Interview with Eithne Knappitsch: A discreet and divine interculturalist

29 September 2020 | Community in Action

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Anyone who has travelled to Ireland will tell you, it’s a wonderful country full of romanticism and eternal optimists. You can see it in the bright eyes and warm smiles, the love of language, learning and laughter. It’s no wonder that Ireland has become a desired travel destination.

Likewise, the Irish are ardent travellers. In fact, one recurring theme in Irish culture is emigration. Whether it was forced, as during the potato famine of the 1840s, where one million left, or of artists like Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who found their voices and achieved recognition abroad, the Irish have continuously roamed the world, making valuable human contributions with their sense of exuberance and festivity.

Continuing in this tradition is our interviewee, Eithne Knappitsch. Raised in both Gaelic and English on the northernmost peninsula in Ireland, she took up French and German at university. Upon graduating, she went to Austria to teach English and perfect her German. It was supposed to be a one-year stay, but fate would have it that she’d stay and help create one of the most dynamic and innovative intercultural management programs in all of Europe at the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences. She is now its director.

Additionally, she is President of SIETAR Austria and curator of TEDx Klagenfurt. Her Irish spirit, discreet brilliance and professionalism clearly stand out in her YouTube video series “Thriving Thursdays: Mindfulness Matters” (, where she has organised a series of online talks with some of the top minds in the field. Her ability to bring out the best in people is uncanny, somehow reminding me of Mozart’s gift for melody. With that in my mind, I began my interview. 

How did your interest in intercultural relations begin?

I have often thought about this in the past and for me, there are so many key experiences. For one, I grew up in Carndonagh, a small town of 2000 people on the Inishowen peninsula, which is at the very top of the Republic of Ireland, farther north than British Northern Ireland. Even the Irish Tourist Board sometimes mistakenly thinks it’s not part of the Republic. It was a rural and secluded location, with a relatively homogenous community. America was on one side of the peninsula and on the other side, if it was a good day, the islands of Scotland. As we didn’t travel much then, I was always interested in what lay beyond that.

I remember as a young kid going to the beach and being told that part of the Spanish Armada had gone down nearby and that some of the Spanish sailors made it to the coast, interacted with the locals, and contributed to the prevalence of black hair, darker skin and brown eyes among the population. There was no clear DNA component behind the story but I thought all this was fascinating.

I also remember being very much affected by stories from my grandmother, about some of her family leaving to go to America and never coming back, particularly how two of her brothers living in America said that they could never come back because they were so heart-broken to have left.

I was brought up in a very strict Catholic family. There was a clear division of who was Catholic, who was Protestant because there were so few Protestants. But there was a small Protestant school. We had féis competitions; these are community-based festivals established to preserve Irish traditions. It’s very typical in Irish life. Young people would enter these competitions to do Irish dancing, recite poetry and storytelling. I also remember comments I couldn’t understand at the time: “Oh, that girl there is Protestant, you know from her name and because she’s wearing a particularly nice dress”. There was this perception that “they” were wealthier and had specific training.

When I was a teenager, we used to cross the border into British Northern Ireland and go to the biggest town nearby, Derry (or Londonderry), a 30-minute drive. It was always an exciting experience as we engaged in all sorts of smuggling – sitting on an Easter egg, a bottle of whisky, an electrical appliance. This was a sort of excitement, not too threatening; the worst thing that could happen was the goods could be taken. Also, there was a very strong military presence at the border, associated with violence in the area.

I went to the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. For the entrance interview, my father drove me to Belfast. It was pre-GPS days and he didn’t feel comfortable going into the city because his number plates were clearly from the Republic, meaning you were a Catholic. If you asked for directions, you might be given the wrong information and you couldn’t park in certain streets because your tires might be punctured or worse. 

All these associations impacted my interest in the intercultural world — identity, religion, politics, language, social interactions.

Why did you go to Northern Ireland for your studies?

It was simply for practical reasons. I was 17 and my parents didn’t want me to be too far away; Coleraine was relatively close. And, from a financial perspective, it was simply much cheaper. 

And what did you study?

I was a fluent Gaelic speaker, so I started my studies in ap plied foreign languages — French, German and European studies. Basically, I chose this program because there was a compulsory year abroad and I wanted to travel and experience life elsewhere.

Because my German wasn’t as good as my French, I decided to come to Austria as an English-language teacher. I remember my German professors telling me, “Forget Austria for your German, it’s a completely different language. The only place worse is Switzerland!” Despite their objections, I ended up in Klagenfurt in the province of Carinthia. It was a historical moment because of the political situation and election of the far-right Jörg Haider to Austrian Parliament.

Shortly after arriving, people from Northern Ireland who’d been watching the news were phoning and asking if I was safe! For me, it was another ha-ha moment of context, perception and media influence. It was then that I became interested in Carinthia – its history, politics, language and interactions, which eventually became my PhD thesis.

I got a job at the university in Klagenfurt lecturing on the subject, “Cultural Aspects in Northern Ireland”. I was quite young at the time, only 21, and was surprised that I could lecture at an Austrian university with just a Bachelor’s. And often the students were older than me, which was quite an interesting challenge and great opportunity at the time.

Because of my job, I didn’t want to move back to Northern Ireland. So I started my part-time PhD with the University of Northern Ireland. My thesis dealt with continuity and change in Carinthian politics and its impact on the Slovenian minority from 1972 to 2005. It was a combination of looking at the serious conflict around the issues of topographic signage, language rights, political instrumentalization of identity, and borders.

After finishing your PhD, did you continue teaching?

No, I actually went back to Belfast with my husband for a year and worked as a researcher at the Northern Ireland parliament. I ended up doing a lot of private bill research for the politicians. One in particular was on a possible Irish language Act for Northern Ireland. It was extremely interesting, obviously, because of tense interactions between politicians.

After that, my husband and I moved back to Klagenfurt because of his work, and there was an opportunity for me to lecture at the Fachhochschule Kärnten (Carinthia University of Applied Sciences) where I could combine my interest in intercultural communication, conflict and negotiations, and cross-border interactions within a business environment.

It seems you were the right person at the right place, at the right time. Intercultural themes were the big issues then. Is it still true today?

When I started, intercultural communication was very much valued. But today, it has sort of been diluted and incorporated into other courses or reduced to a four-hour workshop in the corporate world. There are these fads of intercultural or unconscious bias training where, all of a sudden, it’s an executive decision — everybody needs it, all the employees have to do it — but there’s little coherence or theory behind it, or depth to it.

I run a three-year program. I face a lot of questions around “what’s the value” for students who have a degree in intercultural management. The study of intercultural management has the potential to increase consciousness. It’s an incredible area to work in and it covers so many aspects.

I point out that if you are in a position of power, particularly if you have decision-making power, such as interviewing candidates, or assigning tasks and responsibilities, it is essential that you become aware of your interactions and manage these effectively. The more conscious your communication is, the more effective your decision-making becomes and the less likely you fall into the bias trap. That, in itself, makes a huge difference.

You mention unconscious bias and it touches on the fascinating field of how the brain functions. The latest research, using MRI technology, indicates strongly that we automatically create “in” and “out” groups, a form of tribalism, certainly not conducive for development of intercultural sensitivity. However, the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel made an interesting statement about human nature, namely “prosperity triumphs over tribalism”. Would you care to comment on this?

I agree in part with this observation. There’s a lot of truth in the fact that economic prosperity reduces the conflicts we have around social, cultural, interracial and interreligious issues. Prosperity impacts on the psychological element of well-being. Health systems also depend on general prosperity and causal relationships with mental issues. If we think about the economic crisis, unemployment, and how they impact particular sectors of the society, there are increased issues of fear, anxiety and trust. These are the processes that influence the brain’s search for similarity and amplify stereotypes.

I remember taking part in an interesting lecture in 2007 while working in the Northern Ireland Assembly. There was an American economist discussing how to increase foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. One problem was the economic issues the country was facing, such as extremely high unemployment. This, in turn, manifested itself in increased inter-group tension, destabilising the political situation. All this had an impact on foreign direct investment. One of the things we see when we have flows of migrants, particularly among communities, where there is high unemployment, is increased inter-group tension. That’s very difficult to deal with on any level.

How has the Covid 19 affected the teaching at your school? 

At the School of Management we moved straight into online teaching. All courses moved online with the support of the IT department, who were wonderful and seemed to work round the clock to help colleagues with less experience in the online environment. I’ve been working with Barbara Covarrubias Venegas on a Global Case Study Challenge ( which we’ve run for two years in an online environment. This meant that I was already quite experienced in online teaching but I still had to totally overhaul most of my courses to make them effective in an online context. 

While some staff resorted to virtual frontal teaching, others became very creative with online course design. We tried to keep close contact with the students, many who returned to their homes across the globe and others who remained here in Villach. Initially the students coped very well. We offered mindfulness sessions twice a week, some informal meet-ups just to check in with students, and the sports club provided online activities. The main problem seems to have been that most lecturers did not reduce their teaching content and therefore the workload for the students was very high. Students appreciated courses that included interactive methods but at the end of the semester, they were exhausted. Students who choose Intercultural Management are very communicative and enjoy engaging with others and they particularly missed the social contact.

Next semester I’m planning to move to hybrid teaching across the entire ICM program — onsite and online combined. I fear that a number of students will not be able to return for the start of semester, so I feel this is the only real option available. We have new technical equipment now to facilitate this. I think that in future we will make much better use of a combination of online and offline education and training, but I feel that we sometimes underestimate this a little and there’s a definite need to also focus more on the didactics of taking our courses online.

Another area of your research and work is cross-border relations. How has the Covid 19 crisis affected the interactions of people in border areas?

We have been doing some interesting work with the project “Cross-Border Challenge 2020” ( One part of the project is studying the bilingual Slovenian-Italian city of Nova Gorica, or Gorizia as it is called in Italian. Svetlana Buko, an intercultural colleague, and I used this area for our students to look at intercultural, multilingual issues. Transalpina Square is right in the middle of the city; it’s where the two cultural communities meet, a symbol of European union integration created after World War II. 

It was supposed to remain open during the Covid 19 crisis until different behaviours became problematic. Italians were going to the Slovenian bars, creating concerns about health issues. The two mayors got together to try to resolve the issues, but eventually a physical border was set up across the square. This was quite striking considering the square is a symbol of European unity.

A lot of grass-roots protests developed and people were re-discussing this idea of the border — does it represent a line of separation or a point of unity. One of the local doctors put up drawings done by children in the hospital, illustrating that we are all in this together. The fire brigades created symbolic rainbows of unity. Both parts of the city began to offer online Italian and Slovenian language courses and they were overwhelmed by the demand. It was amazing. We used the situation to have students research and document what was happening in the Austria-Italy-Slovenia cross-border region in this time of crisis.

I noticed that you became the curator of TEDx Klagenfurt in 2019. How did that come about?

TEDx Klagenfurt has been running for the last eight years. The first time I attended an event, I was amazed by the generosity of the speakers with their ideas, their time and willingness to interact, which is similar to the intercultural world. 

It’s run in English and I was surprised by the fact that you can engage with the speakers and the communities. I then joined the team of 30 people preparing these once-a-year events. Last year, I was asked to head the team, which I didn’t initially want to because of time pressure. But I thought to myself, I teach these things. It is an absolute honour and a fantastic new opportunity. So I am now curator, taking up the challenge to continue these wonderful encounters with international speakers and the people of Klagenfurt.

What do you think of SIETAR, how do you see its future?

I think it’s wonderful for promoting interactions, discussions and networking. I’ve been a member of SIETAR Austria for many years. I see a number of issues that need to be addressed, above all how we can make it more transparent, effective, and how to attract and include more young people.

Nonetheless, I think SIETAR Europa has so much potential in promoting the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas in business, science and society. In times of internationalisation, SIETAR has become an important forum, locally, nationally and globally. Now in Covid-19 times, I hope we can work towards becoming more effective in enacting positive change across all our societies.

Interviewed by Patrick Schmidt

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