About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Cross cultural dialog: Teaching our next generation to engage with others different than them

In my last post I wrote about the course I taught last semester and some of the activities I was using. Today, on the eve of Independence Day, it is even more important that our society restart the intercultural dialogues that have stopped and started, molded our society, led to civil wars and protests, and ultimately created our current society.

Intercultural dialog and conversations

As I began my course in January, there were many discussions of race and religion on campus. I teach at a very diverse university that draws from urban, suburban, and rural communities; diverse cultures including international students from most continents, along with indigenous (Mohawk and Iroquois mostly) students; differing sexual orientations; a wide variety of religions; and diverse socio economic backgrounds. Most of my class had very different living and family situations: you name it, there was probably someone who fit that live style.

My first month of class I used to get to know my students, their values, cultures they associated themselves with, how they identified themselves socially, biases (prejudices), and communication style. I used a categorization exercise to assess their starting point in understanding both other cultures and cross-cultural communication skills. I also used three other projects to assess their intercultural communication skills as we progressed through the semester: Intercultural/Diversity Interview, assimilation project and log, and a group intercultural training project. (These projects are all described in the previous blog post).

The intercultural/diversity interview allowed me to assess the preconceptions my students had coming into an intercultural/cross cultural dialog. For the most part, my students went into these interviews with an open mind. Some did not and it showed in their analysis as they did not try to understand the answers the person they interviewed had given them. They assumed they already knew the answer and there was very little discussion after the initial questions. However, many of my students were surprised by the answers they received, especially if they were interviewing close friends. The majority began to see their own values and biases that they used to lead discussions. I noticed in-class discussions had much more interaction and asking for explanations rather than giving just their view point. There also was much more intellectual conflict, with a deeper level of listening as students not only listened to others, but tried to understand what they were saying. There was also more identification of potential biases, but still not a recognition of others values and understanding. It was during this time that I introduced socio-linguistics and conversation "enders."

Conversation enders are things people say which will make others in the dialog stop listening or trying to make themselves understood. I was shocked at some of the things my students said they had heard or been called which shut them down from further dialog (either wanting to understand the others viewpoints or wanting to connect with another group). Every student in the class was able to identify at least one thing that they felt would stop the conversation.

The next project I had my students work on was a group project in which students collected first and secondary research on intercultural communication within a certain context (e.g. education, politics, healthcare, environmental conservation, customer service, law enforcement) and to choose 3 cultures for the analysis. Group members needed to find information on how each of those cultures discussed and communicated within each of those contexts. For my students, this was very difficult because they had never had to look at content and data from multiple perspectives. They began to understand the more subtle assumptions they made based on their own experiences. Perhaps the hardest part of this exercise was to identify and define the cultures they would be using. The labels they would put on groups often was very wide and identified their own biases. In some cases, a more complex group was identified based on shared beliefs rather than physical characteristics (e.g. people who have been incarcerated, law enforcers, those who have not had any experience with law enforcement).

Finally, my students were asked to participate in 3 events of a club or group whose culture was different than their own. Initially this was difficult as students were wary of immersing themselves into another group's culture. However, with the help of their classmates, all of the students participated in this activity. They had to keep a journal of their expectations, observations about the group, and strategies they used both before and after the event. They then handed these logs in along with an analysis of intercultural communication. These logs gave me insight into how they actually grew and engaged (or were not able to) in intercultural dialog. Their analyses revealed the pre-existing biases that interfered with intercultural conversations, the fear of insulting those of other beliefs, and the fear of being judged based on others pre-existing biases. However, it was this assignment more than any of the others that got them interacting with other groups and truly engaging with others in a meaningful way.

I assessed their final level of intercultural communication skills by giving them the same categorization activity I had given them the first class. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, many students were used to diversity. Their ability to recognize that others had different ways of communicate and behave was very advanced. However, they learned to cross a communication barrier to interact and actually engage in dialog with those outside of their own groups. The majority of the groups had much more difficulty creating categories as they could see numerous levels of culture and communication. In the end, many based their categories based on communication preferences (non-verbal/verbal preferences; direct/group/circular reasoning; social, group, individual). Even then, they had much more conversation and discussion that resulted in questions that could not be answered with out having the individual to speak to.

Lessons learned

It has been a while since I have taught this class.  One area that I noticed a difference was in the basic awareness of differences.  One reason could be that my university is diverse in many ways with a growing international student population; many first generation university students (who are many times also children of immigrants); rural, suburban, small town, and urban populations; a wide range of ethnic groups (including native Americans); and diverse age, lifestyle, ableness, gender/gender identity, and religious backgrounds.  However, despite this diversity, there seemed to be little dialogue outside of their social groups.  As a result, there seemed to be preconceived understanding or those outside of their own social groups.

I used by understanding of social groups as a starting point for my students which allowed them to go beyond cultural stereotypes and begin to understand others from of a view of outsiders/insiders.  Using this as a starting point helped to create opportunities for dialogue.

Another barrier I found to starting intercultural dialogue was the previous learning students had had in K-12 in which they were taught to treat each person as the "same."  While I understand this approach (find what you have in common and use as a starting point), this was often used instead as a way to shut down identifying differences.  As a result, students were afraid to speak about the elephant in the room-differences.  They were never given the tools to create these dialogues to use as a way of understanding other perspectives, creating communicative connections, and developing a relationship with those outside of their own social groups.  This needs to be discussed at the beginning of the course and included in my learning objectives.

I was a bit wary at first in pushing students out of their comfort level to interact with those of other cultures.  I still struggle with the fear of adverse reactions should they feel attacked, judged, or disapproval from their own social group.  I feel by letting them choose the "culture" that they wanted to interact with, they could decide the comfort level.  By allowing them to journal about this experience and then use that as a basis for analysis, they were able to understand their own transformation, level of understanding, and boundaries if they decide to immerse themselves in another culture.   It is important to give students choice (with teacher approval) while at the same time push them out of their comfort zone.  Much of the feedback I received from their analysis was positive.

Finally, I feel it is important that we begin to create diversity/cross-/intercultural training programs that focus on dialogue.  Many of the diversity programs I have seen were heavy on content and processes and light on actually engaging in intercultural dialogues that addressed problems and worked on finding solutions.   Diversity training programs that focus on intercultural dialogue training with a focus on problem solving take more commitment (resources, training, preparation, and time) so are rarely implemented.  I feel more research needs to be done on this.

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