Wednesday, 29 August 2012

'What's in a welcome?' - Intercultural experiences

“What’s in a welcome?”
Intercultural Learning from Internships and Study Abroad

Helen Spencer-Oatey, University of Warwick

If you were starting a new job or a new course, what kind of welcome would you count as “warm”?  Students on the MSc Intercultural Communication for Business & the Professions (run by the Centre for Applied Linguistics, CAL, at the University of Warwick) were in for some surprises when they went on their four-week Experiential Placement module in the summer term. This optional module offers students the opportunity to work or study in a ‘culturally unfamiliar’ setting and to put into practice many of the things they have learned during their master’s course.

Six of the students went to CAL’s partner university in Beijing, the University of International Business and Economics. Their welcome was extremely formal. Seated around a very large mahogany table, the Dean of the School of International Studies (SIS), Professor Dr Wang Lifei and the Party Secretary of the SIS Communist Committee, Ms Zhang Cuiping, gave formal speeches to welcome the students. In response, they were expected to give return speeches. The welcome meeting was followed by a sumptuous banquet. The students were overwhelmed and hugely impressed by the grandeur of the events. 

In contrast, many of the Chinese students who undertook work placements in local UK organisations were welcomed quite differently - their boss offered to get them a cup of tea to help settle them in. Here are their reactions: “This wouldn’t be possible in China. The first meeting must be formal and serious so that managers can show their authority and new staff can show their respect.” “In China subordinates take initiatives to meet the needs of their boss. Letting superiors do things for subordinates is disrespectful and shameful.”  When asked what impression it conveyed if a boss made tea for a newcomer, their response was immediate: “Something serious is about to happen, like being fired!”  In fact, such a negative meaning is conveyed in a Chinese saying: The boss invites you to drink tea.1 Fortunately, the students were sensible enough to realise it was a cultural difference and not to get too worried!

All students were required to keep an ‘Intercultural Learning Journal’, drawing on the intercultural theories they had learned during their course to help them reflect on and analyse their experiences. They were unanimous that they had grown immensely during their placement. One explained it like this:

‘How can s/he behave like this?’, ‘What’s wrong with her/him?’, ‘S/he must be crazy, I would never do such stupid things.’ For a long time I had those ideas when I experienced something different from what I thought it should be. The first time I got a low grade for my assignment during the course, I asked what was wrong with the British grading system. The first time I had a misunderstanding with my Indian flat mate, I questioned how he could behave like this. … My reaction echoes the words of Shaules (2007: 73) 2:  “When our environment is different than what we are used to, we automatically seek to explain, justify or criticize unusual phenomena in order to maintain our sense that we operate in a meaningful world. … we are not far away from being prejudiced.” However, with the passage of time, and accumulation of this cultural experience in the UK, I found myself being less judgmental and more tolerant and open towards differences.

As another put it, “a precious experience to promote further understanding”.

1 老板请你喝
2 Shaules, J. (2007) Deep Culture. The Hidden Challenges of Global Living. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

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