The interpersonal self and personal agency

From a psychological perspective, a person who has reached adulthood has developed what is called an “interpersonal self”, or a clear mental representation of how he or she intends to deal with, approach, think of and act in front of others.

Over time, the interpersonal self grows and becomes more complex. For instance, a child will have a rather simple interpersonal self that helps to deal with friends in elementary school. Whereas an adult may have a quite complex interpersonal self that helps the adult to deal with the many types of social contexts and situations he or she encounters, from professional situations to dealing with family or friends.

In many social and work situations, the interpersonal self provides a very efficient guide for what to expect, say or do. In fact, people’s interpersonal selves provide “relational schemas”, that is, a set of rules or “scripts” that guide the individual in specific social situations (Baldwin, 1992).

A simple example of a relational schema is the rules an individual typically follows in a restaurant. This situation is partly a social situation wherein people typically 1) enter the restaurant, 2) ask kindly for a table, 3) expect to be seated quickly, 4) call for a waiter, 5) expect the waiter to be courteous, 6) ask for a menu, and so on.

As this example shows, one’s interpersonal self may imply a mix of behavioural expectations about what one should or will do in a social situation and what the counterpart (i.e. the waiter) should or will do in return.

Psychological science has shown that the interpersonal self helps people navigate most of the daily situations they encounter. With simple social situations, as in the case of a restaurant, a person is probably conscious of oneself, others, and “oneself with others” (i.e., the interpersonal self).

In more complex and novel situations, however, such as those that a physical education teacher or coach may encounter in intercultural educational settings, a person may not be so prepared and may not be equipped with clear or well-developed mental representations of “oneself with others”. In this case, the interpersonal self might be “under-construction”. In situations that require complex professional and interpersonal dynamics, a physical education teacher or coach might be unprepared for what to do or what to expect.

Thus, intercultural education might represent a professional and work context in which a physical education teacher or coach might initially feel unsure about. They may wonder how their professional identity will assist them, feeling unprepared about what to do and what to expect from others. This will most likely be the case if they have not developed a clear sense of interpersonal self.

New physical education teachers or coaches may thus turn to thoughts, views and beliefs that seemingly provide a sense of control and security. In these types of social and professional situations, people may often rely on what is called “stereotypical thinking”, which is the use of existing views and beliefs to bring novel or complex situations down to the same level as  simple rules, expectations or choices (Reynolds et al., 2000; Stangor & Jost, 1997). Thus, in a setting of intercultural education, a physical education teacher or coach may be tempted to minimise the cultural differences among students. They may also expect that different cultures cannot be integrated, disregarding individual differences, as these differences would render his or her educational efforts more complex and difficult. 

To address these stereotypes and effectively deliver intercultural education, there are therefore some actions a physical education teacher or coach might take:

  • Revise and enrich their professional identity and interpersonal self as a form of necessary adaptation for the good of their educational goals.
  • Learn new ways to integrate their past professional identity with the new professional demands, values and models, which is often referred to as growth in professional complexity.
  • Learn new relational schemas and integrate their social identity with new models of interpersonal experiences and behaviours.

This learning process is not simple and requires personal effort, commitment and motivation. On a personal level, an intercultural educator must rely on and exercise personal agency (Bandura, 1992; Zimmermann & Cleary, 2006).  They will also need a personal sense of confidence to intervene in the educational environment and create the situations that can help him or her grow professionally and become interculturally competent (Anderson & Boylan, 2017).

In the end, these learning processes and the growth in professional identity are embedded in a complex network of dynamics in which one’s personal agency plays a key part. In particular, when the person deals with and actively responds to the demands of the organisational context, complies with and personally embraces the tasks and roles that are expected, and constantly seeks to reinforce his or her professional identity (Camire et al., 2012).

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