This article will outline a 60-hour course in intercultural
communication that develops those cognition skills needed to understand life in foreign
countries. The initial part of the course is intended to heighten the participants
awareness of his or her own culture; the latter part focuses on assumptions, values, and
behaviors of the target culture in our case, the middle class, American way of
life. Although the course described herein is designed for culturally homogeneous classes
in the Middle East, it could serve as a model for multicultural groups anywhere.
To begin, we need to recognize the parameters within which we operate and to consider
our particular situations. We also must decide on cultural elements that may be too
sensitive to be discussed in class. These may include delicate matters such as male-female
relationships, controversial political issues like revolutions, and volatile subjects like
alcohol, sexual orientation, and drugs. Topics that we often discuss in our own societies
can create major problems when raised in classes abroad. Consequently, we need to identify
those sensitive topics and keep them in mind when designing our course.
Part one: Home culture
Because it is not always clear exactly what ought to be covered in an IC course, I will
suggest topics and sequencing that have worked well for me. Part one (a 20-hour course)
begins with modules of instruction that allow students to explore their own cultures
before venturing into unknown territories (Grove 1982). The first third of this course
raises the participants awareness that they are members of a particular culture. By
exploring their own culture, students acquire the vocabulary with which to describe
values, expectations, behaviors, traditions, customs, rituals, forms of greeting, cultural
signs, and identity symbols familiar to them. Once students know how to talk about their
culture, they are ready to discuss the values, expectations, and traditions of others with
a higher degree of intellectual objectivity.
We begin by defining what culture is. To do this we allow students to brainstorm freely
but lead them to the ideas that culture is the total way of life of a group or society;
that all humans living in groups have cultures; that there are no "inferior" or
"superior" cultures; and that cultures are formed to meet human needs.
Defining human needs
Once we have a definition of culture, we explore the concept of human needs in general.
Abraham Malsow (1962) has suggested "higher order" and "lower order"
needs that all cultures try to meet. Lower order needs are physical requirements such as
food, water, and shelter; whereas formal education, self-development, self-fulfillment,
and so forth, are higher order needs.
Once we have identified universal human needs, we discuss what needs are particular to
the students own culture. These might include security, religious requirements, or
political imperatives unique to our students. The aim of the exercise is to instill in
students the sense that they are members of a culture and that their way of life has
evolved to meet particular needs.
Having arrived at a characterization of culture and having explored human needs, we
then relate needs and culture to behaviors. In one or two units, students become aware
that behaviors are culturally prescribed norms intended to meet expectations or needs
shared by members of a culture. They learn, for instance, that certain social occasions
demand specific behaviors and speech-acts.
For this module, I use an exercise called "Whats Rude?" in which
participants identify rude and polite behaviors appropriate in their culture. We discuss
what to say and do when calling on strangers, friends, elders, and social superiors.
However, we only mention briefly how members of other cultures respond in similar
situations. Here, the goal is for students to become aware that norms of behavior are
culturally defined and varied. We feel that they need to learn the cultural codes of their
society before they discover the codes of conduct of the target culture.
Next, we focus on friendship as a culturally defined concept. We discuss how, when,
where, and with whom people typically become friends in their culture. Questions to
explore might be what determines friendship; whether friendship is a practical matter, an
emotional bond, or a relationship of mutual obligations; and if men and women can be
friends. This kind of exploratory exercise can also be done with kin relationships in
general: Who owes what to whom in the kinship system? By brainstorming in groups, students
begin to realize that there are patterns of expectations, prescribed behaviors, and
obligations attached to social relationships, and that there is purpose and predictability
to interpersonal relationships.
Cultural symbols and rituals
For variety, our course has included signs and symbols (identity symbols) of the
culture. To teach this we use a show-and-tell format in which students explain meaningful
objects, items particular to a culture such as a rice bowl, chop sticks, the national
or an animal used as a national symbol. Participants explain what objects represent or
mean, and the rules, if any, for their uses.
We then examine cultural rituals and any social values that produce such rituals. We
explore the procedures, symbols, and prescribed behaviors of common events like weddings,
funerals, rites of passage, festivals, and so forth. These are related to human needs and
culturally defined values and expectations. The goal of this unit is to relate cultural
behaviors to the things people value, expect, and commonly take for granted.
The methodology used in the first part of the course is student-centered: students
hypothesize, brainstorm, discuss, conclude, and inform the instructor of their findings.
In other words, the students teach the teacher. This approach makes sense, especially when
the instructor is not a member of the local culture or when the instructor finds himself
or herself in a multicultural classroom. The benefits of this approach are a high degree
of student motivation, a great amount of oral language practice, and student-generated
learning. Students work in groups of threes or fours on everything, except perhaps the
show-and-tell presentations. Participants are graded on group/class participation, on the
quality of presentations, and on a terminal quiz on concepts taught in the course.
Part two: Target culture
Hitherto, we have focused on the students culture. Our intention has been to
raise the students awareness of their own way of life, to acquaint them with some
basic cultural concepts, to give them vocabulary with which to talk about culture, and to
cultivate a degree of intellectual objectivity essential in cross-cultural analyses. Our
next objective is more daunting: to create an awareness of the building blocks of our
particular worldviews in relation to other worldviews. Our purpose is to foster a certain
degree of understanding of the target culture from an insiders perspectivean
empathetic view that permits the student to accurately interpret foreign cultural
We cover nonverbal communication, cultural assumptions, values, expectations,
stereotypes, and cultural adjustment or culture shock (Paige 1993). In a 40-hour
component, we emphasize how those elements of our worldview can become roadblocks to
intercultural understanding and how they can undermine the formation of an intelligent
perspective of a foreign culture. We discuss and analyze critical incidents to see how our
worldviews occasionally collide and leave people perplexed and offended (Storti 1994).
In our module on nonverbal communication, we have chosen various topics such as dress,
colors, and body language (facial expressions, posture, gestures, and proxemics). By
understanding how cultures and subcultures or co-cultures use these signs to communicate,
we can discover a persons social status, group membership, and approachability. We
use pictures and videos of people interacting normally as our teaching tools. Students are
asked to speculate on the significance of various styles of clothing, the symbolic
meanings of colors, gestures, facial expressions, and the physical distance people
unconsciously put between each other. We question students as to how these nonverbal
communication patterns are similar to or different from those of their culture and how
they can be misunderstood. The goal is to teach participants that these patterns vary from
one culture to the next.
Basic reality assumptions
Also in the second part of the course, we teach the most challenging conceptbasic
"reality assumptions." In this module, course participants try to define which
values or ideas are behind our values, perspectives, attitudes, and consequently our
expectations and behaviors. We explore what our students, in their culture, assume to be
true about the world and the way things work, and we compare and contrast these with
American assumptions about reality. Basic premises about time, progress, the purpose of
life, human nature, God, the invisible world, and many other things may be similar or
remarkably different from culture to culture.
The aim of our discussions is to recognize some basic perspectives that underlie our
interpretations of the world and to acknowledge that such assumptions can differ. What we
hope emerges from our discussions is that, contrary to what we have been taught, truths or
assumptions are not necessarily universal. What is real or true to one group may not be
real or true for Americans. Recognizing that there are essential differences in worldviews
permits students to respond more effectively when cross-cultural communication breaks
down, as it most certainly can (Stewart and Bennett 1991).
Next we center on things, qualities, or abstract ideas that a culture considers
valuable. We explore the students cultural values and compare and contrast them with
mainstream American values. We do this by examining such popular proverbs and sayings as
"All that glitters is not gold," "You scratch my back, Ill scratch
yours," "No pain, no gain," since cultural values are embedded in sayings.
As many cultures have similar sayings that transmit attitudes and values, you will find
students eager to compare such memorable maxims. The point, however, is to note the
cultural values that are associated with the sayings and proverbs.
In keeping to our goal of raising student awareness of cultural values, we examine the
qualities that we admire in our heroes. These, like other determiners, are culturally
defined even though they may be universally shared. Values such as perseverance,
innovativeness, individualism, cooperation, self-motivation, loyalty, friendship, public
service, and piety may be exemplified through biographies of famous men and women who have
contributed to a society. We discuss the biographies of American heroes from all ethnic
backgrounds who embody values shared by Americans. What emerges from this exercise is an
awareness of the values of the target culture and the degree to which we share such
To prepare for our discussion on stereotyping, we have a module on human cognition. The
mind tends to jump to conclusions and acts on them based upon a minimal amount of sensory
input (Summerfield 1993). Before all the data are known, we have already attributed
meaning to our impressions and find ourselves acting on these, often to learn that we have
been mistaken. To demonstrate that we see what we expect to see out of habit rather than
what is actually there, we show photographs, for example, of street scenes, and elicit
various interpretations which reflect what individuals assume is happening. Such
demonstrations illustrate that our perceptions can be erroneous and that we are culturally
conditioned to expect things to be a certain way. This lesson prepares our students for
the module on stereotyping.
Stereotypes are gross simplifications that neatly sum up members of other groups or
cultures. Such impressions prevent a more profound understanding of who others are as
individuals and as members of social groups. Stereotypes are probably the most difficult
stumbling block to overcome for any person in a foreign country, and as such, the topic
requires considerable attention in IC courses.
First, students need to learn what stereotypes are and how they interfere with
communication. Students discuss common impressions they have of various nationals and then
are asked where these impressions come from. The next step is to find out whether students
have any firsthand knowledge of foreign nationals and whether foreigners really have these
characteristics. It becomes apparent that while there may be a kernel of truth to
stereotypes, they do not adequately represent individuals. Students then learn that
stereotyping prevents our dealing effectively with members of other societies.
For discussion sessions, teachers may use films and other visual media showing members
of the target culture. By becoming aware of their preconceptions about the target culture,
students will be able to overcome stereotypes.
We also have a module on culture shock and adjusting to a foreign way of life. Students
seldom know what to expect when they go to another country. In order to prepare them for
this experience and to teach some coping skills, our course includes the video entitled
Cold Water by Noriko Ogami (1988), which we show in manageable segments. We ask students
to identify stereotypical impressions of Americans. Then we examine common patterns of
cultural adjustmentthe emotional patterns of highs and lows that students would have
to deal with while abroad (Weaver 1993).
Finally, in the latter part of the course, students learn to analyze incidents that
involve cross-cultural misunderstandingsconflicts of values and expectations.
Instructors write scripts about common interpersonal occurrences in which characters from
different cultures have divergent interpretations of what is said or done. Students must
identify the communication problem in the incident, determine the values involved, and
correct the misunderstanding. The objective is to teach participants to analyze
misunderstandings in cultural terms and to help them learn to deal effectively with
The focus in the second part of the course is the free exchange of interpretatio0ns and
ideas. While the instructor may be the authority on the target culture, he or she cannot
possibly anticipate all of the difficulties students encounter in comprehending another
culture. Hence, student-centered talk and student-centered activities are particularly
important. As in the first part of the course, students need constant reminders that the
cultural concepts they are learning have practical relevance to their ultimate
goalcultural adjustment and a successful experience abroad. Although teachers may
vary the types of exercises they use and substitute the cultural topics discussed, we
advise contrasting cultural values in the latter part of the program when students are
more knowledgeable and have a greater degree of objectivity.
By custom designing their own intercultural communication course, teachers can meet the
particular needs of their students. However, it is important to follow the recommended
sequencing of topics, beginning with an exploration of the home culture before contrasting
values, expectations, and behaviors of the target culture. Once we are aware of how
culture determines our lifestyles and behaviors, we are all in a better position to reach
across our many borders.
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