Navigating Culture at Harvard: An Intercultural Communication Workshop Series Part II

In order to create a space for Harvard’s international teachers and scholars to delve into the cultural complexities of communication, the Professional Communication Program for International Teachers and Scholars offered an Intercultural Communication Workshop Series in the Spring 2016 semester. This blog post is an overview of the final two sessions of the 4-part series (see Part I here!), which covered verbal and nonverbal forms of communication.

Verbal Communication Styles allowed participants to make sense of the way we communicate verbally across cultures and to practice verbal communication skills considered effective in the Harvard environment.

In order to examine verbal communication styles, participants reviewed a sports analogy1 2 that compared three culturally different verbal communication styles with the sports bowling, rugby, and basketball. First, consider bowling. Each player has a turn to toss a ball down a lane while all other players stand by silently and watch the ball take its course. Bowling can be compared to the communication styles of some Asian cultures that have a “high-considerate” style of communicating. Listeners often wait until the speaker is finished. Long pauses or silences are common in these verbal interactions, which may be confusing or uncomfortable for other speakers. Quite opposite, consider a rugby match. It’s very fast-paced and there is much more contact, with players often tackling each other forming a pile on the ground. The rugby style of verbal communication is characteristic of Russia, and some Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Latin American cultures. Speakers commonly speak loudly, with vigor, and over one another, which may seem aggressive or overly emotional to speakers of less dynamic styles. And finally, somewhere in the middle of these two is basketball. Players run up and down a court quickly passing the ball back and forth between team members. One must continuously bounce the ball in order to keep it, but players may grab it if the opportunity presents itself. This style is typical of North American, British, and Australian speakers. Imagine a classroom discussion at Harvard, for example, the conversation bounces around quickly and the opportunity to contribute to a discussion is subtle. In order to keep the floor, you must be careful with pausing, as a brief silence can indicate to others that they are welcome to jump in.

Do you recognize any of these styles in your own way of speaking? We vary in speaking styles in other ways, as well, such as how direct or indirect we are, how we structure the presentation of our message (linear versus circular), what amount of information we think is necessary to include in our spoken message (low versus high context), and how formal or polite our speech is depending on our audience (low versus high power distance). Because we approach verbal communication so differently, it is no wonder that at times we find ourselves perplexed or challenged by verbal interactions in the classroom and other contexts at Harvard.

After reviewing the characteristics of different verbal styles across cultures, workshop activities included strategies for communicating effectively in an environment where the “basketball” form of communication prevails and where it is often expected to be direct, explicit, and relatively informal, such as at Harvard. Practice exercises included engaging others in small talk using a string of connected questions, using phrases to verbally indicate an interruption or to hold the floor during discussions, and organizing thoughts quickly using linear speaking models to perform on the spot with impromptu speech exercises. Although the workshop activities developed skills for being effective with the “basketball”, direct, explicit, and linear styles of communication, the other speaking styles were not presented as any less valuable. In fact, reviewing the characteristics of the different styles was a useful exercise in recognizing them in self and others, allowing participants to be aware of how their speaking styles may be received and potentially lessening misinterpretations with colleagues or students. With this awareness, for example, it can be easier to reserve judgment and adapt accordingly when encountering a “silent” student, or a “domineering” discussant.

Body Language: Sending the Right Message presented a variety of ways we communicate nonverbally and allowed participants to explore and practice their own nonverbal communication.

Although we may not realize it, we communicate nonverbally in ways beyond facial expressions and gestures. We do so through our handling of time (i.e. being 20 minutes late communicates disregard or disorganization), the tone in our voice (i.e. how enthusiastic we are about a subject), our physical appearance (i.e. tattoos, hairstyles, jewelry), our use of personal space, tactile communication (or touch), eye contact, and scent. And the way all of these nonverbal messages are communicated or interpreted is influenced by culture. Take eye contact, for example. Generally speaking, in American university contexts, eye contact indicates that you are listening and engaged with a speaker, while lack of eye contact may indicate insecurity or insincerity. In some other cultures, avoiding eye contact communicates respect, while direct eye contact may be interpreted as aggressive or confrontational.  

Workshop participants discussed aspects of nonverbal communication and any differences they noticed between body language they have observed at Harvard compared to other cultures with which they are familiar. Workshop activities also provided opportunities to practice and get feedback on nonverbal communication that gives off messages of confidence (i.e firm, but not too firm, handshakes, and assertive postures), and approachability (i.e. the right amount of eye contact, and using an expressive speech melody) that can affect your ability to connect and engage with others successfully. To bring it all together, the final workshop exercise had participants working in small groups to create role plays that demonstrated both ineffective and effective nonverbal communication.

Future programming on intercultural communication will include a Bok Summer Seminar on Intercultural Communication for International TFs and Scholars. This seminar will provide participants an opportunity to explore and practice strategies for teaching and communicating across cultures, with special consideration for teaching at Harvard. This seminar is designed for international TFs and scholars, but is open to anyone interested in developing intercultural competence. Visit the Professional Communication Program for International TFs and Scholars website to learn more about our program and our offerings.

This post was contributed by Pauline Carpenter, Instructional Specialist at the Bok Center.

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