students don’t remember anything else from my multicultural classes, I want them to remember this concept.  Why? Because intercultural competence (that's what I teach) is not a state or an achieved level of skill, it's a mindset. You are culturally competent because you know and believe that you need to constantly keep learning through new experiences to better understand the endless variations of life experiences and perspectives. That's what makes you culturally competent! And no one just IS a culturally competent person. They work hard every day to understand just a little better!

This beautiful, yet challenging learning zone has many names.  It’s also called a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) by Vygotsky or i+1 (one level higher than your current level of ability) or the flow zone (by Csikszentmihaly).  

How do you know that you’re in this optimal stretch/flow zone? It is said that in this state a person feels "strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities." (Csikszentmihaly).  It’s important to know that while this zone feels effortless, it’s not easy.  Researchers say that the best learning moments occur when our mind is “stretched to its limits.” Think back to a task that was difficult but worthwhile, that took a lot of effort to complete, and after finishing that task, you actually felt joy (not just completed a task) and that not only had you learned about the subject area, but that you had grown as a person and professional.  

You can only be in the flow zone if you’re are stretching your abilities, meaning, you’re building on your strengths and on skills you already possess.  If you’re aiming too high, you’re in an out-of-reach zone and that is less than optimal for learning. Similarly, if you remain in your comfort zone where things are easy and they don't stretch you, you are missing out on a learning opportunity. For example, if my students go to a cultural night focusing on a culture that is new to them, this experience can be a stretch experience for them (depending on their current level of intercultural competency and level of prior experience). However, if they go there with their best friend and only/mostly just talk to that person or don't participate in the activities, then this experience is in their comfort zone and learning is minimal.

I have had several experiences every day here where I knew I was being stretched.  It’s hard for me to remember that I have lived 21 years out of this country and the longest period of time that I have spent here within that time period is four weeks.  There was a 7-year-period that I didn’t come back here at all.  So I am a fish out of water in many situations.  Below are some examples of me in the stretch zone.

I knew I was in the stretch zone when…

  • I took on this professional opportunity in the first place. Leaving my home and family for five weeks was really hard.  In my daily life, with my 1 hr 20 min one-way commute, I always drive home for the night no matter the time of the day, how late it is or what the weather is like. I just want to go home and be with my peeps.  So leaving them for this long has almost been out of my stretch zone and into the out-of-reach-zone.  My big kids of course have not minded me being away at all :-). 
  • I’ve had professional conversations with top-notch researchers in Finnish.  My host university, the University of Turku, is one of the top universities, a research-one university, in Finland and Europe. They bring in lots of money, millions of euros/dollars, in external funds every year.  Some of my contacts here are fulltime researchers – they’re paid to do research; that’s their job –wow!! So participating in research seminars and serving as a keynote in sessions with people like this is very intimidating! Yes, I am allowed to present my research in English but all of the professional conversations are held in Finnish.  But everybody is super nice and we’ve had excellent conversations and already established all kinds of collaborations for the future. But, yes, I’ve been alert and hustled super hard!
  • Just practical things: taking the local busses (how to pay, figuring out the schedule, figuring out the bus stops).  It’s not that I can’t figure it out, but remember I am a Finn, with no accent in Finnish, and then not being able to do it makes you look like not a tourist but somebody who has issues .  I take trains every weekend to visit my sisters and my mom.  I’ve sat in the wrong train car, the wrong seat, waited at the wrong end of the train station, gotten lost… You name it.  But I’ve (re)learned!

May the learning continue! I have a special visitor arriving tomorrow… My best friend, my hubby, my rock, my life, Eric! Maybe we’ll write an entry together….

See you in the flow zone!!

Pictures: Finland is celebrating its 100th year of existence this year. One of the projects to commemorate this is celebrating the rich textile, design and handicraft tradition here. Schools and organizations all over the country create projects and display them in every day places, like here around trees on the river. I'm next to a "hugging tree", yes the tree will give you a hug if you need one.

Some other installations below:
picture of tree

another picture of tree