The Importance of Intercultural Communication in International Education

By Hinchcliff-Pelias, Mary; Greer, Norman S. | International Education, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Intercultural Communication in International Education


Hinchcliff-Pelias, Mary, Greer, Norman S., International Education


International education should, by definition, assume intercultural communication interactions. If this is not the case, then what is the point? Why would those who study internationally place themselves in an educational environment that does not expect and afford opportunities for interaction with persons from culturally different backgrounds? From the standpoint of intercultural communication educators, we find the idea of isolation of international students from their host national counterparts and other international students philosophically and pedagogically untenable.

INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION AND PERCEIVED DIFFERENCE

Intercultural communication involves the interaction of persons from cultural communities that are different. The perception of difference is often a defining component of intercultural communication (Brislin, 1994; Dodd, 1998; Gudykunst, 1988; Gudykunst & Kim, 1992). Brislin (1994) articulated some of these differences:

. . .the others possess many qualities summarized by the word different. The others speak various languages, have different skin colors, possess an array of attitudes toward important aspects of life such as work and recreation, eat different foods, and so forth, (p. 25)

Gudykunst and Kim (1992) used the metaphor of the "stranger" to refer to persons perceived as culturally different from ourselves. They stated that "(t)he term stranger is somewhat ambiguous in that it is often used to refer to aliens, intruders, foreigners, outsiders, newcomers, and immigrants, as well as any person who is unknown and unfamiliar" (p. 19). In intercultural interactions, these perceived differences may be sufficient to make the participants uncomfortable, embarrassed, fearful and/or unwilling to engage in such communication.

INTERNATIONAL STUDENT POPULATIONS

According to recent figures reported by the Institute of International Education (IIE) (2003), during the period of 2002-2003, more than 586,000 international students were studying in the U.S. The IIE places the number of U.S. students studying overseas during 2001-2002 at a little over 160,000. Additionally, numerous other students from many nations sojourn internationally to educational institutions throughout the world. Thus, in recent years, upwards of three-quarters of a million students have been in the position to interact with other international students and host nationals in intercultural contexts. But many of these international sojourners do not interact or have limited interactions with culturally different others. The reasons for the lack of social exchange are undoubtedly many, including such factors as the aforementioned perceptions attendant to viewing the culturally different as a "stranger," as well as lack of networking opportunities within the campus/local community, language barriers, social skills, time constraints, and separation/isolation in residential facilities.

Individual personality traits as well as other psychological factors may also work against international students seeking out intercultural interactions. Many international students experience culture shock, which may preclude or severely limit interactions with culturally different others. Oberg (1960), the scholar credited with coining the term "cultural shock," viewed it as a generalized trauma affecting individuals when placed in a new and unfamiliar culture. The stress and anxieties associated with culture shock are the result of persons losing those things familiar to them for their day-to-day social interactions, such as rules associated with language interaction (verbal and nonverbal) and cultural conventions and norms (Garza-Guerrero, 1974; Klineberg & Hull, 1979; Oberg). In essence, an individual's entire way of understanding her/his world may be turned on end. The effects of culture shock can be lingering and result in further isolation of international students from their host culture peers. …

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