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Building the Bridges of Communication

It’s a Small World: Boost Your Intercultural Competency

Portrait of Thorunn Bjarnadottir

Culture shock is what happens when a person is taken out of their cultural context and comes up against another. Sometimes this sparks humorous misunderstandings, as people become aware of the social agreements they take for granted, but it can just as easily lead to alienation or hurt feelings. To be true stewards of the international community the University of Minnesota has invited into its student body, staff and faculty must be aware of cultural values from around the world and how they drive behavior, and learn to recognize their own domestic culture and assumptions.

That’s where Thorunn Bjarnadottir comes in as director of Intercultural Education for the University’s International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS). “What I’m doing is training the U of M's staff on how to work with international students,” she says. “In the fields of intercultural communication, we know there is a huge misunderstanding between people from other cultures.” As skilled as our staff is at working with domestic students, “people realize they may not be offering the same good service to international students, or even from different cultures within the United States.”

How does conflict manifest in the classroom, with students from other cultures? One example: “Sometimes staff and professors will complain that Asian students don't speak up. In Minnesota, if people don’t speak up in class, [it’s seen as] they’re not paying attention or they don’t care, they’re not engaged.” Other cultures have their own customs and manners which some instructors may not be familiar with, and so ISSS helps educate them on other ways of communicating. “The issue is that they’re taught a talk-time difference: in parts of Asia, the space time slot between when the next person is supposed to speak is much longer, so our Asian students don’t feel they have a chance to jump in before someone else is talking, and they know it’s rude to interrupt.”

Does the ISSS find it difficult to reach out to staff and persuade them to attend their Intercultural Workshop sessions? Quite the contrary, Bjarnadottir states: “People are generally very satisfied with the training. They sign up right away, and we have a long waiting list. We’ve sent an announcement but people have already started lining up. We offer these workshops both in fall and spring, to help people attend: the demand is high.”

In addition to this formal training, ISSS also offers a cross-cultural leadership retreat lasting a day-and-a-half, with domestic and international students, as well as discussion groups where students can get together and talk about their issues. Currently the Intercultural Workshop focuses on the largest international populations in the student body, students from China, India, and Korea.

LearningLife students in Bjarnadottir’s course It’s a Small World: Boost Your Intercultural Competency will have the opportunity to explore how aspects of their own culture distinguishes how their unique values shape their perception of the world. It’s a must for world travelers,  professionals who work with people around the globe, and prospective hosts to international visitors!

Published on August 23, 2019