As I live through this pivotal time in my life, there are certain things about the nature of humankind that I have come to better understand. Technology and business has made our vast earth much smaller, and as we all compete in the job market there is one glaring quality that makes a job candidate stand out and above the rest-experience with intercultural communication, including but not limited to knowing a second language. However, despite our reputation as a “melting pot” nation this is a quality that many people not only lack, but experience severe apprehension about.
How can I relate to someone from another culture? What if I say something he/she considers to be offensive? What if I don’t speak the language? These types of question along with many others are the sort that will flood a person’s mind when confronted with the prospect of intercultural communication, and understandably so; they are all valid concerns. However, my goal in this article is to address these concerns and to let those of you reading it know that intercultural communication skills are not only important to have in today’s world, but building them builds your character, making you a more well-rounded individual and even helping you gain friends and contacts all across the globe.
I joined the International Students club and signed up for International Living in spring of 2008. In the fall of 2008, I was given rooming arrangements in which I would be living with a freshman girl from Vietnam. The experience in meeting, then getting to know and form a friendship with someone from another culture is one that not many people have the opportunity to experience. She and I lived together for one semester, and stayed close even though we had different roommates this past spring. I greatly enjoyed and am still enjoying my conversations with her; over the past year I feel that I have gained not only a friend, but a little sister. Living in this setup, I became close with two Vietnamese students, several Chinese students, students from Africa, Germany, Austria, India, Korea, Bhutan, and more. I am proud to say that my group of friends is truly diverse and that we are truly unique.
Let’s get the most difficult thing out of the way first: Intercultural communication is not easy, and at first it is completely nerve-wracking. That being said, it is one of the best things that a person can do for him or herself. As a person who has essentially picked up her intercultural communication skills through a combination of good old fashioned trial-and-error and study, I will provide important things to remember and tips that will help put you a little more at ease when facing intercultural communication.
DO NOT treat the experience as a chore. If you start a conversation with the mentality that the interaction is a chore, it is extremely disrespectful. It is important to treat each intercultural interaction as exactly what it is; an opportunity for you to reach out and learn about another person’s culture that is different from your own.
Keep your pace relaxed. If there is a language barrier, it is important to bear this barrier in mind. Speaking too quickly gives way to the chance of your counterpart misunderstanding you, or becoming frustrated with the conversation. However, speaking too slowly (exaggerating each syllable of each word) is even more disrespectful. Try not to automatically assume that the other person does not understand you, because that is the vibe that dragging out each word will give. Just keep it as steady and conversational as possible.
Be willing to try new things. Now, I understand that everybody has limits. But try not to discount something merely because it is new or different. For example, my old roommate is very into manga-something that not only never interested me, but that I had all sorts of negative connotations and stereotypes that had been ingrained into me about it. However, we would have several conversations in which she would tell me about the plot of a manga she was reading and I was impressed at how complex some of the storylines were. Lo and behold, these conversations led me to read and thoroughly enjoy some manga. Another example: While I am far from a picky eater, I do not eat red meat or pork any longer (simply stopped liking the taste, not for animal cruelty reasons). However, beef is a big part of Vietnamese cuisine. At one of our International Club meetings, she cooked Vietnamese dumplings which had a beef filling. However, I ate some anyway. Why, if I do not eat beef, you ask? Not only because she cooked them herself and because she is my friend, but because I wanted to experience real Vietnamese cuisine. If you are a devoted vegetarian, this example does not apply to you of course, but my message is the same for everybody: try something you may think you will not like. This is a big part of experiencing another person’s culture.
Be patient. With a language barrier between us, my old roommate and I have always had to be patient with one another when trying to explain anything, and even when physically moving about with one another. In the Vietnamese culture, friends have a very close relationship and so when walking together, friends will walk very closely. When she and I would go anywhere together months ago, I would become a little annoyed when she would walk so close to me that we ended up bumping our arms together a lot. By being patient, though, I have gotten used to this closeness and have grown to find it a compliment – it means that she considers us to have a close friendship, and I think the same way. Remember, building a relationship with any person you do not know is a slow process-even if that person is from the same culture that you are. However, allow more time for a relationship to take shape with a person of a different culture than your own.
At the start of my conversations with my old roommate, I often found myself worrying about whether or not I would say something that would offend her. I was very careful about choosing my words, and that feeling was quite stressful and made me feel anxious. As our conversations continued through last semester and the current semester, I noticed that these feelings began to subside. The more that she and I spoke, the more we learned about one another and the more comfortable we became. Because of this, our level of uncertainty decreased and as a result we began to talk more frequently and with more comfort. In our latest conversations we speak confidently and without hesitation, and I find that I no longer need to panic over the words that I use.
Intercultural communication will benefit you in any career path you choose. If you have experience communicating with others, you will have a higher chance to be picked first for jobs that you apply for because it is demonstrative of your versatility. Not only will it help you into a job, but acquiring these skills will help you become better-rounded. Experiencing the culture of another person will allow you to see things from another perspective. You will be able to evaluate things not simply by your own standards, but from the standards of another culture. This type of thinking is crucial in both the business world and from the standpoint of a friendship.
Remember not to let the prospect of intercultural interaction intimidate you too much. As with anything new, it can be scary and difficult at first. But bear in mind that at the end of the day, you will have earned skills that will place you high above the rest and that you can have fun with!
Feel free to contact me through my AC mail with any questions you may have, or simply leave questions in the comments section and I will be happy to answer them for you.