Perception Is the Thing: Presenting Variant Worldviews in the International Business Communication Classroom

By Limaye, Mohan R. | Business Communication Quarterly, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Perception Is the Thing: Presenting Variant Worldviews in the International Business Communication Classroom


Limaye, Mohan R., Business Communication Quarterly


Two assumptions underlie the teaching of international business communication. First, perceptual variations exist within a country, and they sharpen even more across countries and cultures. International business communication students nee to be aware of such differences on substantive issues. Second, critical pedagogy maintains that making students think and revisit their worldviews through an encounter with discomforting or decentering ideas is a valuable teaching and learn ing tool. Exposing students in my class to controversial propositions caused them to demonstrate a gamut of reactions from agreement and disagreement to anger, pity, disbelief, and a sense of discovery.

Keywords: Values-based education, intercultural communication, international communication, critical pedagogy

EVERYONE PERCEIVES REALITY only partially and selectively an important underlying assumption in an international business communication class. Variant perceptions, diametrically opposed to one another, exist in this world; consequently, our reactions to such differences also vary widely. Students are not always aware of these conditions, however. To encourage such awareness, I take them through the exercise in perception described in this article.

The Classroom Situation

I teach in a business school where approximately 85% of the student body is composed of middle class white Christian males and females. Rarely can one find more homogeneity of values, beliefs, and outlook on the world than in my business school. Though the state of affairs in this regard may be rather extremely insular or parochial at my school, a very large number of people in the United States, I may assert, are blithely unaware of non-US (particularly non-Western) viewpoints regarding religion, history, and world affairs. A few examples in support of my assertion may be cited: Very few Americans know anything about the beliefs and worldviews of Hindus and Buddhists. Most don't care to know. The US State Department has been using the epithet "rogue" to refer to such nations as North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq. For years, it didn't occur to the career diplomats, or the press, or ordinary US citizens that these countries don't look upon themselves as rogue nations but as heroes resisting the hegemony of the "Great Satan," the United States of America. In fact, Ayatollah Homeini of the revolutionary Iran used to call the US precisely that. In conclusion, most Americans desperately need lessons in perceptual variations if they are going to be able to communicate effectively with non-Westerners, in business and non-business contexts.

Moreover, many students, whenever asked to give examples of perceptual differences, invariably cite visual illusions, such as the same picture of a person perceived as an old woman by some and a young woman by others; equal-length parallel lines perceived as unequal; cultural taboos regarding touching (except for handshakes) among the Japanese and the Chinese; and showing the soles of your shoes in Saudi Arabia (the latter two incidents from a popular video of the 1980s entitled Managing an Overseas Assignment). In all the universities where I've taught, very few students cite any examples of varying viewpoints that cause intense controversies around the world, particularly in the arenas of religious beliefs, political ideologies and diplomatic affairs. I, therefore, wanted to develop an exercise which would demonstrate to my international business communication students that perceptual differences are not only about harmless oddities or curiosities of people, but quite often involve significant conflicts ca used by people's differing philosophies and national interests.

Goals of the Exercise

This exercise had two goals. First, students needed to understand that people do not all agree on issues, beliefs, and worldviews. To this end, I put together some statements containing different beliefs and worldviews and invited student responses or reactions to them (see the Appendix). …

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