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Univers: How to communicate with foreigners

11 July 2007, 00:00

Everybody at Tilburg University needs to have intercultural skills. For this reason, the university aims to introduce a special course in 'Intercultural Effectivity' for students and scientific and supporting staff, both Dutch and international.

Everybody at Tilburg University needs to have intercultural skills. For this reason, the university aims to introduce a special course in 'Intercultural Effectivity' for students and scientific and supporting staff, both Dutch and international.

Imagine the following situation: an Iranian student participates in an important university project, but has failed to show up three times. You - the teacher - meet him to talk about this. Your Iranian student finally shows up, half an hour late.

Iranian student Naziar: "My alarm clock didn't go off."
Guust Meijers, head of the Language Centre, the teacher: "Oh, but it's half past ten already. Did you have a party?"
Naziar: "I find it difficult to get up lately."
Teacher: "Well, but you're here now. I have the feeling things aren't going very well. Why didn't you show up to your workgroup meeting?"
Naziar: "I'd rather not talk about my private matters. "

A small group of supporting staff sits together in the 'Villa, Vier Jaargetijden', in the centre of Tilburg. In a distinguished room with a giant chandelier, a richly decorated mirror, and golden ceiling, they interact in a role-playing game with an Iranian actor to learn more about intercultural communication.

This course in 'Intercultural Effectivity' is part of the International Campus project. The language tests for both students and employees are also part of this plan. To see if the 'Intercultural Effectivity' training is successful, last week and this week there were three pilots; for scientific staff, students, and supporting staff. If this programme is successful, it will be introduced throughout the whole university, sometime next academic year. After the evaluation of the training course, the Executive Board will decide how to launch this new course.

"Making it compulsory for everybody is a step too far," according to Hans-Georg van Liempd, head of the International Office. "But I can imagine that it would be good to make it a part of English courses. In an international classroom, students of different cultures have to work together. So they should learn how to talk and listen to each other."

Roos Ruijpers, who took part in the pilot training course, is international marketing officer at the International Office. She regularly has to deal with various intercultural problems. "In my former job as study advisor I had to tell a Chinese student that she couldn't enrol in a course. She kept saying, 'yes' with a smile. I thought she didn't understand what I was saying. Afterwards I learnt that she kept saying 'yes' out of politeness."

At the training course, Ruijpers learnt how to deal with such problems. "It is best to let the student repeat what you just said and also to write it in an e-mail afterwards. This way the student can read it again. Maybe with a dictionary," Ruijpers says. The role-playing game with the Iranian student also sketches a situation that happens in real life. Ruijpers recognises it: "One time a foreign student was crying his eyes out with me, but wouldn't tell me what was going on. In his culture it was not common to talk about your problems."

Trainer Yvonne Fijneman, of the company Fijneman & Willemsen, explains that foreign students should be approached differently in some respects. "You especially need time to win the confidence of the students. But I realise that time isn't always available." One candidate wonders if this is not also a problem with Dutch students. "No," says Nicole Fouchier, managing director of the faculty of Economics, "Dutch students come right out with their problems."

Several subjects were dealt with in the training course. For instance, which psychological processes play an important role in intercultural contact? What qualities and skills do you need to be interculturally competent? And what causes miscommunication? "How people react to you, " Fijneman explains, "is dependent on different factors: the person, the situation, but also the culture and the political and economic circumstances."

The training course does not give all the answers about how to deal with Chinese, Polish, or French people. It aims to make people more conscious. "And that's useful," thinks Ruijpers.

"If someone acts in a strange way, you know it's not always personal. For instance, when I'm doing business I act typically Dutch. I'm very direct. That scares off some people. And I'm not always aware of that." Ruijpers would like to see this training course introduced as a compulsory subject for the whole university.

"Everybody should be aware of cultural differences. Plus, the university wants to be international. Everybody within the organisation should be prepared for that."

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