No (wo)man is an island: Discussing self serving bias on Saaremaa.

The title of this blog isn’t even a metaphor. For a consultancy project I travelled to Tallinn in Estonia, where we boarded a bus to travel a further 4 hours to an island off the coast called Saaremaa. The 2-day session of the Virtex project ( brought together educators from Estonia, Turkey, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Spain and the UK. As an outsider, I observed their discussions on how to best assess students on their abilities in the hotel and tourism industry. It was interesting to watch videos that showed off the students’ language abilities and the ways that they interacted with their guests. It made me remember that people in their late teens/early twenties have guts – some move to another country without knowing much about the customs or language, having to organise a place to stay, a bank account, etc.

I talked about this project on this blog back in March and it’s interesting to be able to reflect back on the session now. The topic of cultural differences elicits mixed reactions – people either firmly believe in globalisation (i.e., we’re pretty much the same and differences cause little concern) or they believe that there are cultural differences and they do cause concern sometimes. My aim was to provide the teachers with materials that can be used to help the students understand the ‘why’ of cultural differences before they start their internship. Facts can be obtained from the CIA website ( and do’s and don’ts are also available on websites such as wikipedia. Mind, websites like these are not without bias. As is proven by the brilliant uncyclopedia (

As a consultant, it is important to select your materials carefully as illustrative videos depicting differences can generate a debate on the reality of the cultural prototypes that are displayed, rather than have a fruitful discussion on the ‘why’ behind these differences. Also, I don’t think it’s in the interest to show a student a video on the do’s and don’ts of the country they’re about to visit – prototypes quickly become stereotypes. Secondly, none of these materials are relevant if the student isn’t aware that he/she isn’t neutral and that the first step may be to consider how others perceive them as visitors/guests/employees.

I was reading Jeanne Brett’s Negotiating Globally during my time away. Interestingly, she mentions that international negotiators forget to consider their opponent’s BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and focus only on their own needs and perceptions. The message is clear: we humans suffer from a self-serving bias. It’s probably innate. And, by Brett’s account, even happens to Harvard educated MBA students. Education may make students aware of this bias, however, so I hope that the training I developed may help some of the students of the VIRTEX project to feel a little bit more confident when they’re abroad.

My time on the island and in Tallinn was invigorating, by the way. All the members of the team that I met were kind and, rightfully so, very proud of their students and curriculum. Estonia’s Nordic calm, boundless nature and stoic friendliness was a welcome change from busy London. As a Dutch person I felt strangely at home…

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