Workshop: Cultural Understanding for a Global Future

On Friday, I attended the two-hour workshop ‘Cultural Understanding for a Global Future’ run by Jo Bloxham from the independent organisation Thinking People. It was an interactive session held at Birmingham City University that aimed to broaden and develop your cultural understanding and communication skills within the work place and beyond getting you to consider how you might evidence and consider interview questions around diversity whilst looking at how we all live and work together.

This session was feeding my work with the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) specifically the co-development of the new MA Contemporary Arts China course, and my on-going MEd in Academic Practice studies specialising in the internationalisation of curricula, cultural induction and assimilation of home/international students, Global Citizenship and more. (You get the picture). Time to talk cultural agility…

Cultural Understanding 3 Thinking People

The session began by talking of the phrase “Cultural agility” getting us to question – What’s your global future? In the small group of four, we acknowledged there are some things we know and want/need as part of our future and other things (many things!) that we just can’t predict. I know this very well, if my Amoy tiger tummy is anything to go by…

thinking people 2 cultural agility

thinking people

Jo went on to give a brief introduction of Thinking People, her background in many roles including as a teacher trainer in China and volunteer of an exchange programme, and work in nations including South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Thailand, Asia, India, China and more. The session looked specifically at how to develop cross-cultural readiness…

  1. What does it mean to be culturally agile?
  2. What benefits can cultural agility bring?
  3. Reflect on achievements, strengths and areas of development in this area
  4. Discussion work based scenario on cross-cultural communication and golden principles
  5. Explore the breadth of cross-cultural communication difference and how to work with language barriers
  6. Opportunities currently available through BCU to develop cultural agility

What are the characteristics of a culturally agile person?

  • Skills – language(s), networking, communication, adaptive, flexible, being resilient, empathy
    Think laterally, and grasp the meaning intended
    Listen out for other people’s language level
    Look for non-verbal communication
    Good at rapport building
    Can speak in an “international form of language”
    Able to hold back on judging
  • Knowledge – city knowledge, etiquette (social and business)
    Knows other people have other realities
    Knows a bit about other cultures – enough to know not to make big assumptions
    Appreciates the complexities of communication and understands the ease with which there can be misunderstandings
    Good knowledge of yourself, own values, behaviours and ‘red buttons’
    Knowledge of competence
  • Attitudes – honest and responsible, patience (to listen), willing to learn/adapt to different contexts, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ (book), “tolerance of ambiguity”, reflection
    “See difference just as difference” not as something negative
    Curious and ready to learn and ask questions
    Forgiving of intended faux pas
    Interested in languages and communication
    You don’t have to understand everything immediately
    Patient and persistent – appreciates cross-cultural communication can take longer
    A genuine intent to find something new
  • Behaviours – open-minded (open to failing and making mistakes), getting lost, being social, trying new things

Language is a big obstacle…do people have the time to listen? Listening and taking time to listen was an undercurrent for the session, something I know I spend a lot of time doing, especially with my students. We must acknowledge a difference in expression – cultural expression is different. At this point, Jo cited research from Bournemouth University – ‘It’s so much easier to go with what’s easy” : ‘mindfulness’ and the discourse between home and international students in the UK’ (2009) by Neil Harrison and Nicola Peacock – that takes a strategic approach to cross-cultural understanding through the ‘internationalisation’ of universities and the opportunities for enhancing cultural awareness to foster a sense of global citizenship.

We questioned why are international students not communicating with home students? Is there a fear of coming across as ignorant and racist? Is it a passive xenophobia? People are not connecting because they don’t know enough. 

What are the benefits of being cultural agile?

  • Learning – Improving language, open-minded, better communication skills (making creative communication methods)
  • Meeting new people and networks – opens doors to new opportunities
  • How the UK/a culture operates
  • To observe and absorb another culture
  • Introduced to new things/discover new food, culture, festivals…
  • Builds confidence, high self-esteem, stop being scared of other cultures
  • Easily talk and meet new people
  • Create coping mechanisms
  • Employability (examples for a job interview) and mobility
  • Always have somewhere to stay in the world
  • More responsive to changing situations

Only 5% of UK employer highly satisfied with international cultural awareness of graduates (47% not satisfied at all) – CBI “Changing the Pace” 2013

Chinese employers want to see their overseas graduates have an understanding of how business is done in other countries – Massey-Hassy and Donaghy, Loughborough University, 2010

What are your best achievements of working cross-culturally?

  • Living in different countries and surviving!
  • Getting over fears (and failing), greater confidence, less shy…easier to trust…speak my mind
  • Seeing students I taught at AIVA in Shanghai, graduate from their undergraduate/postgraduate course in the UK and to see them develop as culturally agile people…”global citizenship”
  • Introducing people to each other through my obsession with “connecting the dots that people can’t see” – creating international personal and professional networks
  • Founding and developing ‘The Temporary’
  • New MA Contemporary Arts China course at Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) at Birmingham City University (BCU)

What are your strengths in working cross-culturally?

  • Inability to sit still
  • Curious and always wanting to find out more
  • More fight in me…push myself further in my field
  • Networks and ability to network – “connecting the dots that people can’t see” between cultures
  • Speaking to people who used to be my former self – encourage people to communicate

Areas for me to develop?

  • To sit still for longer – to be more strategic in what I do, where I work and where I want to be
  • To listen more, and to do something with what I learn about cross-cultural communication and exchange
  • Language – must learn Mandarin!

Cultural Understanding 2 Thinking People

In the group of four, we engaged in a final communication scenario, an example of a telephone dialogue provided by Craig Storti (2007) between a British supervisor and an Indian intern. We were asked:

Were there any cultural issues?

  • Use of local phrases and idioms e.g. “my guts being used for garters” and “preponed” – not helpful, lack of understanding – also the use of “British understatements”
  • Hierarchy making communication difficult – those lower in the food chain would not want to voice a problem or concern

Could the two people have done something differently to connect? 

  • Simplify language, be direct, be aware of speed and tone
  • Ask questions straight away – what do you mean? Can I just check? I didn’t really understand. People don’t ask it as it is often seen as a weakness…it is a fear.
  • Anticipate and expect problems (with communication)
  • Message exchange or Skype follow-up – face-to-face always preferable
  • Be brave in what you say – tell the truth and be honest

We must move out of our comfort zone to communicate cross-culturally and we must be more sophisticated in how we listen to people. We were then asked to think about our experiences of working cross-culturally.

What are the differences in cross-cultural communication verbally, para-verbally or through body language?

  • Indirect/level of directness
  • Emotional expression
  • Personal space, gestures, eye contact, body language  – touch, hugging, greeting each other (kisses), holding hands (same sex), public transport
  • Appropriate time for communication – boundaries of time
  • Interrupting – having the time to listen, is it ok to interrupt?
  • Volume, noise, sound sensitivity, intonation, pace
  • Order of information given
  • Meanings and association
  • Sense of humour, irony, sarcasm, comedy – what is ok to laugh about?
  • Use of titles when addressing people
  • How is conflict dealt with, what is ok to talk about
  • Impact of hierarchy/status
  • Conciseness
  • Importance of relationship building, of “small talk”, in China “guanxi”
  • Etiquette in written communication and styles of writing
  • How you show you are listening and how you show you are being polite

“Differences in style and presentation may be misinterpreted as absence of mutual respect and cause hostility and suspicion.” – Yaron Matras, Professor in Linguistics at Manchester University

This led us on to discuss different types of “Global Englishes”, the regional varieties of English. We must enjoy this diversity of English. For example “he 419-ed me!” (a Nigerian phrase) as in “he cheated on me”. We need more empathy for those who are learning a new language such as English…many people here can be impatient and intolerant. One participant in the group said “I can feel it”. What is a person’s “mother tongue”? How does this influence an understanding and learning of English? This comes down to pronunciation, grammar, speed, rhythm, stress, usage and more.

“Cultural Intelligence…something which we can continuously improve and develop over the duration of our lives.” – CEO of Common Purpose 2015

This was an apt and appropriate closing statement for the session leaving much food for thought as to how I could apply these conversations to induction sessions with home and international students. Thanks Jo and Thinking People for the workshop.

One final thing, here’s the resource table with reference books including:

  • The Culture Map (2014) by Erin Meyer
  • Beyond Culture (1976) by Edward T. Hall
  • Chinese Business Etiquette (1999) by Scott D. Seligman
  • Global Dexterity (2013) by Andy Molinsky

Now added to my ever-growing reading wish list…that never stops growing…

Cultural Understanding 1 Thinking People

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