University of Brighton - Centre for Learning and Teaching Teaching international students

Part Two Stage 3: Cross-cultural Communication

3.1 Introduction

Some very interesting work has been done in the fascinating area of cross-cultural communication. There is not space here to look at this topic in detail - see Bibliography for further reading. The main aim of this section is to highlight the possibilities for misunderstanding in any cross-cultural communication.

It is important that international students and their teachers are aware of the possibility for misunderstanding when communicating with each other.  This is not just a question of language but of ways of thinking and behaving.

Sometimes there will be a problem of language but cultural differences may also be playing their part.  It is important to be able to perceive whether a cultural difference lies at the heart of a problem.

When a student has clearly not fully understood a statement, then the appropriate response is a restatement:  it is possible that the student has understood most of the original statement but is seeking confirmation of their understanding.   If there still remains a lack of understanding, then it will be necessary to paraphrase the original statement.  On the other hand, too much paraphrasing can result in further confusion.

However, communication often involves much more than the conveying of straightforward information.  There may be a degree of ambiguity created, usually unintentionally, between the communicator and the recipient.  The recipient may make unrealistic assumptions that are simply not intended by the person doing the communicating.  Compare the following two emails:

"This afternoon’s 1st year law lecture is cancelled due to staff illness"

"I am afraid that I cannot meet you to discuss your assignment until next Friday.  Can we meet at 11.30 for half an hour? Please confirm that you will be able to attend."

While the first email is not likely to raise any questions in the mind of the student, the second is open to various interpretations by the student, including one or more of the following:

A simple agreement to meet by the tutor has produced totally unexpected responses of which the tutor is completely unaware.  These unrealistic responses have been deliberately exaggerated to make a point:  even in the simplest of communications there are possibilities for misunderstandings.

While the tutor may feel under no obligation to provide an explanation, any concerns might have been avoided if the email had said something like:

"I read your assignment with interest but I am afraid that I cannot meet you to discuss it until next Friday as I am attending a conference on Wednesday and Thursday. Can we meet at 11.30 for half an hour?  Please confirm that you will be able to attend."

Of course, had this communication been verbal, then the tutor may have become aware of the student’s hesitancy and the look of concern on their face and could have immediately given the useful additional information.

It is clear that anything, apart from the most basic of communications, can often be subject to a number of interpretations.  Misunderstandings and confusion may be even more likely in cross-cultural communication. 

It is not just a question of understanding the language but of the often hidden meaning behind the language.  When speaking to another person we often have expectations of their response; we are then confused when the response is different from that expected. 

People bring with them to their communication their own upbringing and experiences to their communication and they are usually not aware of their own culturally determined patterns of thought and behaviour. 

As can be seen from the Iceberg model (stage 1), such patterns of thought and behaviour are completely hidden from view.  There are rules but they are largely unwritten.  They may become available to outsiders through guidebooks, but their complexity and profundity are not easily explicable.  Although they have their own internal logic, this may not be easily accessible to outsiders. 

For an international student living among people from an entirely different culture, it is important to expect a degree of ambiguity and misunderstanding.  As long as the student can tolerate some ambiguity and not overreact to confusing situations, then they will have fewer difficulties in settling into their new way of life.

On the other side, the teachers of international students should be aware of cultural differences which may have an effect on successful communication.  They should try to minimise misunderstandings and whenever possible be tolerant when they occur.

The teacher should expect the international student to develop new communication skills over time:  they cannot be expected to acquire them suddenly.  In most cases, these skills cannot be acquired theoretically but have to be developed through practice.  The key factors are being open minded and tolerant, being aware that cultural differences exist and being able to reflect on outcomes, which may be positive or negative.  This trial and error learning may be quite painful and the international student may feel under considerable pressure at times.  In these circumstances, it is important for both international students and their teachers not to take matters personally and try to understand the reason for the breakdown in communication.  If the student always interprets negative events as a personal rejection, then they may never feel comfortable in their new environment.

International students will often find themselves forced to take on new roles.  This will be quite difficult because they have been gradually socialised into their roles in their home country.

A moderate level of anxiety may be positive and have a stimulating effect.  The excitement of adapting to the new environment may be highly motivating and one of the reasons for coming to study in the UK.  However, excessive anxiety over a period of time may result in both mental and physical ill-health.  Overemphasis on negative experiences may mean that positive experiences are not recognised and valued when they occur.

Some factors which may have an effect on students’ abilities to communicate in the new environment are personality, willingness to be open-minded and tolerant, previous experiences, positive experiences in first days and weeks, support and understanding from teachers and other students, and the degree of cultural difference.

Back to top or Next section: 3.2 Causes and consequences of misunderstandings