Intercultural CompetenceKnowledge of identity-related mechanisms and theoriesMaintaining awareness of one’s own identityRefers to concepts and theories related to identity and understands the link between the educational approach

What does it mean to you? – Understanding the relationship between meaning and identity

A discussion about intercultural competence is inevitably a discussion about meaning. The traditions, codes of conduct, language, and every other aspect of a culture result from associating each of these elements to certain meanings, and those meanings being common within a group is what creates the culture in the first place.

Why did I choose this tool? While over-emphasizing cultural differences can reinforce certain stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings, looking at the meanings that are assigned to those things we find so different can bring us to the awareness that we are not that different after all.

How does this apply to being a trainer? As trainers firstly it is necessary to be aware of the meanings that we have given to things, because knowing our own “bias” puts us in a better position to understand others and to resolve any potential conflicts that can come up. Secondly, being aware of the different meanings that others can assign to the same things can help us to understand them better and more capably support their learning process.

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One of the keys to understanding attachment to identity is not necessarily understanding the ins and outs of the identity itself, but rather understanding the meaning that the person has given to that part of their identity.

Say for example someone identifies themselves as a feminist. In order to understand why they feel so strongly about feminism being a part of them, rather than understand the whole history of feminism and the role that it has played over the years, it is much more helpful to understand what feminism means to this person. Does it mean freedom? Equality? Justice?

The reason for this is that actual concepts or events don’t really matter to us as humans. What does matter very much is the meaning that we give to them, which creates emotion. When we have a very strong emotion about something, it means it carries a powerful meaning for us, and if it’s positive we may attach ourselves to it strongly as a part of our identity.

However, it’s not only things that have a positive meaning, and consequently emotion, that we become strongly attached to. We can also give negative meanings to not having or being something, and attach ourselves to what we have/are (like being a mother, being in a relationship, being a patriot, being a manager, being an artist, being rich, being poor….)

The truth is that there is no solid definition of our identity, “who we are”, whether in the negative sense or in the positive sense. And it is not necessarily defined by our cultural context. Rather it is a choice that we make, or have made at some point in our lives, consciously or subconsciously. Our brains are automatically assigning meanings, because this is how we learn how to survive (especially in a social context), make decisions and navigate through our lives.

The important thing is to be aware that these are our meanings, that other people have their own meanings, especially but not only people who grow up in a different culture than us. Therefore, if we realize that a certain meaning is not serving us and/or others, or no longer serving us and/or others, it is within our power to change it.

Taking the example of feminism in reverse, imagine someone who would consider themselves “anti-feminist”. Think about what meanings they can have for feminism that would make them oppose it. Maybe they think of feminism as an emasculation of men, or the loss of the family unit, or women who look, talk and act like men. Even if the feminist is none of these things, these meanings can make the person want to steer clear of anything related to feminism.

And yet if rather than arguing about feminism itself, if each side were to think about what the meaning of feminism is to the other person, it is much more likely that they discover that they are on common ground and merely using different words to describe the same thing. Similarly, when 2 people use a different language and are talking about exactly the same thing, but it sounds like something completely different. Maybe the anti-feminist deeply respects and appreciates women, and the feminist is actually a very womanly woman who wants to love and care for her family. But without finding the deeper meanings behind the word, both sides could argue forever and never reach an understanding.

So the next time you are faced with someone who seems to think and act so differently from you, ask yourself (or if you can ask them directly):

What does it mean to them to be that way?

What value do they see in it?

Why does this matter so much to them?

And ask yourself:

What does it mean to me to be the way that I am?

What value do I see in it?

Why does this matter so much to me?

When asking these questions, it’s important to ask and listen with the heart and not the mind. Because the mind can get lost with endless words and concepts, the emotions can more quickly catch on to what is really going on.

And the good news is, the language of emotions is universal. Every human knows what it is like to feel happiness, sadness, anger, shame…these things don’t vary from culture to culture or person to person. What does change is how those emotions come about and perhaps how we respond to them, because of the meanings that have been assigned by that person or that culture.

For instance, you can find 3 different people who all want to be happy, but one can experience the greatest happiness by getting a promotion, the other by getting married, and the other by leaving behind their work and relationships and becoming a hermit in the mountains. And they might all have different languages and ways to describe happiness, but in the end the feeling of happiness and the desire for happiness is the same for all 3.

As trainers, we need to constantly be making ourselves aware of the meanings that we give, so that we also can have the ability to take a step back from them when necessary in order to see someone else’s meaning and as such understand how they might be feeling.

For this, it helps to remember the difference between understanding and accepting. Sometimes we can strongly oppose something because we don’t want to accept it into our reality. As such it’s liberating to know that we can fully understand something and even empathize without accepting that idea or behavior for ourselves.

The hard but liberating truth is that we are the masters of our own identity, which is comprised of the negative and positive meanings we have come up with for the events that have happened in our lives and the traits that we have. If one or more aspects of our identity are no longer serving us we have the ability to change it by changing the meaning.

Identity and meanings can be tools that we can use to exist and navigate through life, while at the same time not allowing them to control us and dictate our decisions and actions.

Reflection questions:

You can do this exercise with one or more than one person (can be a friend, colleague, family member, etc.)

Take this list of words and give 5 seconds or less for the other person to tell you what that word means to them, in other words, the first things that come to mind when they hear the word. Answers should be fast and not very rationalized, just first impulses. Write down their answers for each word. Then switch and do the same the other way around.











When you’re finished, look at what you have written down for each other. Then discuss:

Is there anything surprising to you from the meanings of the other person?

Are you surprised at your own meanings?

Where could these meanings be coming from?

How do you think these meanings are affecting your behavior?

How do you think these meanings are affecting your decisions?

Are there any meanings that you would like to change, now that you’ve become aware of them?


How to apply it in everyday life:

If you find there are any meanings or aspects of your identity that you aren’t happy with, here is a strategy that you can use to change it. Say you identify yourself as a loser, you can have the following conversation with yourself or with a supportive friend:

Why are you a loser?

Well because I was fired from my last job.

And does that mean that you’re a loser?

Yes of course, what else could it mean?

Ah great question 😊 Well it could mean many things….it could mean that the company just couldn’t afford to keep you longer, it could mean that it would be helpful to update your skill set to stay relevant, or it could mean that it’s time to start your own business because you function better working independently. Do any of those meanings sound possible to you?

Well, now that you mentioned it lately I’ve been having a lot of different ideas then my boss about how to get the job done and that caused some tension and frustration for both of us. I think that’s why they decided to fire me in the end.

So could it be that instead of being a loser you are actually an entrepreneur?

Yeah, I think so….I actually feel very motivated by the idea of starting my own business, and definitely feel like less of a loser.

Great, then get moving! 😊

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

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van Rheenen, L. (2018). Emotional Fitness Academy WorkbookFeatured image created by Aws Al-Adhami

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