Experiencing Cultural Immersion through BaFa’ BaFa’

Last week, as part of our global internship preparation course, our class participated in a cross cultural simulation called BaFa’ BaFa’. This simulation is often used in workplaces to give participants a better understanding of how culture affects everyone’s life.

During BaFa' BaFa' two cultures are created through group briefings: the Alphas (the group that I was assigned to) and the Betas. The Alphas are "relationship oriented, high context, strong in-group out-group culture" whereas the Betas are highly competitive and a culture revolving around trading. After each group is briefed on their respective culture, they practice living in it and exchange observers from opposite teams. This observation process happens several times, and during so, it is common for groups to develop stereotypes and misunderstandings that are resolved during a debriefing.

BaFa’ BaFa’ was a great way to simulate experiencing diving into a culture completely different from your own and trying to make sense of it. It was fun, exciting, and awkward all at the same time. At times, when I was visiting the Beta culture, I felt isolated and very confused. I often wanted to just revert to my Alpha ways and couldn’t quite adjust to how the Beta group communicated and interacted with each other. Granted, there was a language barrier between the two groups, full of “gaga and rafafas.” I quickly had the chance to get a taste of what most international students deal with when coming to the U.S. or any other country. I definitely think this three hour simulation resembles a small fraction of what I expect to encounter when I am in a foreign country for eight weeks.

BaFa’ BaFa’ Surprised Me

Like most, it surprised me how quickly I felt pride and allegiance towards the Alpha culture. I didn’t think that 20 minutes of instructions and practice environments could make me feel like I was really a part of something, and that anything different from what I had just learned would feel so wrong. It took the time reflecting after the simulation to realize how biased I easily became after being inducted into the Alpha culture—especially when I encountered members of the Beta culture. I immediately labeled the Betas as greedy, cold, and unsocial without thinking about the reasons why their culture shapes those behaviors.

I also surprised myself at how willing I was to make myself look like an idiot trying to speak the Beta language. There were times when I was observing the group and would just start blurting out “gaga gaga baffa?” not knowing the implications that might occur by doing so. It was pretty cool being that uninhibited.

3 Key Takeaways

1. When trying to learn about a new culture, it is important to ask locals questions that get to the specifics in order to avoid misunderstanding and generalizations. 

Getting down to exact observations and expressing that you are honestly curious can result in better understanding of the way a society does something rather than just asking, “why?” with what may seem like a condescending tone. I never realized that I may be offending someone by asking them why people in their culture behave a certain way.

2. Don’t jump to conclusions about why someone brought up in a different culture than your own does something a certain way.

I thought I was pretty good at being understanding and non-judgmental towards others, but I found out I have some room to improve. Instead of trying to get to the root of the behavior or belief, I just automatically labeled the Betas as a group that I did not want to be a part of. After the debriefing, the non-social ways of the Betas started to make more sense and I wish I would have considered that beforehand.

3. Try to consider other perspectives about your culture at the surface level.

This was something I really started reflecting upon before I even participated in BaFa’ BaFa’, but the simulation really pinpointed that revelation for me. During the debriefing, I listened to what Betas thought of the Alphas (my newly found safe space and home) and I was taken back. It was easy for them to call us creepy and annoying after just a few minutes of interaction because they had no way of knowing the reasoning behind our behaviors and we didn’t give them any background. This started to make me think about the way other countries view Americans. Because of this simulation I feel a little less offended when people from other countries label Americans as superficial or loud—they just are expressing what they see at the surface level.

Culture Impacts Personal Life, School, and Work

I’ve hit on this topic before, but after I have done research on European culture and had a couple of key experiences in countries with a different outlook on work ethic, I am starting to realize how my American ways may impact my work life when I move overseas. I know that things are different for each individual, but in general we’ve all been taught in the U.S. that if you work really, really hard you can achieve anything. It’s the American Dream and the sky is the limit. Because of that, and because of my overly ambitious nature, I tend to be a work horse and I often don’t take the time to enjoy my surroundings and I don’t have a great work-life (more like work-life-school) balance. I also tend to be a tad impatient with results and decisions, because of my tendency to overwork myself and my need to meet strict deadlines. The few times I have had interaction with people from Europe, I’ve been told to essentially "take a chill pill" and enjoy the moment while I have it. My friends and family from the U.S. do tell me this as well, but I found it surprisingly more common when I traveled overseas. It is interesting to examine how a larger, overall culture can trickle its way into affecting workplace culture.

I also really started noticing how different the American culture is when I studied in London over winter break. When you are in a foreign country surrounded by a bunch of American college students, you start to realize how much of a sore thumb you really are. I almost felt a little embarrassed to be associated with the group at times, because a majority of the people I were with were just so loud and boastful. I may have been a bit paranoid, but it felt like we were constantly stared at and judged for being from the U.S. That experience really made me appreciate what immigrants into the U.S. must experience on a daily basis and gave me a new outlook and understanding when interacting with international students on campus.

Applying This to My Internship

I learned a lot of things from this simulation that I can take with me to my internship. For example, I plan to do more research on the business culture in Ireland as I’m sure there are many differences from U.S. norms. I would like to get to the root of the reasoning why Irish culture in general differs from what I am used to, and I think this is crucial if I am planning on moving to Ireland after I graduate. I plan on using techniques about asking specifics that we discussed during BaFa’ BaFa’ in order to get better results.

As a result of this simulation, I also am hoping I can take a step back while I am interning in Ireland, and examine how my behaviors specific to the American culture may affect my interactions with colleagues and clients. If I am able to do these two things, I know I’ll have a pretty great experience that will help me land a job in Ireland post-graduation.  

Enough for this week. 

Beannacht libh go bhfeicfidh mé arís thú!
(Until we meet again!)