Cross-Cultural Communication

Something interesting happened on my project today, which both took me by surprise and completely made sense to me, and that was the coming to light of cross-cultural communication issues on my project team, particularly between the American students and the Chinese students.  It turned out that the Chinese students were not speaking up about things they did not understand during meetings and had to look them up later, thus falling behind during meetings themselves, and this became something that another teammate was very interested in remedying.

On the one hand, I actually completely understand what is happening.  Having spent the past few years overcoming my own upbringing in a Chinese family, I know exactly what the Chinese students are feeling.  Half of it is respect:  Too much respect for someone who knows more than you and the fear of interrupting them.  The other half is ego:  The Chinese have a strong cultural respect for appearances, and just as you want to not interrupt someone else’s time to change, you want to “save your own face;” you don’t want to appear uniformed or embarrass yourself by asking questions about things that everyone else seems to already know.

On the other hand, this phenomenon on my project team took me completely by surprise.  While I know many of the international Chinese students, and sympathize with the awkwardness of adjusting to American culture, I’ve never worked with any of them during my two previous project experiences at the ETC.  And thus, in the context of how I expect a project to go, I didn’t even anticipate this problem.  I guess I had already compartmentalized what I expected out of different contexts.

Ok, so enough about my reaction.  What do I recommend?  For anyone who is dealing with this problem, I will give my personal opinion of what would have helped me when I was on the other side of this cultural divide.  I doubt all Chinese students are feeling exactly the same way that I did, but my conversations so far imply that a good number of them are.

So, when I was a very shy and respectful but also self-conscious culturally Chinese young man, back even recently in undergrad, what would have helped?  Well, the first thing that stopped me from speaking up was feeling inferior to the other person and not wanting to waste their time.  However, I sure talked a lot about ALL of my concerns to friends one-on-one.  Those two factors really helped me open up, and I feel that international students often do the same when I approach them under similar circumstances.  So my first recommendation for helping culturally Chinese students speak up is to approach them one-on-one as a friend.  Now, this isn’t a solution to the speaking up in a group problem, but I’ll admit that even I haven’t completely overcome that myself; that just requires that person to build up a rapport with everyone in the group and that takes time.  That brings me to the second thing, which was the self-consciousness of being afraid of asking a stupid question.  People can say that there are “no stupid questions” but that alone is not going to convince anyone to stop judging their own questions.  My second recommendation for this is actually to let it play itself out.  Being self-conscious for me was my ego’s way of protecting itself in light of all the things that I wasn’t good at, but it was still ego.  Eventually, I realized that not asking questions because my ego was afraid of getting hurt was still hurting me and my productivity and that internal realization is the best catalyst for change.

I guess these recommendations might not seem very helpful because I’m saying to treat the issue with respect and let it sort itself out most of the time, but that’s because that’s how it worked for me.  People don’t change their personality just because an external force is pushing them; if anything that makes them resist more sometimes.  What really causes change is an internal realization / force and that process itself is also very gradual.

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