Saturday, 7 March 2009

Student chat on Ning - observations on intercultural communication

As mentioned in my previous post, one difference that struck me in our international chat over a
week ago was the communication styles of European and Malaysian students. Before the chat, I expected all students to be well familiar with this style of communication and thus swim like fish in water in the chat environment. Maybe they are, but inside their own cultural comfort zones, where everybody shares more or less the same communication strategies.

It was easily noticeable that the European students, even though most of them were users of EFL, seemed to behave in quite similar ways. Apart from the limited vocabulary of some, they mostly appeared a rather homogenous group during the chat. But as soon as the Malaysian students managed to get online there was a clear change in the conversation. While European students started typing their 'hi's' the moment they logged in, the Malaysian ones waited for quite some time, possibly trying to follow what was going on among the others first. It is possible though that this wait was due to their technical connection problems, too. We Europeans could see that they were online and started greeting them and encouraging them to join:

We soon realized the considerably more polite and formal tone in their replies. Many of them kept repeatedly asking whether they could join in the discussion, while European students simply dashed in to introduce themselves in the middle of other people chatting. Actually this shouldn't be a surprise for me, as I have seen the difference in the general attitudes and behaviour of Asian and European students during our face2face student exchanges. Even the simple fact of them calling me, the teacher, 'madam' was quite exotic, since here in Finland most students simply use my first name.

Being 'madam' for a while was quite sweet, though. Just as being called 'auntie Sinikka' by Malaysian students during our student exchange a couple of years ago!

Another difference between Europeans and Malaysians was that the latter seemed to prefer private one-to-one chats to the chaos of the main chat room. Our students found it strange that the Malaysians kept asking for 'privacy'.

Further, in the previous example the Malaysian boy asks: 'Can I know bout you more'. This baffled our students, too, as though he was asking for permission to ask questions. They expected others to be more straight-forward and ask more specifically what they wanted to know, just as they themselves were doing. In this sense the Malaysian students came across as far more reserved, which made the European students feel ill at ease at times. A good learning experience about intercultural communication, though. Students soon realized that using English doesn't make us all the same, but cultural norms still play a huge role in communication. These incidents are also very fruitful to help students reflect on the importance of empathy and remembering that difference isn't strange in a negative way, but actually our diversity is a constant source of wonder and fascination. The real challenge is, of course, how we can work together and understand each other despite our diverse backgrounds and communication cultures.
I need to point out here that these were just simple observations during one particular chat session between a limited number of students in a limited number of European and Asian schools. I am not trying to formulate any theories about intercultural communication, and much of what I wrote probably is rather oversimplified and stereotypical. Nevertheless, this is how it often works in practice - small and insignifant case studies and observations over the years lead to revelations that consequently guide the ongoing process of improving intercultural school projects. What's more, reflecting on the experiences in this blog helps me focus my thoughts and has become a way of keeping an active project log at the same time.

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