Communicating Across Cultures: The Missing Link

09/08/2017 07:58 pm ET

The U.S. against the world. White nationalists versus the rest of the country. It’s a frightening and disheartening world.

Political divides in the U.S. are greater now than they have been in 20 years, and they seem to be widening daily. Fewer of us are establishing friendships that cross ideological lines. As our society becomes ever more culturally diverse, our understanding of each other, even our ability to talk respectfully to each other, is declining.

We see this even in the most unlikely places -- in self-consciously cutting-edge companies such as Google and on college campuses that should be bastions of open-mindedness, mutual tolerance, and reflection.

In response, at Dickinson College we are launching a comprehensive campus-wide program to ensure that learning how to understand, talk and work with people unlike ourselves is at the very core of our educational program and of our educational community.

It has always been true that groups of people have feared and distrusted other groups, but we now live in a time where interaction with people from different cultures and countries is inescapable. This is especially true in the U.S. Rural white evangelicals from West Virginia, Muslim Americans in Minnesota, Brooklyn hipsters--the dynamic benefits to America from our variety are clear, but so too are the inevitable misperceptions, misunderstandings, fears, and hatreds.

While diversity among domestic and international students and scholars has enriched our college campuses, educational programs that deal with difference in deep, comprehensive, universal and systematic ways are surprisingly rare.

We often don’t perceive our own culture, yet our cultures and subcultures insure that we do not see the world the same ways, value the same things. We do not make the same assumptions or behave in the same ways. We are sure our ways are right, moral and based on “common sense.” To the extent that they differ from ours, “theirs” are not.

This often leads to to defensiveness and fear, which in turn lead to anger, conflict and sometimes violence. In the case of Nigeria, from which I recently returned, such hatred was deliberately fostered as a prelude to terrorism. In nearby Rwanda, it led to genocide. But in Nigeria we learned that while misunderstanding and fear can be manipulated and fostered, so too can understanding, acceptance, and friendship.

The human race has learned a great deal about how to make war. But we have learned a good deal about how to make peace as well. While conflict is inevitable, it can be understood, shaped, channeled, and reduced. It can be managed.

How can education help us in this task?

The answer comes in part from the field of intercultural communication, dedicated to broadening our understanding of culture, “theirs” and “ours,” and of what happens when cultures collide. Mere good will is never enough. The aim is to foster a far deeper understanding of ourselves and others, and to teach specific skills to help us bridge deep cultural chasms.

This is a journey from cultural obliviousness and often unreflective intolerance through denial and fear, defensiveness, naïve “we’re all the same” acceptance, to understanding, inclusivity and appreciation. It isn’t a short or easy journey for anyone. And it is a journey that includes difficult conversations and uncomfortable moments. How we do we proceed?

Our college and university campuses are already enormously diverse places. But simply drawing many sorts of people to one institution (and sending them off to study in the rest of the world, too) is only the very beginning of the cross-cultural educational process. Proximity isn’t enough. Students begin to self-sort, to find people like ourselves, to avoid others. Who among us is immune to this?

We must intentionally and consistently teach and adopt those proven techniques that foster greater cross-cultural understanding and empathy. We must find the time and the resources—not just diversity workshops--to teach intercultural skills. It is a process, for everyone, of the most profound and often painful self-exploration. It is the fundamental responsibility of every college and university to provide the plan, the tools and the guidance to undertake this effort

The shrill voices of America--sometime, if we are honest, even our own—demand that we reconsider and broaden what we are doing. My time in Africa, and return to a strident America, convince me that we must fundamentally rethink how we are going about intercultural education to create and nurture tolerance of differences among people, create an environment where civility and cooperation are the expected norm. It will not be a small task. The times require nothing less of us.

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