Using the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity to understand the United States

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Here I attempt to relate what I have learned about the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, with each of its stages, to the current political (and social) events in the United States.

What, what, and huh?

Let me explain…

SIETAR is the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), established in 1974 as a support network for trainers and researchers in the fields of intercultural or cross-cultural communication. 

Intercultural communication is important because it helps people from different nations better understand and work together. It can help individuals and groups to become enhanced communicators. However, it can also help individuals and groups within the same nation or geographic area that are defined by other cultural factors (race, religion, gender, social status, age, ability, etc).  

Dr. Milton Bennett, a sociologist, is a prolific writer researcher, and trailblazer in the field of intercultural communication. He is credited for the creation of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), along with side Dr. Mitchell Hammer, P.hD., which is the five stages of development for intercultural sensitivity, which essentially helps individuals and groups, study-abroad participants and multinational businesses increase their organizational development and effectiveness of intercultural training. 

Dr. Mitchell Hammer, P.hD. and his team have used the DMIS, or as he calls it the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) further developed the Intercultural Development Inventory and scientifically adapt its use creating a set of questions that measures a persons experience with intercultural complexity to help individuals and groups better understand where they fall on the continuum. If you are curious about your experience with intercultural complexity, I highly recommend taking this assessment as it will offer you incredible insight. 

However, this post is founded in the talk given by Dr. Bennett, so that is who I will refer to for the rest of this post as well as the DMIS, not the IDC. In a future post, I may discuss my experience taking the Intercultural Development Inquiry. 

I have written about the DMIS before here, and here

Considering what I know about this field, I knew this webinar was going to be special. However, I had no idea what it would entail. Bennett’s title for the talk was ‘Back to the (intercultural) future’ which I thought was an appropriate American pop culture reference. In this talk, Bennett briefly addressed the past, how intercultural communication began, where it is at the moment, and perhaps most importantly, its future. 

He speculated that we, the collective, as in everyone in the world are on the edge of a paradigm shift and that we have been barrelling toward this shift for some time, at an ever-increasing speed. What may have started in the 1960s give or take, or possibly even before as a wave has become a cliff’s edge. We started by focussing on domestic diversity issues, at least in the United States, and still today, this is our focus. This is not to say this is wholly negative, but incomplete. 

This is but isn’t a tangent

Personally, it is a shame that we, the United States this time, have had such a tumultuous year regarding domestic diversity issues. After all Blacks in the US were given the right to vote in 1868, right?! Nevermind the segregation, discrimination, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws that followed. In the sixties, the Freedom Riders (1961) led way to the Freedom Summer (1964), a GOTV (get out the vote) registration drive to increase black voters in Mississippi, led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination on the bases of sex or race in hiring, promoting, and firing people in the US. Jump to 2008, Barack Obama was the first black man elected president… we’re done, right? Racism was solved in America, right?! 

“But, slavery was a long time ago.” from

Well, no. 

This last year, perhaps partly because of the pandemic, the right of black lives was thrust into the fore once again, because they wanted to stop dying at the hands of police and white supremacists. How was that cry received? With additional police brutality and deaths. 

In no way do I want to overly simplify or gloss over a complex issue in America. From where I sit, it sure looks like a doubling down by white America based out of fear. I will speculate, because of the number of times I hear “reverse racism” cried out on right-wing news or from conservative talking points in general, that this fear is partly rooted in the idea that ‘they’ will do to ‘us’ what we have historically done to them for centuries, as whites in America increasingly become the minority. 

I understand the formation of this fear cannot so simply be pinpointed as a loss of majority and fear of discrimination. I understand the tentacles leading to the head of the problem are way more complex than that. They involve deep-seated cronyism, a disregard for the environment, for people and their safety, and high regard for greed and ever-increasing profit. 

The fear is very real though. There is no denying or disregarding that. 

It is my understanding that history will not be kind to those who choose to be motivated by fear or hate, however. Increasingly I see American politics utterly divided by party lines, with the ‘other’ party being the evil ones. 

I see the land of opportunity for everyone, becoming the land of fear and hatred for the ‘other’. 

As I learn more about intercultural communication I have been trying to put into words what I have been learning about what is happening in America. It is clear enough to me that intercultural communication techniques and awareness could be incredibly useful in America to potentially help begin to heal this divide. It wasn’t until I listened to Bennett formulate his ideas that I could connect the dots in my own mind. I love listening to and learning from other people. 

Back on track

During his talk, Bennet remarked that training (in the US) is catching up slowly to the globalized, intercultural present, with more focus on multifaceted diversity in all aspects of our lives. Corporate culture has become more internationally focused and has grown a great deal in the last twenty-years regarding their general recognition of the importance of intercultural communication. That said, domestically there seems to be an increase in ethnocentrism, as if the people are fighting against globalization, demonizing anything and anyone that doesn’t fit with the culture they are most familiar with. 

Bennett also discussed the ‘Lure of the familiar’ where the mind is still haunted by its old ways. This is to say that when we first existed, we were wary of others. When we encountered ‘others’ it was likely to kill or be killed. However, as our consciousness came into being and our language expanded, we discovered more people that were enough like us that we found value in trading with them. Our interactions shifted from ‘kill or be killed’ to ‘struggling to understand’ to negotiate with ‘others’ to secure better trades.  

When times become unsettling and insecure, it is sometimes easier for us to reminisce about an old familiarity with past authorities and service, an underlying comfort in surrendering to a higher power (authoritarian ideas or leadership, demonizing those that don’t look or act like us, our world’s various gods). 


Denial is the first stage in the continuum. Here, the central ‘culture’ is viewed as the only ‘real’, ‘true’ or ‘right’ culture. People in this state of the continuum are uninterested in other cultures, thanks in part to isolation because their views have never been challenged, or, if ever they were remotely challenged, they reacted aggressively in an attempt to avoid the ‘other’ cultures, eg. demanding a stranger to conform to their expectations of the cultural norm. While humanity has been moving to the right over time, moving out of denial, through increased contact with those who speak and act differently from ‘us’ in the last few years we as a species have begun to stagnate, to stall. If we let fear continue to increase, demagog will capitalize on this, as some already have. 

Moving from denial to defense or ‘polarization, the one ‘real’ culture remains as the centralized and ‘most evolved’ culture. A key feature of this stage of the continuum is the dichotomous position ‘us versus them’ and generally negative stereotyping. With increased globalization, cultural groups are coming into increased contact with immigrants, refugees, tourists, and other ‘foreigners’ at an expanding pace. I have heard Bennett say that he thinks this is human’s default position, in that we tend to ignore larger cultural differences, which looks like tolerance, but isn’t stable in the long run. People in this position are often openly threatened by ‘others’, other races, genders, sexual identities, besmirching any other indicator of difference.

Here, I envision scenes of any one of the Back to the Future films when the McFly’s were bullied by the Tannons, or the principal bullied the kids, ‘different’ was bullied and shunned. I am also considering how each of those films ended, with love and difference persisting. Maybe this is why Bennett titled his talk what he did. 

I also am thinking of interviews I remember hearing on the news about white people who voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 only to vote against him in 2016. When they asked why they voted for him in the first place. “Barack Obama won lots of votes from racially prejudiced whites” (Michael Tesler, The Washington Post, 2016). 

“We find a much stronger association between symbolic racial and immigration attitudes and switching for Trump and Clinton than between economic marginality or local economic dislocation and vote switching,” Reny et al. write. “[…]We find marginally small or no associations between any of our economic indicators and vote switching in either direction.” (Beauchamp, VOX, 2018)


The implications, both in 2018 and in the long term, could be significant. Reny et al. compare this period to the post-civil rights era, a period where the historically Democratic South transformed into modern-day red America primarily in the backlash to the Democratic embrace of civil rights:

History suggests that significant changes in voting across party lines, particularly for the presidency, precede changes in party identities, the basis for realignments. This sequence of events played out during the Southern realignment (i.e., Democrats voting for GOP presidential candidates but maintaining their party attachment) and here we provide evidence that it may be happening again after two terms with a black president and during an era of mass demographic change due to immigration. Racial conservatives and those with the most punitive immigration views are moving right and were the most likely to switch to Trump in 2016. Our data suggest the same is happening in the opposite direction as those with racially liberal or pro-immigration views may be sorting into the Democratic Party. (Beauchamp)

You can find the original study Beauchamp cited here.

I bring this up to illustrate that a factor of ‘defense’ may be at play here, especially with white voters choosing Obama, for many of those whites were actively or subconsciously “exercising their racial demons in the process” (Beauchamp). Another factor of the defense position on the continuum is a reversal of favor toward culture, where one’s own culture is minimized and the ‘other’ held in romanticized higher esteem. How often did you hear ‘post-racial America’ after Obama’s election in 2008?

Minimization or polarization

The next step in the continuum is minimization. This involves the minimizing of cultural differences in favor of more ‘human’ or ‘universal’ traits or values. People in this position often overemphasize their tolerance and acceptance of  ‘others’ and also believe they are no longer ethnocentric, believing if they can simply understand the generalities, they will be able to successfully communicate. The flipside to this is the failure of tolerance or fatigue of tolerance. 

Here, I think of Black Lives Matter protests and a comment that I have heard a lot in my life, “We’re all the same, why do they deserve special treatment?” 

“The United States is at heightened risk of political violence and instability going into the 2020 general election. Mass shootings hit a record high last year (BBC, 29 December 2019), violent hate crimes are on the rise (Al Jazeera, 13 November 2019), and police killings continue unabated, at 2.5 times the rate1 for Black men as for white men (FiveThirtyEight, 1 June 2020; Nature, 19 June 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has killed well over 180,000 (New York Times, 3 September 2020) and disrupted the economy, while George Floyd’s death in police custody has sparked a massive wave of protest across the country.” (Roudabeh Kishi & Sam Jones, Demonstrations and Political Violence in America: New Data for Summer 2020, ACLED [Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project], 2020)

Acceptance toward enlightenment or hijacking 

Moving further along the continuum to acceptance normally involves the removal of self and one’s own culture as the center. Instead allowing the person to hold multiple truths at once. This stage is generally characterized by an understanding that other equally complex cultures and ways of being in the world exist, as well as a desire to question both one’s cultural actions and the actions of others, thus leading to constant learning and further acceptance. What this doesn’t necessarily mean is that other cultures are any better or worse than one’s own. It could also mean that we still choose our way over others. What Bennett worries may be happening now is a hijacking of this stage. 

With the rise of the rhetoric of bigotry, in the US, this could be from an attempt at a top-down ‘transformation’ where the individuals involved didn’t transform, but maybe their organization did. This can lead to digging in of the heels, where individuals double-down on their views against what they see as forced ‘political correctness’. I think this is what Bennett means about ‘hijacking’. Far-right groups in the US are taking this opportunity to capitalize on what many feel is a forced ‘political correctness’ and are using it as a recruitment tool, especially noting that racism or sexism is an ‘alternative worldview’ that should be respected. 

Adaptation and integration

The Developmental Model does not end at acceptance but continues to the right with adaptation and integration. Adaptation requires empathy and openness, and a willingness to understand, respect, and behave in multiple culturally appropriate ways, even if they don’t line up with one’s cultural view. Ultimately being able to seamlessly act ‘properly’ or ‘inoffensively’ outside of one’s own culture. Integration involves moving respectfully into or out of various cultural groups, with a view of their ‘self’ that is not central but ‘marginal’, meaning they may feel as if they truly fit nowhere or can easily fit in anywhere.  

To continue toward the right requires a great deal of self-reflection, honesty, humility, and above all empathy. The goal of effective communication, in general, is understanding. Theoretically, long gone are the days of kill or be killed because we don’t know who we are dealing with. Bennett calls this new paradigm ‘ constructivism’ where the goal is mutual empathy or, at least, on the responsibility to understand each other based on equitable ways of being together in the world. 

A final word

Bennett himself remarked recently on what he sees as the end of a paradigm shift in a published article “Why doesn’t this feel weirder” on LinkedIn, while reflecting on the Covid-19 lockdown happening around the world in March 2020. “People who are unwilling or unable to enter the new world are existentially threatened by it, and they are fighting to the death to preserve a mythologized past. All lies, manipulations, and inhumane actions (including letting millions die to attain “herd immunity” in the current crisis) are justified in the name of survival. They rage at the dying of (their) light, and the rest of the world suffers.”

When Bennett made a similar, but simpler comment in the SIETAR webinar, along with the connections he made regarding the January 6th insurrection as an example, I feel he put to words what my brain had been attempting to connect and make sense of since that event. Here, inspired by Bennett’s words, I have attempted to formulate my thoughts into my own words, making sense of what I know about intercultural communication, politics, the United States, and current events. This is mainly my interpretation of Milton Bennett’s talk, not necessarily his explicit views or exact words, except where they may have been quoted.  

To learn more about Milton Bennett and the IDR Institute, look here.

Another similar take on ‘constructivism’, by George Yancy that he calls the ‘Mutual Accountability Approach’ with specific regard to how it can be helpful to address racism in the United States.

Also, these words and interpretations are my own and not necessarily endorsed by anyone mentioned in this post. 

Over to You

How would you describe the United States, either as an insider or outsider looking in?
Did I describe it well or swing and miss here? If it’s the latter, what am I missing?

Published by livingtheamericandreamineurope

I live in Europe, I am from America.

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