Kathy McKeiver, Global Engagement Commission Chair
Editor’s Note: Interested in learning more on this topic? Join Kathy and her team of panelists for the upcoming Global Engagement Commission-sponsored webinar on Developing Intercultural Communication Skills for Academic Advising.
The United States remains a top study destination for international students, with over 764,000 enrolled during the 2011/12 academic year (“Open Doors Fast Facts,” 2012). As this number continues to grow, students and staff are increasingly interacting with those who may not share the same cultural and social norms. This can be especially challenging to advisors with low intercultural competence or limited exposure to cultures other than their own. However, if we are open to the challenge, students and staff can make great gains, both personally and professionally. Intercultural interactions provide many benefits, but only if we are open to confronting the barriers that may hinder our success.
A growing international student population enhances university campuses by contributing to a diversified community and providing exposure to new cultural perspectives (Bevis, 2002). However, the rewards don’t end there. Students and staff who engage in intercultural interactions tend to experience gains in communication skills, the ability to empathize and an openness to new ideas (Geelhoed & Talbot, 2003). Consistent intercultural interactions also increased individuals’ likelihood to challenge personal beliefs and embrace new perspectives (Luo & Jamieson-Drake, 2013).
Unfortunately, many in the campus community do not take advantage of these benefits. Luo and Jamieson-Drake (2013) discovered that regardless of the number of international students enrolled on a campus, intercultural interactions do not occur automatically, and when they do, there is always potential for misunderstanding. As advisors, many of our intercultural interactions are prescribed in the form of advising appointments. This is an advantage, as it allows us opportunities to practice variations of our intercultural advising style in order to see what works best for us and for students.
Making an effort to meet students where they are is especially important when working with those from different cultures. In our intercultural interactions, we are not only representing ourselves, but also the university and greater community. International students frequently report that social and community interactions can influence decisions to persist at the university (Lee & Rice, 2007). This decision is made after the student has had some U.S. experience, and it has a lasting impact on a student’s view of the host culture (Lee and Rice, 2007). We need to recognize the interactions we have with students extend beyond academic basics. If our goal is to help students be successful, we must also provide a supportive environment where students feel valued and respected as individuals.
A student’s willingness to seek our assistance can be complicated by staff attitudes toward those from other cultures. Some findings suggest that while staff may express concerns about issues such as a student’s language ability, they tend to lack empathy for the life challenges students are experiencing, including their emotional and psychological well-being (Robertson, Line, Jones & Thomas, 2000). Staff participants did not consider their role in contributing to these behaviors, and instead blamed the students for lacking critical thinking skills and ignoring academic responsibilities (Robertson et al., 2000). In addition, Spencer-Rodgers and McGovern (2002) found domestic staff and students exhibited greater prejudice against international students by thinking of them as “frightened, sad and lonely” (p. 625). The level of prejudice varies depending on the student’s home country (Spencer-Rodgers & McGovern, 2002).
International students want to be personally and academically successful; however, when students lack confidence in their communication skills, or when they experience negative interactions with the host culture, they may be unwilling to seek guidance when they need it (Robertson et al., 2000). If some staff members characterize international students as being irresponsible, sad, and lonely, why aren’t we doing more to hone our skills and reach out to students? Maybe because we are not cognizant of the barriers preventing us from doing so.
One such barrier is ethnocentrism. Any intercultural interaction will be influenced by an individual’s ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s culture (“in-group”) is superior to another’s culture (“out-group”). All humans are to some extent ethnocentric, falling somewhere on a scale between “low” and “high” ethnocentricity (Neuliep, 2012). High or low levels of ethnocentricity influence an individual’s ability to successfully communicate interculturally. Individuals with high ethnocentricity will experience the largest communication barriers with those who are different from them. Highly ethnocentric individuals may feel “suspicious, defensive, and hostile” toward international students, especially students who have different social and cultural norms from the in-group (Neuliep & McCroskey, 1997; Spencer-Rogers & McGovern, 2002, p. 614).
However, ethnocentricity is not always negative. Those with low ethnocentricity may feel “curious, interested, and inspired” by their intercultural interactions and as a result, experience the benefits of increased intercultural competence (Neuliep & McCroskey, 1997; Spencer-Rogers and McGovern, 2002). International students report a lack of cultural sensitivity coupled with negative attitudes towards them as their biggest barrier to effective intercultural interactions (Spencer-Rogers and McGovern, 2002). Given this, personal awareness of our own ethnocentricity and its effect on our ability to work with students suddenly becomes more important.
Levels of ethnocentrism are closely connected to intercultural communication apprehension, another communication barrier. Neuliep and McCroskey (1997) defined intercultural communication apprehension as “the fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with people from different groups, especially cultural and/or ethnic groups” (p. 148). Similar to those with high ethnocentrism, those with high levels of intercultural communication apprehension are less likely to attempt to engage in intercultural interactions. This is problematic, especially for international students, as intercultural communication apprehension also limits their ability to adapt to the host culture (Neuliep, 2012). A student’s fear to approach and communicate with advisors, coupled with our own communication apprehension, influences both the student’s personal and academic experience. Students may be reluctant to approach us because they are fearful we will not understand them, or that they will not understand us. As advisors, we may share that same fear.
Both intercultural communication apprehension and ethnocentrism can have negative effects on an individual’s willingness to communicate outside of the “in-group.” Both these traits also contribute to another communication barrier – anxiety (Neuliep, 2012). Intercultural communication anxiety is partially due to communication obstacles such as a student’s language ability, differences in expression of emotion, and differences in verbal and non-verbal communication styles (Spencer-Rodgers and McGovern, 2002). Members of the “in-group” and members of the “out-group” may both experience feelings of impatience, frustration, and suspicion even in anticipation of the encounter, which can then increase anxiety in both parties (Neuliep, 2012). When one experiences high levels of anxiety, a natural instinct is to avoid the situation, which again has implications for our work as advisors.
So what can we do? As academic advisors on the front line, how can we challenge our own biases, perceptions, and ignorance when working with students from cultures different from our own? As student service professionals, we have a responsibility to become consciously aware of the messages and actions we communicate to students and the ways they may be perceived. While it is impossible to learn every detail about an unfamiliar culture, this should not discourage us from expanding what we do know and exploring what we do not. Taking the initiative to increase our intercultural competence and communication skills will only further support students on their path to success.
Coordinator: International Student Academic Advising
Center for International Education
Northern Arizona University
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Cite this article using APA style as: McKeiver, K. (2013, December). Identifying barriers to effective intercultural communicaton. Academic Advising Today, 36(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]