Across Cultures: An Interview with the Interculturalist Hans Durrer

Posted by Anne Rhebergen • Monday, May 2. 2011 • Category: Crossing Cultures
Lately Knowledge Must had the opportunity to interview the distinguished Swiss interculturalist Hans Durrer, author of articles and books, teacher and coach, theoretician as well as practitioner. His pioneering works on intercultural and visual communication offer a very innovative approach to the study of culture. One particular field of interest for him is photography. According to Durrer photographs are nothing else than shattered fragments of the broken mirror of reality, which force the viewer to reconstruct their meaning. Depending on the upbringing, interests, and also the mood of the viewer, the photographs’ meaning will be read very differently.

(c) by Blazenka Kostolna

KM: Thank you so much for finding the time for this interview. Could you shortly introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Hans Durrer: Born in 1953 in Switzerland, I was educated in Law (Basel), Journalism Studies (Cardiff), Applied Linguistics (Darwin), and in Drug and Alcohol Studies (Stirling), lived in Southeast Asia, worked in California, and in Southern Africa, learned about Latin American mentalities in Central America and, above all, in Cuba, taught and/or lectured in Argentina, Brazil, China, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Thailand, and Turkey. Presently, I'm working as interpreter, essayist, intercultural coach, and twelve-step therapist in Switzerland.


KM: You are very enthusiastic about the intercultural field and have published several essays on intercultural communication and you are also providing intercultural coaching. What is it that got you hooked to the “world of cultures”?

Hans Durrer: I suppose that in the beginning there was this “the grass is greener on the other side”-phenomenon. As the very English thriller-writer Eric Ambler, when asked where he liked to live the best, once put it: “Always where I'm not at the moment.” In other words, I've always thought other cultures more interesting than my own.

But there is also another, and probably more important, reason. I've always considered the Socratic-maxim “Know thyself” fascinating and helpful, and cultures that are foreign to me seem to teach me more about myself than my own culture does.


KM: How did your perspective on intercultural communication, its meaning and value, change over the years?

Hans Durrer: Whereas years ago I felt intrigued by cultural differences, I nowadays concentrate more on the similarities.


KM: With your experience in intercultural coaching, what do you find the most useful to know and to apply?

Hans Durrer: I do believe that to know thyself (and to not take yourself too seriously) and to pay the respect that you would like to receive are key to successful intercultural interaction.


KM: You have published a book on visual and intercultural communication. What inspired you to combine these two approaches?

Hans Durrer: Our interpretations of pictures depend not least on our cultural upbringing. The famous picture of the lonely man facing the tanks on Tiananmen Square in 1989, for instance, has been read, by the Western media, as a symbol of exceptional bravery in the face of a massive threat, whereas the official Chinese reading saw it as an expression of extraordinary restraint by the tank commander. Does that now mean that I, because of the fact that I was culturally conditioned in Switzerland, always see the world through my Swiss value system? In part, sure, but a value system is not fixed, it is in a constant state of flux. However, we also have the ability to choose and can thus become willing to see the same picture that somebody from another culture sees.


KM: What do you consider to be the most remarkable finding of your essay on how language determines one's view of the world?

Hans Durrer: That by working on language one can influence one's world view.


KM: Finally, would you like to share with our readers one key lesson that you have learned from intercultural communication?

Hans Durrer: Simplicity is key. And, to be simple takes courage. As Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, once said: “Simplicity is the only thing that works in a complex world.”


KM: Thank you so much for your insights!

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To learn more about Hans Durrer’s work definitely check out his blog: http://durrer-intercultural.blogspot.com.

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