Программа исследований г. Хельсинки «Метрополитан»

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Marja Katisko — Ph.D. (Soc. Sc.), Researcher, Diaconia University of Applied Sciences, 

Helsinki Metropolitan Urban Research Program (marja.katisko@diak.fi)

Марья Катиско — Ph.D. (социальные науки), исследователь, Университет прикладных 

наук Диакония, Программа исследований г. Хельсинки «Метрополитан» (marja.katisko@


Marja Katisko



Finnish educational and working life environments have become multicultural over 

the past few decades. In this article, I will discuss multicultural workplaces as 

learning environments from the perspective of interpersonal interaction, as well as 

the challenges and possibilities that increasing multiculturalism creates in the 

everyday of workplace communities. 

In this article I will consider concepts of cultural competence and intercultural 

competence. Cultural competence encompasses the idea of knowing a single culture 

well. In intercultural competence individual becomes able to detach from knowing 

a few cultural codes and shift to the kind of behavior required in intercultural 


William Howell’s and William B. Gudykunst’s ideas of cultural competence as well as 

Milton Bennett’s (1998) model of development of intercultural sensitivity suggests that 

cultural sensitivity is a gradual process of development. Theories mentioned above are 

directional when I discuss intercultural learning and intercultural competence through 

the working life experiences of three adult students of immigrant background, each 

studying a degree on social and health care in Finland. The interviewees have lived in 

Finland for more than five years, and they have accumulated extensive work experience 

in their countries of origin as well as in Finland. In terms of approach the study is a 

qualitative case study. Central research questions in this study is: How is intercultural 

competence constructed in the story told by the person of immigrant background? Is it 

possible to learn intercultural competence? 

Key words: intercultural competence, multiculturalism, multicultural working 


Марья Катиско



В Финляндии образовательная и рабочая среды за несколько последних деся-

тилетий стали мультикультурными. Я рассматриваю мультикультурные 

рабочие места с точки зрения получения новых знаний о межличностных от-

ношениях, а также препятствий и возможностей, которые возрастающий 

мультикультурализм создает в повседневной рабочей жизни. 


В данной статье я обсуждаю понятия «культурная компетентность» 

и «межкультурная компетентность». Культурная компетентность содер-

жит идею о хорошем знании одной культуры. Обладая межкультурной ком-

петентностью, индивиды могут абстрагироваться от знаний нескольких 

культурных кодов и перейти на уровень поведения, который требуется 

в межкультурном взаимодействии.

Согласно идеям о культурной компетентности таких авторов, как Уильям 

Ховелл и Уильям Гудикунст, а также модели интеркультурной сенситивно-

сти, которую разработал М. Беннет (1998), развитие межкультурной сен-

ситивности представляет собой постепенный процесс. Эти теории исполь-

зуются, когда я рассматриваю межкультурное развитие и компетентность, 

приобретаемые через опыт рабочей жизни тремя взрослыми мигрантами, 

получающими образование в области социальной работы и здравоохранения. 

Адресанты живут в Финляндии более пяти лет и обладают широким ра-

бочим опытом как в своей стране, так и в Финляндии. Исследование 

 качественное, использована методология «кейс-стади». Главный исследова-

тельский вопрос: Каким образом межкультурная компетентность кон-

струируется человеком, у которого есть опыт миграции? Возможно ли на-

учиться межкультурной компетентности?

Ключевые слова: интеркультурная компетенция, мультикультурализм, 

мультикультурное рабочее сообщество


In this article, I will discuss multicultural workplaces as learning environments from 

the perspective of interpersonal interaction, as well as the challenges and possibilities that 

increasing multiculturality creates in the everyday lives of workplace communities.

Finnish educational and working life organizations have become increasingly 

multicultural over the past few decades. Globalization has made the necessity to have 

international competence a part of every Finn’s everyday reality. On a daily basis, in public 

and private arenas alike, we encounter people who represent cultures and societies other 

than the Finnish. However, encountering differences or, for example, participating in 

situations involving international communication, do not in themselves promote 

intercultural learning. Although multiculturality and world-wide international contacts at 

best create opportunities for joint learning, as well as for well-functioning cooperation and 

coexistence, they can result in misunderstandings, problems and, at worst, different levels 

of conflict (Salo-Lee 2009: 65).

A core concept of the social sciences applied in this article is integration to the Finnish 

society. A central element of Finnish multiculturality and integration policy is supporting 

immigrants to integrate into society through work and education. The discourse often 

centres around the ideas of participation in working life or citizenship of the job market (e.g. 

Katisko 2011: 31; Linnanmäki-Koskela 2010: 15). The high significance of the job market 

is not an exclusively Finnish characteristic in terms of integration policy, but something 

apparent in many international contexts. Seppo Paananen (2005: 178–179) notes that in 

the Nordic countries the aim has been to integrate immigrants from the beginning through 

the job market, for reasons connected to ideology and views on social morality.

Multiculturality, as a concept, means something associated with several cultures or 

containing characteristics from several cultures. The concept is used in at least three ways: 

as a synonym for cultural diversity, or to denote something associated with either political 

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work connected to cultural diversity or an overall political agenda connected to managing 

cultural diversity. In this article, I will consider culture and multiculturality from the 

perspective of everyday life and as an interpersonal interactive relationship.

In the course of history, the concept of culture has taken on many forms. In the light of 

modern knowledge, cultures do not consist of a single culture but many, along with several 

cultural models. Cultures have mingled with each other as a result of global population 

movements and factors such as the development of data transfer technology. Similarly, 

nations are not localized, clear-cut or internally homogenous. Cultures do not rely on 

classification of various cultural characteristics or, for example, divisions between different 

ethnic groups, but rather consist of networks that people inhabit and generate through their 

action. (Hall 2003: 85–86.)

An individual as a member of a culture is not separate from the surrounding community 

or society. Culture shapes people, and people shape culture. We are constantly surrounded 

by our culture and cultures, and our relationship to our own and other cultures is constructed 

in this complex interaction.

The concepts of cultural competence and intercultural competence

Culture is manifested in meanings and codes that we give to things, objects and 

phenomena. We can talk about culturally determined knowledge, which means producing 

knowledge through interaction between individuals. For example, dividing people into 

categories on the basis of ethnic background, race, sex or other characteristics is based on 

socially constructed definitions of differences and criteria for categorization. Having 

culturally and historically defined knowledge means that understanding something is 

connected to where and when the people in question live, as well as what kinds of experiences 

people have in a particular society (Burr 1995). Thus, experiences like interacting with the 

welfare service system or participating in working life take on different forms, depending on 

their cultural and societal context.

Knowledge and social action are linked to each other in everyday interaction. 

Knowledge guides people to act in a certain way, but people also have numerous alternative 

ways of understanding the world. We can also talk about a kind of social knowledge 

repository which grows, develops, accumulates and is passed on through social interaction. 

The form and content of skills, know-how and competence required in working life are 

in constant flux. The demand for expertise created by internationality and globalization 

concerns, among other things, language skills, cultural competence, tolerance, ethical 

principles and adaptability. Kaarina Mönkkönen (2007) emphasizes the ability to apply 

goal-oriented and cooperative knowledge in practical work, as well as context dependent 

and dialogue based competence. 

Competence can be defined as capital that is generated through the process of 

succeeding in interaction. Competence can be strengthened through education and job 

guidance, but above all it is created in social and intrapersonal processes associated work, 

leadership and the workplace community (Wallin 2013: 60). It is important to build 

training on the basis of strengthening the kind of competence that provides the student or 

the worker with an opportunity to utilize their experience in a genuine and relevant 

learning environment, thus developing the professional capabilities that are needed in 

working life.

As a concept, cultural competence is narrower than intercultural competence. Cultural 

competence encompasses the idea of knowing a single culture to sufficiently well to be able 

to act in an optimal manner within that cultural sphere. In intercultural competence, cultural 

Katisko M. The Multicultural Workplace Community as a Learning Environment


competence expands and the individual becomes able to detach from knowing a few cultural 

codes and to shift to the kind of behaviour required in intercultural interaction. In this 

article, I will use the concept of intercultural competence. (Salo-Lee 2005: 139).

Intercultural competence involves the idea of intercultural processes. Thus, it is not only 

about changing one’s behaviour to match another culture, but an ability to adapt to different 

situations in the best possible way. This concerns interactions involving individuals from 

any culture. Intercultural competence means ability to communicate with people from 

another culture in a way that wins their trust and respect. Further, it means that the 

individual is able to adjust on a personal level to acting and working comfortably in a foreign 

cultural environment (Salo-Lee 2005: 139).

Intercultural competence and communication require knowledge of one’s own cultural 

background, general cross-cultural knowledge, and culture-specific knowledge, i.e. 

knowledge concerning a certain specific culture (Lustig et al. 2006: 64–70). Awareness of 

one’s own cultural identity may develop only as an individual moves outside the sphere of 

their own culture. Understanding one’s cultural background means awareness of values, 

patterns of thinking, beliefs, norms and rules associated with the local culture.

Cultural competence can be defined as a process in which the individual learns and 

adjusts their behaviour, independently of the particular culture involved. William Howell 

(1982) has developed a theory that can be used to analyse the individual development of 

cultural competence.

Table 1

Awareness and the development of competence (Howell 1982)

competence: no

competence: yes

awareness: yes


no competence



awareness: no

no awareness,

no competence


no awareness

William Howell’s (1982) and William. B Gudykunst’s (1991) theories involve the idea 

of cultural competence developing through a gradual process. On the first level, a lack of 

clarity due to lack of awareness is dominant, which means that the person does not become 

aware of culturally determined characteristics in their own or the other’s behaviour, and 

thus often ends up in situations where one or the other party feels misunderstood or insulted. 

The second level is awareness and incompetence (non-competence), where misinter-

pretations still happen, but the person is aware of the limitations of their understanding. 

The third level is awareness and competence, where the person is able to consciously modify 

their behaviour when dealing with someone representing a different culture. At the fourth 

stage, unconscious competence allows the person to act without consciously altering their 

actions, as the culturally appropriate way of communicating has become an integral part of 

their behaviour.

Conscious competence is learned intercultural competence which allows the individual 

to adjust their behaviour in the necessary manner, regardless of the specific culture involved. 

Unconscious competence means an ability to adjust to any situation without being aware of 

this process, by modifying one’s behaviour as the situation requires (Salo-Lee 2006). This is 

a difficult stage to attain ― some people have this kind of ability naturally. They can be 

considered to have inherent cultural sensitivity.

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Intercultural competence cannot be discussed without considering its language-related 

aspect. However, researchers put different levels of emphasis on the significance of language 

skills. Some feel that good language skill is the basis for acquiring cultural competence. Some 

feel that language skill is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for cultural competence.

Milton Bennett’s (1998) model of the development of intercultural sensitivity suggests 

that cultural sensitivity is a gradual process of development, taking place over several years.

Being ethnocentric shows at the beginning of the development process in attitudes such as 

rejection or belittling of differences. Bennett calls the next stage enlightened ethnocentricity, 

where people apply the values and norms of their own culture in assessing others. Later, in 

so-called ethnorelativistic stages ― acceptance, adaptation and integration ― the approach 

reflects awareness, respect and competence. Attitudes towards the person’s own culture and 

the foreign culture are balanced (Bennett 1998).

The significance of the concept of intercultural competence is easy to understand 

through cultural sensitivity. It is possible for a person to develop their cultural sensitivity, 

which means developing the ability to detect culturally based patterns in people’s behaviour 

and thus understand the cultural meanings behind certain models of behaviour. Cultural 

sensitivity is an excellent quality in a person who repeatedly faces interaction with people 

from other cultures (Bennett 2008).

When a person learns the behavioural patterns of a particular culture, meaning they can 

adjust their behaviour to the customs of that culture, we can talk about a culturally competent 

individual. Intercultural competence is always based on interactive situations. In an 

interactive situation there are always two or more individuals involved, who never represent 

a single culture in a pure form, and rarely represent all the characteristic features of a single 

culture simultaneously. Therefore, systematically following the behavioural models of 

a single culture rarely leads to profound cultural competence.

The research questions and research data

In this article, I will discuss interpersonal and intercultural learning with the aid of both 

theoretical concepts and empirical research data. As theoretical framework, I have used 

William Howell’s (1982) theory of interaction, Milton Bennett’s (1993) theory of learning 

cultural sensitivity, and William B Gudykunst’s (1991) theory of cultural competence. I will 

not go through theories above mentioned inclusively, rather theories are directional to ap-

proach intercultural competence and learning processes in working place environment. 

The research data analysis is grounded in the data. 

I will discuss intercultural learning and intercultural competence through the working 

life experiences of three adult students of immigrant background, each studying a basic 

degree in social and health care and working on permanent contract in Finland. For the 

interview material, I use the term working life story. The data is part of the material I used 

in the research for my doctoral thesis. 

The interviewees have lived in Finland for more than five years, and they have accumu-

lated extensive work experience in their countries of origin as well as in Finland. In terms of 

approach, the study is a qualitative case study. The focus of the interviews has been on the 

interviewees’ working life experiences both in their country of origin and in Finland. The data 

concerns learning in the context of work only, not learning at the educational institution.

Central research questions:

•  How is intercultural competence constructed in the story told by the person of 

immigrant background?

•  How is it possible to learn intercultural competence? 

Katisko M. The Multicultural Workplace Community as a Learning Environment


Stories of working life

Aisha: Realization that supports awareness of the significance of team work

Aisha’s country of origin is in Africa. At the time of the interview, she has lived in 

Finland for about five years. She has completed elementary school in her country of origin 

and worked in various roles in tourism and catering. In Finland, she has worked in assistive 

positions at a library and in social and health care. I have interviewed Aisha twice.

In Aisha’s stories of working life, the parts that emerged as the most prominent were the 

ones where she described the power structures of the workplace communities, about 

working in a hospital in Finland, and about the different styles of interaction within 

workplace communities in Finland and her country of origin. She does not stop at 

recounting her employment history, but rather gives an assessment of the work experience 

she has acquired in Finland, along with the events and phenomena associated with it, from 

her own cultural perspective. 

The storytelling includes comparisons between Finland and Aisha’s country of origin. 

She had worked at a day care centre around Christmas, and she describes traditions 

associated with Finnish Christmas celebration that were new and interesting to her. She 

talks about working with children and how children in Finland learn things through play. 

She also refers to differences between the societies of her country of origin and Finland in 

terms of social security systems and school systems. Below, I present two excerpts from 

Aisha’s stories of working life, illustrating gradual development of intercultural competence 

and awareness. The topic of the discussion was power relationships and interaction in 

workplace communities in the country of origin and in Finland.

Marja: Is there anything else that comes to mind about your work at the day care centre (in 

Finland), about the children, the workers, the children’s parents, what it was like to work there 

(at the day care centre)?

Aisha: For example, some colleague, if she had an appointment with a doctor, another 

(colleague) would let her go there (to the clinic). They (colleagues) discussed it together and then 

one was able to go... 

Marja: What did people do in that kind of situation in your country, then?

Aisha: Things were different there. The boss decides, workers don’t speak freely, because 

the worker is afraid that they will be treated badly if they disagree about anything. There are no 

clear discussions between boss and worker, for example if you disagree with the boss, you don’t 

discuss that with your supervisor. The boss just wants to fire you, or will punish you directly or 

indirectly. The boss has that option in our country, no one tells them…

… In Finland I have courage to do more. They (Finnish colleagues) take it seriously if 

I say something. There (in the country of origin), even if you know something better than 

someone else, you know that you can’t say it, because you have no power or position. You 

have to be quiet, you keep it to yourself. I didn’t dare say things in Finland right away, 

I thought and checked several times. I thought that they (Finnish workers) know how to do 

things better, but then I found the courage to start saying what I thought, and one of my 

Finnish colleagues said: hey you really are right. Your own country probably does have an 

effect, although I know I’m right, I’m still not bold, I have to think a lot, do I dare to say it, 

am I right or wrong, do I dare to say… 

In the last section of the data excerpt Aisha recounts how she noticed a concrete 

example of mismanagement that hampered everyone’s daily work routines. However, she 

did not have the courage to bring the matter up for discussion, because she felt the other 

workers knew better. Aisha describes how she checked several times that the problem was 

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real before she brought it up at a team meeting. She was aware that her fears and suspicions 

were based on habits and sets of values related to the hierarchical structure of a workplace 

community, learned in her country of origin. They appeared to be part of a script that 

determined Aisha’s way of being a member in a workplace community.

A crucial factor in the growth of awareness was a Finnish colleague whose encouragement 

and friendly words became pivotal for Aisha. She appraises her earlier working life 

experiences in her country of origin by stating that in Finland she has courage to do more 

because Finnish colleagues take her seriously and listen to what she has to say. In Aisha’s 

story, it is possible to see a clear connection between competence and interaction. As Howell 

(1982: 56) and William Gudykunst’s (1991) demonstrate there is a gradual process in 

learning the cultural competence. For Aisha learning process started from the very small 

occurrence at work. She started to be aware of her culturally determined characteristics in 

her own and other’s behaviour. 

In order to happen at the individual level, the development of competence requires, 

above all, social processes within the workplace community as well as personal, internal 

processes.  Thus, students should be allowed to experience learning situations in real-life 

learning environments. This means that attention should be given to careful planning 

and organizing of on-the-job learning periods in cooperation with representatives of 

working life.

Zahra: Awareness of personal ethical and moral values becomes the basis for practice 

Zahra has studied in her country of origin, which is situated in the Middle East, at the 

natural science faculty of a university. She was forced to interrupt her studies because of the 

political and religious issues in her country. In her own words, she “tried many occupations” 

before leaving her home country. She worked as a dressmaker and studied information 

technology. The longest period of work experience in her country of origin was work at 

a day care centre. At the time of the interview, Zahra has lived in Finland for about nine 

years, and she has worked as a temporary worker at day care centres, as care assistant in 

hospitals and in sheltered housing for the elderly, and as a home service worker. I have 

interviewed Zahra on three occasions.

From the start, Zahra’s story is dominated by an analysis of values, as well as interactions 

and encounters between people. She does not limit her story to descriptions of working life 

experiences, but wants to share her experiences of other areas of life in Finland, as well. She 

recounts an interaction with a Finnish neighbour. When the neighbour had come down 

with a cold, Zahra went to ask if they needed help. The situation was an encounter between 

neighbours whose cultural scripts, or ways of acting, were different. The neighbour refused 

help, explaining they would be fine on their own. Despite the neighbour’s resistance, Zahra 

decided to provide some soup and bread. The neighbour was pleased with the help and 

attention, but had noted that they were not used to receiving that kind of help from 

a neighbour. Zahra comments in her story that the neighbour did not know that this was 

a perfectly normal reaction on her part. In her country, a neighbour is in the same position 

with a family member or relative.

Helping the neighbour is something I interpret as a kind of perspective Zahra has on the 

world, the value basis through which she interprets the surrounding world and interactions 

between people. The sections of her working life stories contain knowledge that is part of 

cultural competence. This knowledge she uses to structure events and the people and 

interactive relationships involved in them. In the background of Zahra’s story, it is possible 

to see an “ideal” of being a mother and a neighbour, and on the other hand a care 

Katisko M. The Multicultural Workplace Community as a Learning Environment


professional, based on a certain set of values and view of humanity. She describes her work 

at the hospital on the same basis as the incident with the neighbour. Zahra talks in a beautiful, 

almost poetic manner about care work where interaction can happen through channels of 

interaction other than speech: gaze, showing appreciation, touch, listening. Zahra’s 

account lends support to Bennett’s (1993) view on language skill being necessary but not 

sufficient in the theory of learning cultural sensitivity.

Nevertheless, Zahra’s story does illustrate that the significance of language skill in 

a Finnish hospital organization is often in a more central role. In the following excerpt, the 

topic of the conversation was the significance of language skill and emotions in health care 


Zahra: I understood them (Finnish colleagues) well, but they did not always understand 

me. I have a soft voice, often they (Finnish colleagues) reminded me that I have to talk louder 

to the patients, that otherwise they (the clients) won’t hear me. I have to practise, although the 

patients did actually hear me... 

Zahra is making an attempt to resist the idea that elderly clients should be addressed in 

a loud voice. She defends against criticism aimed at her language skills by bringing up her 

habit of speaking “softly”. She understood what the Finnish nurses said, but the 

understanding was not mutual. It is interesting that the Finnish nurses did not criticize 

Zahra’s language skill, but only expressed the wish that she should talk more loudly to the 

clients. However, this conflicted with Zahra’s view that other kinds of interaction besides 

speech, for example listening, are important in client work. Zahra’s experience lends 

support to the notion that the crucial thing in intercultural communication is not what you 

say, but the way the things you say are heard. 

There are many parts in Zahra’s story of working life where she talks about the closeness 

of contact with people and about emotions in the caring professions. She does not actually 

compare or criticize the care work carried out in Finnish hospitals, but the following excerpt 

expresses her cultural competence and awareness. Zahra talks about a patient’s death. 

Zahra: in our culture we show more feelings, that is self-evident to me. When that woman 

(patient) died, I actually cried, she (patient) was all alone, there was no one, no one close to her, 

perhaps she wouldn’t have wanted to be alone, perhaps she would have liked to be at home, 

hearing the voices of her family members. But she was there at the hospital, and no one knows 

what she felt…

As intercultural competition and intercultural communication require knowledge of 

one’s own cultural background, for Zahra this process meant very strong awareness of her 

own values, patters of thinking, beliefs, norms and roles associated with the Finnish culture. 

Zahras’ story also reflect the process of immigration: when person comes to the new 

country, she/ he don’t just bring the work force, but also her/his background, values and the 

personal history. 

Rami: Trust cannot be won

At the time of the interview, Rami has lived in Finland for 15 years. He moved to 

Finland from his country of origin, which is in Asia, when he was quite young. He has 

completed elementary school in his country of origin and worked as a substitute teacher at 

a private school. For the entire time that he has lived in Finland he has worked in various 

tasks: cleaner, waiter, and had numerous short-term and temporary periods of employment 

in social and health care. I have interviewed Rami on two occasions.

Rami’s story of working life contains many personal experiences of distrust between 

workers of immigrant background and the so-called native population. For example, when 

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working as a cleaner at a store, he describes how cleaners of immigrant background were 

subjected to checks by the store guards at the end of each shift. According to Rami, Finnish 

cleaners were not checked for possible shoplifting. In his account, it is possible to detect the 

existence of a certain kind of “immigrant category” in the workplace community, also 

when he worked at a hospital ward. Becoming the target for marginalization through this 

categorization shows as a feeling of having the employee’s work monitored and their basic 

vocational skills doubted (see also Nieminen 2010: 155). The following is a brief excerpt of 

Rami’s story of working life, from a section where the topic of the discussion was winning 

trust in a Finnish workplace community.

Rami: But it’s a really long process before you gain any trust. They (Finns) aren’t able to 

trust you because you’re foreign, that shows. Same in a patient-carer relationship, it takes a long 

time to build that relationship. It depends on the person, of course. But certain people have an 

attitude towards foreigners, that’s difficult to change, no matter how hard you try. For example, 

if a foreign guy comes to the ward, the Finns will rather work alone that as a pair with the 


Marja: Do foreign workers complain about this treatment to anyone...

Rami: The foreigners won’t talk, probably talk to each other, at some point someone 

might give feedback to recruitment and to the ward, but where does that feedback disappear 

then, I don’t know. Sometimes we talk at some ward meeting but then it’s over and done with. 

And if, for example, some property has gone missing from a patient, you (the foreigner) are 

always the prime suspect in it, no matter how nice and reliable you are. And, for example, 

when medication is dispensed, Finnish nurses always check that you got it right. And still 

you’re the one who’s responsible for it and you try to do your job right. And then when family 

members come to visit the ward, and I could talk to them too, but there’s always some Finn 

between me and them…

Rami constructs his experiences of employment in such a way that the story paints 

a picture of incomplete participation by the employee of immigrant background in the daily 

life of the workplace community. The incomplete participation is a result of the actions and 

interactions of the employees of Finnish background. Rami also talks a lot about how 

interaction between workplace community members was closer in his country of origin, 

and how colleagues could even become personal friends outside the workplace. 

Despite his long history of work experience (about 15 years) in Finland, his excellent 

Finnish skills and his Finnish citizenship, Rami expresses that he has not been able to attain 

the kind of interactive relationship he has hoped for in Finnish workplace communities. He 

often interprets and observes things and events in a Finnish workplace community from the 

perspective of his own culture. But he didn’t do the decision to ‘read’ social functions from 

the Asia-perspective himself, he was forced to do it by the social interaction in the work 

community. Competence can be defined as a capital that is generated through the process 

of succeeding in interaction. Interaction and joint learning should be based in dialogue. 

Thus it appears that mastering the language is not a sufficient part of the so-called 

cultural literacy. Salo-Lee (2009: 66) writes about cultural capital, which is needed to attain 

cultural literacy. With the help of this literacy, a person of immigrant background learns to 

understand the local way of thinking ― the mental landscape ― and is able to act both 

sensitively and effectively in their new environment.

However, Liisa Salo-Lee (2009: 66) emphasizes that cultural literacy is necessary for 

the people representing the host country as well, as intercultural adjustment is a mutual 

process. Cultural literacy, awareness and understanding of the meanings used by oneself 

and others, develops through interaction. 

Katisko M. The Multicultural Workplace Community as a Learning Environment



In this article, I have discussed a multicultural workplace community as a learning 

environment. When a workplace community becomes increasingly multicultural, what 

kind of journey does this open for the members of that community? The aim of this article 

has been to illustrate the diversity of multicultural everyday life through small 

autobiographical stories. Internationality is present in people’s interactive relationships, 

reciprocity and trust. Each one of us can observe culturally determined patterns in our own 

and others’ behaviour.

The development and learning of intercultural competence is generated through a 

process of succeeding in interaction. Intercultural competence does not arise through 

personal, intra-personal processes only, but closely involves a social community such as 

educational institution or workplace community. 

Developing intercultural competence cannot be accomplished by seeking out inter-

national communication situations only or, for example, by participating in international 

student or teacher exchange programmes. Globalization is already present at the local level 

in Finnish educational institutions and workplace communities. When the ethnic 

backgrounds of students, teachers and workplace community members, representing both 

so-called native and immigrant backgrounds, are considered as opportunities and action 

strategies, the angle of observation shifts to a wider context. Different cultural customs, 

conceptions and knowledge concerning work, interactive relationships, working methods 

and roles in the workplace should be brought into shared discourse in educational institutions 

and workplace communities.

In workplace communities representing the social- and health sectors, the daily inter-

actions between workers, as well as between workers and clients, is close and intensive. When 

the workplace community members and clients represent cultures and languages from 

different backgrounds, it is crucially important to be able to communicate with people from 

other cultures in a way that wins their trust and respect. Also, it is important that the individual 

is able to feel comfortable about being and working in a different cultural environment. 

In all the stories of working life presented in this article, interaction between workplace 

community members is crucially important. From the perspective of developing intercultural 

competence, understanding one’s own cultural background is in a central role. Of the 

interviewees, Zahra has clearly consciously acquired and recognised the norms and values 

concerning interaction with elderly clients associated with her own culture. Her working 

life story conveys the impression that acting according to her own values is not always easy 

in a workplace community. However, Zahra does not abandon her own cultural knowledge. 

It is important to bring Zahra’s cultural knowledge of high ethical standards in handling 

social and health care clients to the entire workplace community as something everyone 

can utilize, and as something that will benefit the clients. This would be an example of true 

utilization of intercultural competence.

One of the basic needs involved in human life is being recognized in a community and 

having one’s existence and actions accepted. Being a full member in a workplace community 

involves being heard and respected. This is a matter of reciprocity and interaction. It is 

important that employees representing both immigrant backgrounds and the so-called 

native population recognise their own cultural models and scripts concerning ways to act in 

working life. Workplace communities consist of social interaction, and part of their everyday 

practices should be the exchange, sharing and utilization of cultural knowledge. The right 

to also disagree and to question the prevailing cultural models in working life is the starting 

point for equality in working life and education.

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The individuals of immigrant background I interviewed have brought a piece of the 

globalized world to their new home country as they moved to Finland. Legislation regulates 

and various information packages guide the person arriving in the country regarding the 

service system and applying for jobs and training. However, the main part of concrete, 

everyday integration takes place at perfectly ordinary Finnish workplaces, educational 

institutions, day care centres and schools. In the course of everyday interactions and 

encounters, the basis for integration takes shape, as well as the sense of belonging and 

participation in the new country.


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