Question – Interview at least three to five people who bear some culturally different characteristics and provide your interpretation of the interview data with their experiences of intercultural communications/experiences/encounters with the broader population.
Objective: The aim of this study was to identify the different communication techniques used by university students who bear some culturally different characteristics to students from other cultures, and whether they rely on certain methods of intercultural communication.
Design: Qualitative study using past experiences.
Setting: Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Participants: Three international students and one local Australian student studying at Monash University.
Main outcome measures: Factors influencing the use of different verbal and nonverbal communication techniques when communicating with students from different cultural backgrounds.
Results: Both international and local students saw a combination of verbal and nonverbal language techniques to be important methods in intercultural communication. It was unanimous amongst the international and local students that most of the difficulties they had encountered in communicating between cultures was to do with verbal communication, as nonverbal communication tended to be more universal.
Conclusion: International and local students at multicultural universities should engage in as much intercultural communication as possible in order gain confidence in their communication skills, break down stereotypes and learn about different cultures.
With the increasing number of students travelling abroad to receive a high quality of education, the aim of this study is to determine the communication difficulties that university students from various cultural backgrounds encounter. It is inevitable that students in a foreign culture will misinterpret others and be misinterpreted, and will experience uncertainty or anxiety in trying to communicate with students from different cultures. Similarly, it is likely that local students will also experience difficulties in interacting with those from a foreign culture. This study will utilise previous research and literature of international students studying overseas in comparison with the current study’s findings. This study focuses on the differences in communication techniques between university students who bear some culturally different characteristics, in particular their usage of verbal and nonverbal communication.
Previous research of intercultural communication highlights that “the ‘‘what,’’ ‘‘how,’’ and ‘‘why’’ of intercultural interaction at the multicultural university can never be fully known without asking the students how they deﬁne, experience, and interpret such interactions in their own words and in context of their lives” (Halualani, 2008, p. 1). A large amount of research has considered the uncertainty and anxiety which students at multicultural universities experience. Young and Faux (2011, p. 494) acknowledge that misunderstandings often occur when native and non-native English speakers converse, due to the impact of language barriers. Interestingly, they argue that regardless of a speaker’s language proficiency or fluency, other factors such as stereotypes associated with various accents and salience of group membership influence the intercultural interactions between individuals as it impacts on attitudes and beliefs of particular cultures (Young & Faux, 2011, pp. 494-495). This idea that various factors can contribute to misunderstanding and uncertainty within intercultural communication supports Duronto, Nishida, & Nakayama’s (2005, p. 551) study which showed that “an increase in cultural uncertainty will produce an increase in the anxiety and uncertainty experienced when interacting with strangers from other cultures.”
A large amount of previous research has focused on the role and importance of nonverbal communication in intercultural communications. LaFrance and Mayo (1978, p. 72) state that “nonverbal communication in its own rights serves a number of functions: it serves to express emotional states, to send information about personality, to communicate interpersonal attitudes, and to regulate the flow of social interaction.” In terms of the variances of nonverbal communication among cultures, an article by Yuan (2007) which looks at how nonverbal communication is communicated by translators states that a number of factors must be taken into account. It is highlighted that “compared with verbal communication, nonverbal communication is often indirect and ambiguous… [and] due to the cultural differences among different countries, it is possible that the same nonverbal signal conveys different meanings, and the same meaning is conveyed by different nonverbal signals” (Yuan, 2007, p. 77). This highlights the fact that while some aspects of nonverbal communication may appear to be universal, there is the possibility for miscommunication to occur.
The four participants of the study were all students from Monash University who bear some culturally different characteristics. Face-to-face interviews based around seven questions were conducted, with each interview taking an average of twenty minutes. The interviews were guided by semi-structured questions which generated discussion regarding differences in verbal and nonverbal communication techniques between cultures, and were supported by examples of when students had experienced difficulties with different methods of communication.
The study participants included a female Chinese student, a female Indonesian student, a male American student, and a female Australian student. The data obtained from the interviews showed similarities between the students’ views on the importance of using both verbal and nonverbal communication techniques.
Each of the three international students reported that they had experienced difficulties understanding the Australian accent and slang vocabulary, particularly when they first arrived in Australia. The Chinese and Indonesian students seemed to be more heavily impacted on in terms of misunderstanding verbal communication, as English is their second language. In comparison, the American student did not seem to experience the same level of difficulty in communicating with local students. The following quotes are from participants:
Australian people have strong accents and use slangs, which confuse me totally and it is pretty awkward when I talk to other people, they laugh together but I don’t even understand what they just said. (Chinese)
Difficult vocabulary in lectures that some lecturers use make it hard to keep up in my work, cause I often don’t understand them. I have to go back and listen to lectures again so that I can study for assignments and exams… Other students don’t seem to struggle so much. (Indonesian)
In terms of understanding Australian slang, the Chinese student noted because she tends to socialise with other Chinese students the majority of the time, she does not have the opportunity to be exposed to Australian culture and become more confident in her English speaking skills.
The local Australian student said that she had experienced the same sorts of difficulties in communicating with those from other cultures. She recalled situations where she has been in groups with international students whose first language isn’t English, and that she had to concentrate on speaking clearly and simply in order to get their message across, as well as often having to repeat what she had said. She empathised with the international students, as she had studied abroad in China and knew how hard it was to approach local Chinese students and start up conversations when you don’t speak the same language fluently.
All four participants believe that nonverbal communication plays an important role in intercultural communications. Both the Chinese and Indonesian students mentioned a large difference in nonverbal communication in terms of displaying affection and friendship. The Indonesian student said that:
Western countries are a lot more open, for example they will often hug and kiss in public to show affection, whereas in my country those things rarely happen, because even just a simple kiss is regarded as inappropriate and disrespectful.
The American student did not believe there were any great differences in nonverbal language between his own culture and Australians. He said that:
I know what a nod means, or a thumbs up, or the OK hand sign… I’m not going to invade someone’s personal space. I think because Australia is also a Western culture that there aren’t too many differences.
Each of the four participants agreed that nonverbal communication was vital in accompanying verbal communication. The following quotes are from participants:
I also actually use hand gestures or try to make what I’m saying clearer by showing it with my hands, or sometimes pointing at things around if it helps. (Indonesian)
Seeing someone smile or frown is important to know their mood, and someone making eye contact or nodding while you speak means they are interested and understand you. (Chinese)
The American and Australian students stated that being able to point things out in textbooks, read facial expressions for mood, gesture to someone and so on is vital in communicating with those form other cultures. They said they tend to rely on these sorts of gestures to communicate with those from different cultures.
Discussion and Conclusion
From the interviews, a particularly interesting point that was raised was the Chinese and Indonesian students reflecting on the hardest aspect of intercultural communications from their experiences. They both said that the most difficult thing was not communicating with local Australian students, but rather with other international students who may be from somewhere else in Asia or Europe, whose first language is also not English. The effort and concentration required in these situations on both a verbal and nonverbal level seemed to be much greater. The local Australian student empathised with this point when speaking of her study abroad experiences in China, as regardless of whether she was speaking English or Chinese to local students, for one of them it was their native language and could therefore lead the conversation and help the other. This shows the importance of both verbal and nonverbal communication in terms of intercultural communication, and the effort that students must be willing to put towards decreasing the amount of misunderstanding between cultures. Given that both international and local students experience difficulties when participating in intercultural communication, the importance of clear and simple communication processes should not be underestimated, and where possible the use of nonverbal communication should be used to support verbal communication.
The limitations of this study include the small sample size of interviewees, and the lack of variety in cultural backgrounds. The responses of the American and Australian students seemed to be fairly similar, as were the responses of the Chinese and Indonesian students. Future research should consider the verbal and nonverbal communication techniques of a wider variety of students at multicultural universities in order to gain a greater understanding of the differences in intercultural communication.
The issues that international students face in a foreign learning environment in terms of having to adapt their communication methods and behaviour to suit the situation is closely tied to the intercultural adaption theory of intercultural communication (Gudykunst, 2005, p. 15). In many cases, students at multicultural universities will find themselves in a situation that favours one communicator, and the other communicator will face the burden of adapting. Each of the responses from the four interviewees included situations where they have had to assimilate and adapt to local culture in order to have the best chance to be understood by those from a different culture. Gudykunst (2005, p. 15) states that the more adaptive behavior in which communicators engage, the more their cultural beliefs will change. This aspect of the intercultural adaption theory was supported by the response of the Australian student when they were asked about what advice they would give to international students. She said that she would encourage international students to engage with local Australian students as much as possible, and not to feel that they are burdening the local students. It seems that students engaging in more intercultural communication will result in a higher likelihood in the breaking down of stereotypes and the less uncertainty and anxiety that international students will experience in a foreign culture.
Word count: 1,879
(Over the word limit and lost some marks, but a good essay)
Duronto, P M, Nishida, T & Nakayama, S 2005, ‘Uncertainty, anxiety, and avoidance in communication with strangers’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol. 29, no. 5, pp. 549-560.
Gudykunst, W B 2005, Theorizing about intercultural communication, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
Halualani, R T 2008, ‘How do Multicultural university students define and make sense of intercultural contact? A qualitative study’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol. 32, pp. 1-16.
LaFrance, M & Mayo, C 1978, ‘Cultural Aspects of Nonverbal Communication’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 71-89.
Young, R & Faux, WV II 2011, ‘Descriptions of Difficult Conversations between Native and Non-Native English Speakers: In-group Membership and Helping Behaviors’, The Qualitative Report, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 494-508.
Yuan, H 2007, ‘Nonverbal Communication and Its Translations’, Canadian Social ScienceI, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 77-80.
Interview questions for international students
- What is your cultural background?
- How long have you lived in Australia?
- Have you ever experienced difficulties associated with verbal language barriers in Australia (eg. understanding accents, slang, idiomatic expressions)? If so, please give an example.
- Have you ever experienced difficulties understanding non-verbal communication (eg. hand gestures, facial expressions, body language)? If so please give an example.
- Are there any Australian hand gestures/body language which means something different in your culture?
- Would it be considered rude to use any Australian hand gestures in your own culture? If so, why?
- Please describe a time where you have had difficulty communicating with someone of a different culture to your own. Why was it difficult? What were the differences in verbal and non-verbal communication techniques?
Interview questions for local students
- What sort of interactions have you had with international students at university?
- What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of using nonverbal communication with those from culturally diverse backgrounds?
- What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of using verbal communication with those from culturally diverse backgrounds?
- Do you rely heavily on either verbal or nonverbal communication to communicate with international students? Please explain your answer.
- Have you been overseas to study? If so, where did you go and what difficulties did you encounter communicating with local students?
- Has this experience influenced your perspective on communicating with international students who come to Australia?
- What advice would you give international students when interacting with local Australian students?
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