Higher education leadership needs more cross cultural training

I’m a huge fan of Erin Meyer, a Senior Affiliate Professor in Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. Her research and book, the Culture Map, helped me greatly when I was building career workshops for international students. Even with a background in cross-cultural communication from my graduate studies (and numerous international experiences) I learned so much from her book about the assumptions I made when communicating with international audiences. I learned about the expectations I developed based on my cultural background and how it affected my interactions with international students.

Whenever the topic of cross-cultural fluency comes up, many reference the work done on value differences by Hofstede. No doubt Hofstede is a major contributor to cross-cultural communication but Erin Meyer brings a practical framework and insightful storytelling that should convince everyone to make cross-cultural communication a priority in their organizations.

I wish I could assign her videos to higher ed leadership and faculty. The videos could be a catalyst for discussing faculty expectations of international student participation in the classroom and how departments interact with (and support) international students on-campus.

For example, as Americans, we are a low context society, which means we say what we mean, we repeat our common points, and everything can be taken at face value. If you’re an American and advising students from high context cultures, like China and Saudi Arabia, there’s a chance you’re missing the nuances and subtleties students are trying to communicate to you. There’s a chance you’re not picking up on non-verbal cues. And it’s likely they’re trying to read between the lines of everything you say, even though there’s no meaning to find there. The potential for miscommunication is always high. If this makes you scratch your head and wonder how that is, watch the video below to challenge your assumptions on how we communicate with students.

Now think about the challenges faculty have around classroom participation. Most of the discussion puts the blame on students from educational systems in which students don’t challenge professors. The thinking is that students don’t participate because they don’t know how. Part of that is true. But there’s another reason they don’t participate: American faculty can’t recognize when students want to share their thoughts because they can’t read the air.

The video below expands on this topic, the concept of reading the air. When I watched this the first time I had a huge aha! moment. I’ve experienced similar confusion when I first started presenting to international executives and students. Since then I’ve worked on reading the air. It’s not easy and feels really uncomfortable since it forces me to leave silence during my presentations (and no American presenter likes that!). I always wonder if I’m misreading people. And it’s challenging when it’s not a single culture, as international students as a whole are not homogenous. But as I watched this, I couldn’t help wonder how many faculty are familiar with this concept.

We tend to think international students are the ones who need cross-cultural training and orientation to American culture. After years of working with international students, I’m convinced that higher education leadership are the ones who need it the most. It’s a wonder that with all the talk of internationalizing higher education the topic of cross-cultural training doesn’t make the priority list.

If you agree, share this with your dean, provosts, and anyone else who’s pushing to recruit more international students.