Cuban-American-European mediator Juan Diaz-Prinz says cultural competence means understanding not simply cultures but people and their values—honoring both a community and an individual. It means creating a space with another person in which they can safely talk about problems and seek ways with you to address them.
How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.
What is your cultural identity? Some of us might have a clear answer. But for today’s guest, it’s a multiple-choice question.
This is Culturally Attuned, I’m David Yang, and today we’re talking to our American… Cuban… well… German guest, Juan Diaz Prince. Juan spent his career working across cultures and countries and has learned that by emphasizing different aspects of his identity, he can elicit very different reactions from people. We’ll listen to Juan’s stories as we try to understand how being your authentic self in a foreign place can not only be achievable, but ideal under the right circumstances.
Dr. Juan Diaz Prinz
I tell people that I grew up in 1959 Cuba even though I was born in the United States, and lived in Miami, all my life. So I grew up the son of a refugee family. And my understanding of peace comes from very early on understanding the American-Cuban relationship.
So just a little background to my personal life, living in Miami which is predominantly Latin American. At home, we spoke Spanish the whole time, we lived a fully 100% Cuban life. And then when I went to school and when I left my home, I lived a fully Americana life. It was exactly what my parents thought the American dream was. So I had already growing up two cultures living simultaneously side-by-side within me. And so when I went to college and I started seeing the world and diversity in the United States and things like that, I thought I would like to get involved in helping to solve some of the intercultural issues here in this country.
My life turned out to be a little different when I married a German. And interesting, how I phrase that, I married a German man. And my life took me to Europe. And I spent the last 25 years working in Europe in peacebuilding, mostly in Southeastern Europe, but also Northern Africa, a little bit in Asia. And so my whole entire Latin American background kind of disappeared for many years. And I brought that back in later in my life as Europeans started asking me more about my Latin side and less about my American side, because they knew America from movies and from food and from traveling to the US. But they knew very little about the Cuban culture. So I found people more interested in my Cuban background than in my American background and started using that as a way of communicating with other cultures.
When you look at the whole entire world of, you know what they say multicultural, you know, everyone seems to think it's a linear process. But having had two cultures in me, I realized that actually, you can think fully in two different cultures. So that means what I'm thinking in my Latin culture, I am actually processing information differently. When I'm thinking in my American culture. I'm prioritizing differently. And then I went to Europe, and I lived for 25 years in Germany and became somewhat German. And realized that actually, you can take on as many identities as you want. And they're not in contradiction with each other. And so when I go to Bosnia, for example, and I see the complexity of the Bosnian people, they're not sure if they're Yugoslav or Bosniak or Serb or Croat. But they're forced to choose one identity. And one of the things that I brought with me to Bosnia was no, you don't have to choose. It's okay. It's okay that you feel like this today and like that tomorrow. And that's something that a lot of people don't get, that you can feel culturally in one place, just now talking to you. And then I leave the room and my cultural dimensions shift, or totally change, and I start thinking in a different way.
Well, I found it fascinating that so first of all, they always call this the German delegation arriving in Bosnia. And then they met a guy named Juan who was American. So then there was all this anti-American, what are you doing here? And then all I would say was my family's Cuban and all sudden I was being hugged by all the Yugoslavs. “Oh, my God, Cuba, we you know, we have such love you're so welcome.” I was like you just hated me like two seconds ago when I said I was American. Well, that's okay. And all of a sudden, it was for them perfectly, I was the same person was perfectly normal for them to shift gears and to leave one of my identities aside, I just focused on my Cuban side. And then we would sit in a meeting and I would be facilitating. And it was so funny, they would say, well you understand being Cuban. And then I would remind them, well I have never been in Cuba. It's just my parents were Cuban. Well, it's in the DNA. And I found that fascinating that I could tell them a million times I'm American, I grew up in the United States. But they heard Cuban and forever I was the Cuban mediator for them.
As Juan’s example illustrates, many times we are called to highlight one aspect of our cultural identity to serve the work at hand. At other times, being our whole, multidimensional self is what makes the difference.
Dr. Juan Diaz Prinz
I do make a split-second decision, wherever I am in the world and whatever culture I am, whether my German or my American or my Cuban side is more welcome. And I bring it out, you know, I talk more about those things that are important in that culture. And people make a connection. And I realized that for that person, I remained in that culture forever. And it's okay. It's okay that they make a connection on that level with me.
I'll tell you one story which is really personal and interesting. So I worked in the Balkans and there were some pretty difficult moments in terms of human loss. Well, you know, the words ethnic cleansing genocide come to the forefront when we talk about the Balkans. And so when you're mediating or facilitating a dialogue, you are aware of the elephant in the room, nobody wants to talk about it. One side said, you committed genocide and the other said, we all suffered and how do you deal with such a heavy topic? And so I had been in a workshop and it was our time off. And we were all having drinks that evening. And three guys came up to me and asked the question, why does everyone hate us? And I thought to myself, oh my God, why are you asking me this question? And they’re because we think you're the only one who would answer. And I don't believe it was because I was the mediator or the facilitator they knew my… they knew a) my cultural background b) they knew that I had Bosnian kids who I had fostered, so they knew that I was somehow personally attached to Bosnia. And they were from Kosovo.
And I felt the weight, you know, of society on top of me, right? If I said the wrong thing, I could destroy these people, I could destroy the mediation process, politically I could get into a lot of hot water. From my impartiality perspective, I should not have answered the question. I should have said, you know, I'm the facilitator of the dialogue please respect that. And, you know, it's not my place to talk about that. But I felt and there's that human connection, I felt that through this concept of empathy, that that's what they needed. They needed someone to empathetically talk to them about why is it that the world perceives their particular group as having done something really horrible? And I did that and I went through that, and at the end, one of them said to me, you know, I don't see it the same way but thank you for sharing that with us. I think it's a little clearer for us. And they walked away and I got a sense that they were perfectly okay with me sharing it simply because of my cultural background, because they had found a connection to me.
So you know, when we talk about intercultural competence, we talk about skills that you learn, we talk about you know phases and levels. And there's this moment where, you know, you mirror behavior or there's, you know, this denial or there's acceptance but actually, you know it's a human-to-human experience. If people sense that you are genuinely interested in them, as people, and that you're not going to judge them for who they are, they're going to be more willing to open up to you. It doesn't matter who they are, whatever culture you are, I don't change my persona, of who I am as a human being, I am genuinely doing peacebuilding because I am interested in finding that connection, that universal connection amongst human beings, we're all on the same journey to find, you know our happiness. And so when I sit with people, I think despite being American or German or Cuban or whatever you are, if people sense that we share at some underlying level or commonality, which is humaneness, they're going to open up and they're going to be more willing to talk to you about their problems and how to solve those problems. There's no solution that's not already known.
And this is what's really interesting for me and in conflict management. People say, oh you have to get creative, you don't have to get creative. There are a million reports out there that tell you all the possible options in every single conflict. Creativity is about looking inside of you, reflecting how do I create a space between you and me where we both fit in? And that's where the cultural competence comes. It's how do you negotiate that space between us that says this space is a little of you and me?
Being able to switch styles, and adapt to different cultural contexts, is an asset for anyone working across cultures. But even the most culturally adept person can make mistakes.
Dr. Juan Diaz Prinz
So early on in my career, I did a lot of reading. And you know, there are all sorts of books, right? Don't forget to hold your business cards with two hands in China or something like that. And I don't knock those books at all. And I did all of that. And I realized when I went to all these countries, that culture adaptation everybody was a great, great guy, you know our language and our culture but I wasn't getting any deeper.
And I also realize after traveling a lot of places that you know, if I'm traveling, I sometimes also get a little tired of being foreign. So sometimes I need to just go back to my comfort zone. So I realized that I started also eating and sleeping in places that I felt more comfortable in and that nobody cared. I started realizing that I started being myself and nobody cared. I didn't have to pretend to be somebody else in those cultures. Now, do I take into account that certain things you should not do in certain cultures because they might be insulting? Yes, of course.
So one really tiny example, which has to do with gender in the Islamic world was that I knew, I had a very modern female counterpart, who I assumed shared a very European Western understanding of relationships. And I had said hello to everybody in the room, mostly women and most of them were European. And I had, Europeans give kisses and I gave two kisses to everybody in the room. And I got to her, and I gave her two kisses and she whispers in my ear, “Thank God, my husband is not here, he would kill you.” And then she smiled. And I was a little shocked. And she smiled to me and she said, “That was a joke, you know, kind of.” And I never ever, ever even gave her my hand again. And that was really... I was so shocked by that comment. We've stayed friends. We've continued to work together. But I realized that I was putting her in jeopardy and I was putting myself in jeopardy. And that was a long time ago in my career right now, I was very young.
But then that also triggered in me, why do you have to give two kisses to people that you don't know, which is a very European thing to do. But then I realized, well why do you have to do any of that? Obviously, for some people, it's uncomfortable and you don't know if the person wants to be kissed or not on the cheek. So I just stopped kissing people, anybody, you know and I decided, I can suspend with all. That was my understanding of how you say hello. And that's not necessarily everybody else's understanding of how you say hello. So there was a moment there, where I had to really take into consideration that some of my behavior may not be culturally acceptable in other societies and I might even put people at risk.
However, coming back to what we were talking about, I found that if I suspend judgment of the people, if I'm genuinely curious about how to work with them and help them and what the story that they're trying to tell, if I genuinely live the concept of empathy, which is to try to understand their reality. It doesn't matter whether I'm Cuban or whether I'm loud or soft or whether I'm behaving the way the books tell me, people will see me for those values.
In a certain way, they're not really interested in Juan. I'm a foreigner in their country. They're interested in Juan, in as far as Juan interrelates with them. And that's on a human level. So I try to share that and I try to focus on that. And I try to share who I am with them. So I don't also hide who I am. I don't pretend, oh, I like this and then go back and be like, oh I didn't like that. So if I don't like something I'll tell them, “Oh I didn't quite like that.” And they'll tell me, “Okay, we'll give you something else.”
Juan’s experience living and working in a variety of cultures speaks to the essence of what it means to be multicultural and proves the point that being culturally competent goes much deeper than behaving appropriately and adhering to do’s and don’ts.
What steps can you take to remain authentic? What are the different dimensions to your identity? How can you apply the lessons Juan shared to your own work?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned. This has been a production by the United States Institute of Peace, with big thanks as always to our partner, Burning Man Project. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Executive Producer: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook; and Dominic Kiraly
Audio Engineer and Sound Designer: Tim O’Keefe
Contributors: Honey al-Sayed; Jeffrey Helsing, Ph.D.; Kye Horton; Justine Ickes; Stuart Mangrum; Namiko Uno
Narrator: David Yang