Human Arenas

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Culture and International Volunteerism: an Analytic Study of Intercultural Interactions between UK and Ghanaian Volunteers on the International Citizen Service (ICS) Program

  • Hadi IbrahimEmail author
  • Muhammed Abdulai
  • Alhassan Abubakari
Arena of Changing


The article explores the intersection of UK and Ghanaian volunteers’ intercultural interactions in multicultural teamwork under international volunteerism context. Situating the study within the cultural dynamic framework and adopting a case study qualitative research design, the study revealed that culture is created by the actors based on the interactions and context. Furthermore, elements of cultural diversity such as diversity of thought and cross-cultural sensitivities were revealed to be enablers of effective cross-cultural communication and not as barriers or impediments to effective interactions. Misconceived sexual orientations and lack of cultural neutrality in decision-making process also characterised their cultural constructions. In view of this, the study recommends that open-mindedness and willingness to modify ethnocentric dispositions as well as exhibition of cultural sensitivities and moderation of opinions in international assignments will greatly enhance intercultural interactions among multicultural teams and foster successful work outcomes in international volunteering service.


Volunteerism Multicultural teamwork Intercultural interactions International Citizen Service Cross-cultural communication 


A part of the reality of the global interconnectedness and interdependence of our world is the indispensable services of international volunteers who usually find themselves, especially in developing countries, embarking on projects aim at ameliorating the plight of local communities. The recent times have witnessed a rapid increase in the volunteerism industry with evidence of meaningful contributions and impacts to local economies. It serves as fresh means by which many people use to expand their horizons whilst adding stimulating ‘global’ touch to their outlook and personal identities in their quest to shape and define their places in the diversified world (American Field Service 2017). There is exponential growth in the volunteering industry in each year both in terms of value and persons involved (Randle and Dolnicar 2009). For instance, it is reported that over 84 million persons contribute more than US$ 239 million in the USA (Independent Sector 2001) with close to one million persons volunteering abroad via organisations annually (Lough 2015). Likewise, 23 million UK residents volunteer by injecting more than 44 billion into the economy (European Volunteering Centre 2006) and about 6.3 million persons contribute tens of millions of dollars to the economy in Australia through volunteering (Volunteering Australia 2006). Within the past half of the century, volunteerism has blossomed into a multibillion dollar industry (Lough and Tiessen 2018; Adelman et al. 2016).

One perceived goal of volunteerism among gamut of others is that it engenders an increasing cross-cultural encounters and scenarios between volunteers and host communities where they interact with cultures as a mediating factor. It is observed that these social interactions can be intense and involve engagements predicated on genuine and mutual beneficial narratives for the volunteers and the host societies (McIntosh and Zahra 2007). In these interactions are myriad of communication forms which according to Adler and Aycan (2018, p. 1) ‘now connect us instantly, constantly, and worldwide, and yet we all too frequently fail to understand each other’. Often, there is a failure to appreciate and leverage on the unique strengths of the inherent diversity of the global interconnected reality (Adler and Aycan 2018). Intercultural communication research is a growing field in communication studies, international management studies, migration studies and culture and media studies. However, the effects of culture on interactions in teamwork among volunteers have not been given a considerable attention in Ghana. Therefore, this study seeks to explore the influence of culture on interactions on multicultural teamwork, focusing on the communication relationship between Ghanaian and U.K volunteers in the International Citizen Service Program in the Tamale Metropolis.

It must be reemphasised that culture and communication are inextricably related. Communication involves sharing and what is shared in the communication processes is meaning (Gallois et al. 2011) and free and consistent communication serves a significant ingredient to creative problem solving (Abdulai et al. 2017). In this context, our cultural variables are learned and shared through communication. Difficulties may arise when we try to share meaning with people whose communication behaviours are governed by different cultural rules that are different from our own. This is because no human behaviour is deemed random or haphazard except it being structured by culture which often fails the test of compatibility with different cultures. In the instance of the U.K volunteers, their communication behaviours are governed by cultural rules that are different from the cultural rules that govern the communication behaviour of the Ghanaian volunteers. The question then is how does culture influence communication in multicultural teamwork among U.K and Ghanaian volunteers in the International Citizen Service Program?

To answer this question, firstly, after an introduction and background of the study, theoretical literature was reviewed to shed light on concepts such as international volunteerism, culture in multicultural teams and multicultural teams and intercultural interactions. Secondly, research design, including selection of study participants, data collection procedures and data analysis and interpretation, were also characterised in the study context. Finally, we discussed the findings, conclusion, limitations of the study and reflection for future research. The result of this study will facilitate intercultural understanding and improve intercultural interactions among multicultural teams that will enhance the productiveness of international volunteer organisations. Also, it will contribute to enrich the literature on cross-cultural interaction especially on volunteerism with an African perspective.

Background to the Case of Study

International Citizen Service (ICS) Program is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and run by a consortium of UK charities working in developing countries. Griffiths (2017) stated that the UK Government through the ICS has volunteers sent abroad to ‘fight poverty’ as ‘global citizens’. In Ghana, International Service, a non-profit organisation based in York, UK, works in partnership with local development organisations in Northern and Upper East regions of Ghana on the ICS program. The program aims at empowering women, children and people with disability to access their rights across the developing world. The program also gives young people the opportunity to make a difference in the world’s communities, whilst gaining transferable skills and invaluable experience by working alongside with volunteers from varying cultural backgrounds. By this, volunteers from the United Kingdom (UK) are brought together with Ghanaian volunteers to share their knowledge and experience, in order to empower the target groups (

Literature Review

International Volunteer Service

Even though the world is sluggish in repudiating the status quo of the pronounced divisions of the past centuries predicated on wealth, culture, religion, ideology, class, gender and race as enumerated by Adler and Aycan (2018), there is an overwhelming reality of harnessing the inherent benefits in diversity occasioned by the global interconnected reality. Part of the global interconnected reality is international volunteerism which is noted to be burgeoning progressively. This study has found the definition of civic or volunteer service as ‘an organized period of substantial engagement and contribution to the local, national, or world community, recognized and valued by society, with minimal monetary compensation to the participant’ (Sherraden 2001, p. 5) as very insightful for its discourse. This type of engagement can have an identified sponsor either in the publicly or privately owned organisations (Lough and Tiessen 2018). Volunteers often are young, educated and affluent whites (Jones 2004) but they are rare old volunteers who come with greater expertise and experience. It is noted that the old volunteers are less flexible and open to reciprocal relationship with the local community as compared with young and untrained volunteers (Waldorf 2001). In the work of volunteers, knowledge and skills are very significant and a necessary prerequisite to effective and efficient volunteerism. Much more, cross-cultural competence contributes immensely to effective communication and interactions with the host communities.

Myriad of reasons motivate people to engage in volunteering work which ultimately have an impact on the volunteer activities and outcomes. People’s source of motivation to volunteer varies sharply according to their race, ethnicity and stage in their life cycle (Sherraden et al. 2008). Erikson’s (1968) theory of psychological development postulated that older persons turn to be motivated to volunteer by wanting to stay active during retired periods of their lives or want of ‘give back’ to society. Conversely, the youth feel motivated to volunteer internationally in order to acquire broader perspective as well as contribute to society by helping others in need. They turn to be adventurous by putting their holidays from school and work to meet people from all walks of life and gain new skills to improve their resumes (Sherraden et al. 2008).

Multicultural Teams and Intercultural Interactions

Multicultural teams are widely considered as ‘teams consisting of individuals from different cultures working together on activities that span national borders’ (Adler and Aycan 2018 citing Snell et al. 1998, p. 147). To Darawong and Ibel (Darawong and Igel 2012), interactions under multicultural context take place where there are nuances in national cultural backgrounds and these differences can overlap and even intertwine. It is suffice to fathom that multicultural teams undeniably constitute an important pillar to organisational functioning. Unfortunately, our understanding of it is still limited and not up to the level that can dependably improve upon their performance. Some recent conceptualisation of multicultural teams’ performance has not exploited on the manner by which diversity can well be managed but still confined to the extent and impact of diversity (Adler and Aycan 2018). Said differently, the challenges emanating from diversity used to eclipse the potential synergies and accruing benefits that diversity entails. The extent of variation of multicultural teams is depended on the number of cultures involved as well as how overwhelming and or peripheral the nuances in cultures are themselves undisguised. Also, the mediating role of other cultural dimensions such as gender, age and profession effectively interacts with culture and the team’s fundamental objective of convergence. Relying on the magnitude of teams’ diversity, teams can be regarded token when it has one member from another culture, bicultural when membership consist of two cultures and multicultural where membership consists of more than two cultures (Adler and Gundersen 2008). It is also elucidated that the manifestation of cultural nuances at team level can be visible such as skin colour or less visible as in values, beliefs, etc. (Ely and Thomas 2001). In essence, when the cultural baggage of members is immersed at the diversity level in a team, it gives rise to wide range of dynamics as well as outcomes (Adler and Aycan 2018).

Similarly, intercultural interactions have a rich and growing literature; some of which hitherto concentrates so much on both the negative aspect of cultural diversity within teams which is termed the ‘dark side’ and the positives termed the ‘bright side’ (Rozkwitalska et al. 2017; Stahl and Tung 2014). When intercultural interactions or contacts result in outcomes that are laced with irreconcilables and turn to breed disagreements, process disruption, impediments to social integration, miscommunications and ineffective decision-making and discontent, it is regarded as low-quality contacts. People then perceive such scenarios negatively and then interpret the differences in the behaviour of others as inappropriate (Rozkwitalska et al. 2017).

Counter to this ‘dark side’ postulations runs the stream of research that views intercultural interaction discrepancies with a positive lens and disregards over-emphasises of the problems that emanate from intercultural interactions. Hence, the ‘bright side’ of intercultural interaction seeks to ensure that there is a wealth of positive gains in intercultural interactions that organisations must harness. According to scholars such as Stahl et al. (2010) and White et al. (2011), some of the positive gains as catalogued by Rozkwitalska et al. (2017) embrace creativity and innovation, broader perspective, less group-thinking, learning, knowledge sharing, better adaptability, process gains, less prejudice towards foreigners, more effective communication, satisfaction, social bonds and personal growth. Even though extant literature on intercultural interaction, especially perspectives that border on cultural diversity in teams, has prevailed (Stahl and Tung 2014), there is growing focus on the ‘bright side’ perspective ushering us into what Rozkwitalska et al. (2017) has termed the ‘double-edged sword’ approach.

The Dynamism of Cultures

This study is situated within the cultural dynamic framework. The cultural dynamic framework posits that culture is dynamic, complex and contextual (Hong et al. 2000; Markus and Conner 2013; Adler and Aycan 2018). This implies that culture is not static, homogenous or deterministic, but subject to change over time (Liu et al. 2011). This theoretical foundation is contrary to the essentialists’ view of culture where culture is understood to be static, homogenous and deterministic (Nathan 2015; Søderberg and Holden 2002). The theory further assumes that culture exists in the interaction between actors, and not within actors (Långstedt 2018, p.7). This means that the interaction between individual and groups could influence the creation, re-creation of cultures and meaning making. For instance, the interaction between UK and Ghanaian volunteer could provoke creation, re-creation of cultures and meaning making.

Another dynamic model of culture which has been adopted in this study is the cultural mosaic theory. The cultural mosaic framework captures cultural heterogeneity at the individual level (Chao and Moon 2005). The cultural mosaic paradigm is a metaphor referring to the different characteristics needed to describe an individual (Adler and Aycan 2018). The theory further posits that the individual’s cultural characteristics are derived from the inter-sectionality of the cultural tiles (Adler and Aycan 2018). For instance, the individual cultural tiles can be gender, ethnicity, age, region/country, family, religion or profession among others. The cultural mosaic theory is relevant for this study because it would be used to analyse how the multiple individual cultural characteristics of the UK and Ghanaian volunteers are employed to influence communication and meaning making during interactions at the ICS programs. Depending on the situation or context, a UK or Ghanaian volunteer can activate or deactivate his or her cultural tiles to deal with the demand of the context or situation.

Research Design: Selection of Study Participants

This paper adopts a qualitative case study research design. The case study is a research design in which the investigator explores a bounded system (a case) or multiple bounded systems (cases) over time through detailed data collection, involving multiple sources of information, and reports a case description and case-based themes (Creswell 2009, p.73). The case study research design is appropriate for describing, explaining or predicting process associated with varieties of phenomena at the individual, group and organisational level (Yin 2003). In this regard, the group or team level case study has been used. This is because the paper seeks to examine the effect of cultures on communication in multicultural teamwork on the International Citizen Service (ICS) in Ghana.

Participants of the study were purposively selected. According to Yin (2003), purposive sampling is the deliberate choice of an informant due to the qualities the informant possesses. In view of this, those who were selected for the study were based on their experience in ICS program. In terms of inclusion and exclusion criteria, we included volunteers who were willing to provide information by virtue of their knowledge or experience on the topic. Again, we excluded volunteers who were not experienced enough in the ICS program. Besides, in order to achieve confidentiality and respect for participants in the study, the purpose of the study was explained to the entire participants.

Face-to-face interviews were used as the main source of data collection. The interview method enables the gathering of narrative on the reflections of the influence cultures have on the communication interactions between the UK volunteers, Ghanaian volunteers and the end users of ICS services in Ghana (Creswell 2009). In all, fourteen (14) in-depth interviews were carried. This was made up of six (6) UK volunteers, five (5) Ghanaian volunteers and three (3) end users of ICS services. A tabular representation of the research participants is presented in Table 1.
Table 1

Tabular representation of the research participants

Code for study participants


Country code

Background of study participants




Political science
















Business and economics








Media and communication












Purchasing and supply




Building technology













The in-depth interviews were used to ensure that all questions were covered. Again, we adopted the in-depth interview approach because the questions were not asked in a fixed order, and we could probe deeper when appropriate. The interviews were conducted in three phases. The first phase of the interviews was conducted with the six (6) UK volunteers. The UK volunteers who were interviewed were given copies of the interview guide to go through the questions before the start of the interviews. The researchers were not forced to follow the interview-guide strictly; they could sway from one topic to another, but always returned to follow the trajectory. Every interview session took around 1 h to 1 h 30 min. The interviews were conducted in August 2017. The second phase of the interview was conducted with the five (5) Ghanaian volunteers and three (3) end users of ICS services. The procedure and method used in the first phase of the interview were adopted in the second phase. In effect, every interview session of the second phase took around 1 h to 1 h 10 min. For example, some of the questions posed to the study participants are outlined as follows: Describe to me how you experience communication with the UKVs/ICVs, tell me about how you manage communication challenges during the ICS program? How has your values influenced communication in teamwork? How do you feel working with ICVs/UKVs? All the conversations were recorded with an audio-recording device and transcribed.

Data analysis was conducted using the open coding system to code the interviews and identify the common strand of themes. Again, the axial coding was also used to establish relationship between themes (Saldaña 2013; Strauss 1990). In terms of moving from codes to main themes, the classical content analysis technique was used. The classical content analysis is similar to constant comparison analysis (Abdulai et al. 2017). In this regard, the number of times each descriptive code occurred was ranked and the most important concepts were identified as the main themes.

In connection with data interpretation, the study has adopted the hermeneutic approach (Saldaña 2013; Sandelowski 1995). In this regard, the researchers read through the entire data line by line and discovered the deeper meanings explicitly found in the research participants’ responses. In order to ensure the trustworthiness of the findings for purposes of validity, the member cross-checking approach was applied where the transcribed data was presented back to some of the respondents to assess the extent to which the data represents their perspectives as recorded.

Findings and Discussion

This part of the research dwells on the findings on the intercultural interactions between UK and Ghanaian volunteers working on the International Citizen Service (ICS) program which is discussed under two main themes: enablers of effective communication in multicultural teams in the context of international volunteerism and cultural constructions in multicultural teams in the context of international volunteerism.

Enablers of Effective Cross-Cultural Communication in Multicultural Teams in the Context of International Volunteerism

Communication amounts to cultural expressions and representations in an inextricably way that what is communicated constitutes significant ingredients of cultural sharing. It is evident from the empirical data that certain conditions are necessary in ensuring effective cross-cultural communication in multicultural teams under the context of international volunteering. One of such issues palpable in the submissions of the respondents was diversity of thought among participating members and the mode it takes to communicate (language). The implication of this submission is that the people who are representing different cultures and coming together to form a team with clearly outlined goals initially encountered language as a barrier based on the different cultural backgrounds. The evidence can be seen in the expression of UK volunteer respondent:

I think at the beginning it was quite hard because of the language barrier. I speak with a different accent compared to the people that are actually from the UK. I also speak differently to Ghanaians but I feel like after one month of being here, we have overcome this difficulty. I think we have come to terms with the context that can be quite hard because sometimes we struggle to really understand each other (K1).

The above text initially alluded to the fact that linguistic problems in cross-cultural communication are usually as a result of verbal behaviours bordering on accent when the lingua franca is one, English in this case. This has positioned the respondent to appreciate and modify the accent to be used in addressing any of the cultural backgrounds represented in the team. This assertion supports Molinsky’s (2007) view that interactions among people in multicultural context represent untypical social interaction that portrays a dynamic sequence of actions by persons which must consistently be modified as they respond accordingly. With reasonable acclimatisation to the new context within a span of 1 month, such language difficulties were surmounted driving home the fact that when there is convergence in diversity of thought which is communicated in a mode acclimatised by the representing cultures, cross-cultural communication effectiveness will be smooth sailing. This understanding is in keeping with the cultural dynamism theory which posits that culture is a complex, multiple and sometimes conflicting value system that can be activated or deactivated depending on the demand of the situation (Adler and Aycan 2018).

Flowing from the advancement above is the requirement of cultural sensitivity as an enabler of effective communication at the multicultural team level in international volunteering. Cross-cultural sensitivity is the quality of awareness and knowledge of other cultures that put one in a position to accept and appreciate diversity. To the research participant from Ghana, there is the need for people to be sensitive at all times in cross-cultural communication in a multicultural team. This is how it is expressed textually:

eemm… I will also say we have to be quite sensitive all the time that applies to the in-country volunteers as well. For example, for Ghanaians, sometimes is acceptable to say, to make a comment about the size or the weight of people and we had an incident where a Ghanaian volunteer said to a UK volunteer that he/she was fat, and in the UK that is highly offensive to do, but obviously the Ghanaians did not realize, so we had a few challenges with things about that, where people did not show where they stand (G8).

The submission above can be interpreted to mean one has to be cautious and mindful of the implication of his/her utterances to the audience in a cross-cultural context. Here, a Ghanaian volunteer described his/her UK volunteer counterpart as being fat without taking into cognizance the implication of that in other cultural jurisdictions. At the blind side of the Ghanaian volunteer, such a terminology is considered a buzzword in UK with a connotation that is offensive. The Ghanaian volunteer judged the UK volunteer with a Ghanaian cultural lens that regarded the word fat as not objectionable or inoffensive. Understandably, cultural lens presents a premise for interpreting behaviours of persons from the other cultures (Webb and 1996). To avoid such misunderstandings and tensions in cross-cultural communication, one has to be sensitive by knowing whom you are addressing. This depicts a sense of low exchange predictability and attraction which according to Rijamampainina (1995) demotivates communication. It generates negative reaction and turns to diminish the quality of interactions in multicultural teams.
Another enabler of effective communication in multicultural teams at international volunteering context inherent in the empirical data with valuable analytical significance is the sense of being apologetic to unintended cultural infractions and moderation in opinions. It is acclaimed by numerous researchers that cross-cultural communication is characterised by conflicts which an optimal team may need though in moderation to enhance performance (Rijamampainina 1995). Conflicts or tensions arise when there is lack of compatibility of one or more members’ actions to the interest of a group which is estimated to thwart the efforts of a group in achieving stated goals. Where there is sense of remorse and opinions are moderated, the team moves on to achieve effective communication. These views expatiated by volunteers from the UK as follows amply demonstrated that assertion:

yes please, sometimes may be, just for example, I made mentioned that someone from the UK …I told her she was fat and later on I need to apologize because in their culture it seems like if you say someone is fat is a kind of bullying word, yes. So I had to quickly apologize for us to move ahead (K6).

The submission above is where a Ghanaian volunteer’s description of the UK volunteer as being fat was resentful because it is considered a bullying word in UK context and this had strained the cross-cultural communication process and bred mistrust. Opportunely, the Ghanaian volunteer having realised that assumed a sense of responsibility for the offence and became remorseful and apologetic. The Ghanaian volunteer went ahead to communicate remorse/regret and rendered an apology. Widely, apology is a fundamental conflict resolution strategy with its role as a social lubricant very crucial (Frantz and Bennigson 2005). The apology from the Ghanaian volunteer seeks to pacify the UK volunteer and water down the anger it ignited in her and further engender positive impressions in the volunteers’ ability to transcend their differences as well as culminate in the rebuilding of trust in the communication process. The above submission resonates with the dynamic model of culture which assumes that culture is a loose network and multiple value structures (Adler and Aycan 2018). In view of this, people have access to multiple meaning systems and depending on the situation can sometimes change their interpretive lens to meet the demand of the context.
The expressed statement by the study participant from the UK on the necessity of a sense of sensitivity to certain things in cross-cultural communication process is as follows:

yeah like I said, the sensitivity about certain things is necessary. Obviously, there are things that Ghanaians believe are wrong or right and may be UK people do not believe the same thing, so that will mean that may be eemm… setting a big topic like homosexuality eemm… it means for something that the UK volunteers will be open about and honest, it means we have to reduce the communication and make sure we don’t talk about things like that and the Ghanaian volunteers have to moderate their own opinions (K2).

The study participant was alluding to the fact that there are certain issues that dichotomise the opinions of the UK and the Ghanaian volunteers as to what is right or wrong based on their multiple value and believe systems as well as communication pattern. It is noted by Abdulai (2018) that people migrate to their sojourn with their idiosyncratic cultural baggage which constitutes an embodiment of beliefs, values and assumptions among others. The likelihood of these values, beliefs, assumptions and communication patterns coming into clash with their destination’s cultural beliefs, assumptions and communication patterns is inevitable. Therefore, inherent in the articulation of the UK volunteer is that topics such as homosexuality have UK volunteers openly and honestly discussing but they have to be sensitive and moderate in that the Ghanaian volunteers detest talking about it openly and honestly because their values frown upon it. Such sensitivity balance has to be maintained to facilitate and enhance effective cross-cultural communication.
Essentially, genuine and consistent communication in the face of bottlenecks promotes effective sharing of meaning in interactions by providing useful ingredients to creative problem solving (Abdulai et al. 2017). This assertion has been accurately represented by a Ghanaian volunteer in the submission as highlighted below:

I would say some of the views. During peer guided learning sessions we seem to have a divide between the UKVS and ICVS as we have two different views and people tend to argue and shout over each other but normally we all accept each other’s opinion in my group so it doesn’t really matter (G10).

The above submission carries the implication that there are moments when communication in multicultural teams suffers a schism where people rigorously defend their viewpoints which can degenerate into people speaking on top of their voices. Insofar as there is no deadlock or breakdown in communication, the end results will be an integrated confected views that will be superior in value and transcend beyond any individual interest within the diversity. Unimpeded communication where team players managed to communicate across cultures is not only instrumental to creative problem solving, but furthermore, results in the maximisation of the potentials inherent in the diverse team (Canado and Garcia 2007). Impliedly, uninterrupted cross-cultural communication in the midst of disagreements and varied views is an essential enabler of effective communication in a multicultural team.

Every culture manifests itself in the way people express their views by way of their communication behaviour that is deeply rooted in their cultural communication orientation that turns to distinguish them from the communication orientation of another culture and is often referred to as communication styles. Understanding the communication orientations of others enhances the comprehension of their articulations and manner of expressions. In connection with these differences in communication styles, a UK research participant has this to say:

Definitely because in Italy and the UK we are able to speak our mind freely and be outspoken so definitely when I have an opinion, I push it through and I like everyone to understand my point of view. But the ICVs keep to themselves and yes I think so, sometimes eemm… when we are discussing certain issues the ICVs don’t really speak up. I would say that Ghanaians are very relaxed and are not as expressive about their true feelings (K3).

The view point eloquently expressed by the study participant above is an attestation to the styles of communication divides that cross-cultural communication theory posits. These two cross-cultural communication styles are low-context and high-context communication. Whereas low-context communication is one that is characterised by statements that are direct, explicit and open, high-context communication is characterised by indirect statements, subtle innuendos/insinuations and expressions that are understated (Rijamampainina 1995). It can be fathomed from the articulation of the participants that the Ghanaian volunteers exhibit a high-context cross-cultural communication style where the decoder is anticipated to read between the lines to comprehend the unspoken words as a result of his/her previous knowledge which is internalised in the person based on his/her familiarity with the context (Nishimura et al. 2008). Hall (1976) stressed that ‘a high-context communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, or transmitted part of the message’ (p. 91). Conversely, the UK volunteers are understood to be showcasing low-context cross-cultural characteristics where meanings are practically and explicitly shared in language that is spoken. Explanations are provided when certain aspects of the communication appear unclear. According to Gudyknust and Ting-Toomey (Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey 1988), such communication comes in a direct form with precision and turns to be dramatic, open and predicated on real feelings and genuine intentions. Appreciating this obvious divide in cross-cultural communication will drastically reduce if not eliminate mistrust in a team and facilitate effective communication.

It is gainsaying that technology has substantially revolutionised communication in an exceeding way that people can communicate not by face-to-face but will still not missed out the essential ingredients that go with face-to-face interactions. This current generation telephoning has applications (Apps) that take care of such elements in communication; one of which is WhatsApp which the team found appreciable to be used in complementing their communication, particularly when they have closed from work yet have an important message to share. Furtherance to this advancement, one of the Ghanaian volunteers put it this way:

OK mostly when we are in the office, we communicate verbally but when we close from the office and there is important information, we have a platform. Thus on WHATSAPP (G7).

The statement above can be elucidated to mean the mode of communication during official hours is verbally face-to-face interactions. When official hours are over and everyone gets to their various places of abode and there arise the need to share an important information, it is done through the App on their phones known as WhatsApp. This platform belongs to what is now known as social media in modern society. Social media created pleasant avenues for information exchange where interactions and cooperation go beyond culture or nationality. Although it also creates new challenges in efficiently managing intercultural communication, but the trust in using it has ushered in modern social networks, redefined cultural, social, economic and political as well geographical human societies and enlarged social relations and social exchange (Prakapiene and Prakapa 2016). We share in the conviction that WhatsApp belongs to the new artefacts of information exchange and communication technology precipitated by improved technologies and requisite applications, especially for virtual environments that create avenues for people to get accustomed to multiple cultures and languages as well as contexts for people to meet on social, cultural and educational frontiers to share information and interact (Uzun 2013). Such communication modes are devoid of differences in accent and pronunciations emanating from nuances in cultural orientations and present what Uzun (2013) described as ‘global tolerance and communication through universal understanding and respect’ (p. 2411).

Cultural Construction in Multicultural Teams in the Context of International Volunteerism

International volunteers who work across national borders in multicultural teams (MCTs) are most likely to be confronted with the challenges of the host environment. To this end, a question was posed to the study participants to ascertain how cultural differences had influenced multicultural teamwork in the (ICS) program in Ghana. In response, a UK volunteer explained:

…culture is important to people as it shapes and plays a role into who we all are. I think culture also directs the way we interact generally at the team level. Eeer… our differences have not stop us from working together as a team, we communicate well as a team irrespective of our cultural differences (K5).

The views articulated by the study participant have not only illuminated the role of culture in shaping the way people think, act, communicate and interact with others at the team level but also has shined light on how the UK and Ghanaian volunteers had worked together irrespective of their cultural differences. Besides, the interview subject had also recognised the cross-cultural differences in values, norms, beliefs, behaviours and basic underlying assumptions which had characterised the work culture of the UK and Ghanaian volunteers, and how they were able to switch their cultural tiles to respond to the needs of the context or situation. This understanding resonates with the cultural mosaic theory which posits that every individual is a mosaic of multiple cultural characteristics and these multiple cultural mosaics are applied depending on the situation or context (Adler and Aycan 2018). In addition, it could also be argued that both the UK and Ghanaian volunteers were open-minded and willing to modify their ethnocentric cultural positions to work together to achieve the team’s goals irrespective of the cultural differences which had characterised their work environment. In this regard, both the UK and Ghanaian volunteers were not viewed as passive subjects of culture, but active constructors of the culture of the (ICS) program.
Moreover, the construction of values in society and how these values are applied differ in different contexts. Flowing from this, a question was asked to explore how the application of different value systems could influence teams’ performance, and one of the interview subjects, a Ghanaian volunteer, had this to say:

UK volunteers have their own culture which is different from our culture. Sometimes, what is seen as a taboo in the Ghanaian cultural context is nothing to them. Eeh,, their expressions are sometimes culturally not accepted in the Ghanaian context. For example, issues such as sex, love making, homosexuality are easily discussed among them, but these are not openly expressed in Ghana. I’ve been told it is allowed in the UK, but here in Ghana, it is not advisable to talk about these things freely (G9).

Extracts from the interview data underscore cultural differences between the UK and Ghanaian volunteers. In this regard, if the term culture is understood as something which is dynamic, complex and contextual (Hong et al. 2000; Marcus & Conner 2015; Adler and Aycan 2018), it implies that the social construction of the learned and shared behaviour about sex, love making and homosexuality is an issue which is constructed and contextually accepted to be freely discussed in the UK. It can also be argued that the UK volunteers’ mental representation of issues such as sex, love making and homosexuality is ingrained in their inner core culture which they think is normal to be objectively discussed irrespective of the location and socio-cultural contexts. This view is also in keeping with the non-essentialists paradigm of culture which assumes that culture is something that the actors create through their interaction with the contexts (Dahl 2014). Contrary, the practice of open discussion of issues such as sex, love making and homosexuality among the UK volunteers did not resonate well with the Ghanaian volunteers. This might be interpreted to mean that the mental construction of sex, love making and homosexuality among the Ghanaian volunteers was perceived not to be culturally accepted. This argument is in line with the essentialist’s paradigm of culture which posits that culture is used as a cause of action and directs the behaviour of the actors involved in the cross-cultural interaction (Långstedt 2018).
Furthermore, in connection with the same issue, one of the UK volunteers added:

… eeh… I will bring you back to the homosexuality issue, eeh… in UK we have discussions about it. For us, everyone will discuss it in a complete, open and honest way. But for Ghanaians, it is different. This is because they have religious beliefs about it. It is always an emotional topic to talk about (K2).

The above research participant’s approach of how issues of homosexuality should be discussed and practiced illustrates clash of values between the UK and Ghanaian volunteers. On one hand, the UK volunteers’ mental representation of homosexuality is constructed in the context of UK culture where the practice and discourses of homosexuality are accepted in the society. On the other hand, the Ghanaian volunteers are brought up in a culture where homosexuality is rarely talked about. Besides, the practice of homosexuality is not in keeping with the religious teachings of some of the Ghanaian volunteers. The differences in conception of the discourse of homosexuality among the UK and Ghanaian volunteers are contrary to the concept of embracing other cultures in cross-cultural interactions (Adler and Aycan 2018). In this regard, the inability of some of the Ghanaian volunteers to modify their stereotypical mind-sets about homosexuality and embrace some of the views held by their counterparts from the UK might not promote effective cross-cultural learning and interactions.
Moreover, both the UK and Ghanaian volunteers identified culture as an important variable in decision-making at the (ICS) programs. To this end, one of the UK volunteers observed:

Eee.. I think our cultures often influence decisions we make at our meetings. For instance, at a meeting to select a topic for community activity, it was difficult to arrive at a theme between domestic violence and good parenting. We (UKVS) pushed for domestic violence as this is illegal in our side of the world, whilst the ICVS pushed for the good parenting (K4).

The views expressed by the interview participant revealed that both the UK and Ghanaian volunteers go to the decision-making table with their cultural baggage: values, beliefs, behaviour and basic underlying assumption, among others. The tendency of both the UK and Ghanaian volunteers to favour some themes over others during meetings could have been culturally influenced because the decisions we make are not culturally neutral, but culturally dependent. This understanding is congruent with the non-essentialist paradigm which assumes that culture exists in the interaction between actors and not within actors, and it is essentially about meaning making where agents are involved in the construction and reconstruction of meaning (Långstedt 2018).

In terms of how best to manage cultural differences in multicultural teams, a Ghanaian volunteer noted:

I think we can overcome cultural difference by learning about both cultures, the culture of the UKVS and the ICVS. Learning about the differences can make it easier for us to communicate and understand each other better (G11).

It can be inferred from the above interview data that one of the ways to work effectively in multicultural teams is the willingness of the multicultural team members to learn and modify their stereotypes about people from different cultural backgrounds. This way is not only going to promote cohesive cross-cultural interactions among team members, but it will also enhance mutual learning that would foster successful work outcomes. This understanding resonates with the argument of Piketty and Saez (2014) that rather than benefiting from the diversity embedded within multicultural teams, the world continues to fall back on divisiveness accentuated by some of the most pronounced divisions in history along lines of wealth, culture, religion, ideological class, gender and race. In this regard, it is instructive for volunteers working in multicultural teams to deactivate their stereotypical and ethnocentric value systems and embrace cultural relativistic value system to harness the benefit of cultural diversity in multicultural teamwork.

Summary of Findings

The analysis of the empirical data has resulted in the findings that elements such as convergence in diversity of thought and mode of communication among volunteers of varied cultural belonging, cross-cultural sensitivities in decoding and encoding messages, sense of remorsefulness under unintended cultural infractions, determination and consistency in exchanging meanings despite inherent disagreements, appreciation of the differences in communication styles (high-context and low-context communication), moderation of opinions on sensitive issues and efficient application of social media, WhatsApp to be specific, were discovered to be enablers of effective cross-cultural communication in multicultural teams in an international volunteering context. Additionally, it was also found out that multicultural team members can work effectively together in the face of their cultural differences; multicultural team members are capable of switching their cultural tiles in reaction to the needs of the context. Not all, but also construction of values in society and the application of those values differ in various contexts, and culture is created by actors through their interactions with the context. Finally, there was cultural value clash which was predicated on mental representation of homosexuality among the UK and Ghana volunteers, decision-making process in the multicultural team was culturally dependent and willingness of multicultural team members to learn and modify their stereotypes about people from different cultural backgrounds characterised the cultural constructions of the two streams of volunteers.


The paper explores cross-cultural interaction in multicultural teamwork among UK and Ghanaian volunteers in the International Citizen Service Program in Northern Region, Ghana. Our analysis of the perspectives and opinions of the fourteen (14) UK and Ghanaian volunteers who were involved in the (ICS) program in Ghana highlights the need to move beyond conceptualising culture based on the borders of nation-states as proxies of homogenous cultural units in multicultural teams, and focused on how cultures are created by the actors within multicultural teams that work in international organisations. It further reinforces the ‘bright side’ perspectives where cultural diversity or differences were rather found to be constructive enablers of effective cross-cultural communication instead of barriers and impediments to effective interactions. To this end, the paper concludes that cultural differences which are often seen as a source of problem to multicultural teams in international contexts should be converted and utilised as assets and effective tool for creative problem solving that will support multicultural organisations to achieve their set targets. Again, the study revealed situations where the UK and Ghanaian volunteers had misconceived sexual orientations due to different upbringing and religious beliefs. In view of this, the study recommends that international volunteers who are engaged in an international assignment should be open-minded and willing to learn and modify their ethnocentric positions about working with people from different cultural backgrounds.

Limitations of the Study and Future Research Directions

This study has centred its focus on the intercultural interactions between UK and Ghanaian volunteers in international volunteering service. Unfortunately, the recruitment of the beneficiaries in the host community as key informants was limited to only two participants which had restricted their perspectives dramatically. It is the humble suggestion of this study that future research could comprehensively target beneficiaries in the host community and focus on a comparative study of their evaluation of the performance of multicultural teams as against monocultural teams in international volunteering service.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hadi Ibrahim
    • 1
    Email author
  • Muhammed Abdulai
    • 2
    • 3
  • Alhassan Abubakari
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Regional Offices and Foreign MissionsMinistry of Trade and IndustryAccraGhana
  2. 2.School of Governance, Law and Society, Department of SociologyTallinn UniversityTallinnEstonia
  3. 3.Faculty of Agribusiness and Communication Sciences, Department of Communication, Innovation and TechnologyUniversity for Development StudiesTamaleGhana

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