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

Cross-cultural interactions occur on a daily basis at Harvard.  According to the Harvard International Office statistics, there are almost 10,000 international students and scholars (including post docs and visiting scholars) from 152 countries at Harvard this year alone, international undergraduates make up 11.6% of the Harvard college community, and about 30% of GSAS students come from outside of the United States. Consider also the number of international faculty and staff. And of course, American Harvard community members come from diverse backgrounds as well.  

We do not leave our cultural backgrounds at the gates, and we may not always be prepared for the differences we encounter. Communication styles and deeply ingrained cultural values influence our behaviors, expectations, and interactions with others in classrooms, research work, and a range of social and professional situations, and can determine how successful we are.

The Professional Communication Program for International Teachers and Scholars created a workshop series to bring undergraduates and international teachers and scholars together to focus on topics related to intercultural communication for the classroom, and other settings in Harvard’s international academic environment. The workshops are designed for international TFs and scholars, but are open to anyone interested in learning more about intercultural competence.  Below is a summary of the key activities and takeaways from the first two workshops, as well as information about upcoming offerings! 

Navigating Cultural Differences at Harvard: A Workshop for ITFs provided participants with the opportunity to explore how culture influences our behaviors and interactions. A top takeaway from this session was that because we operate in fundamentally different ways, cross-cultural misunderstandings happen even when all involved have the best of intentions. Because typical responses to misunderstanding include fear, confusion and frustration, it can be challenging to take a step back to learn from these interactions and address them effectively. Fortunately, there are things we can do to enhance our intercultural competence in order to approach and manage cross-cultural encounters with more success.

First, participants identified their own cultural values and communication styles. Next, by working through a series of scenarios that are typical in the Harvard academic context, participants learned how to make sense of cross-cultural misunderstandings by reflecting on the incident and investigating possible reasons for what happened. An important part of this process is to withhold judgment (or take note of your own cultural bias) and apply awareness of cultural values and communication differences, which can mitigate emotional reactions. Participants reflected on what they might have done in similar circumstances and brainstormed how things might have gone if handled differently. In doing so, they explored how behavior and communication can be adjusted to accommodate cultural differences and lead to more successful interactions. Approaching how we navigate culture in this way can lead to deeper understandings and more successful interpersonal relations.

Cultural Dynamics of the Harvard Classroom provided participants with the opportunity to discuss the cultural makeup of classrooms, including student and instructor backgrounds, and their roles and expectations in classroom situations. Cultural preferences, such as levels of formality, and expectations for classroom behavior and relations, as well as cross-cultural communication styles, like low vs. high context communication and direct vs. indirect speech can all influence teaching and learning (e.g. how we go about building rapport, presenting information, or giving feedback).

Being aware of such factors allows instructors to interpret and manage classroom dynamics and to make informed instructional decisions. Participants reviewed specific strategies for how to create and maintain productive learning environments, including how to get a sense of the cultural climate of a classroom and how to connect with undergraduates. Some of these strategies include doing an icebreaker on the first day of class so that students and instructors can get to know one another, gathering information from your students at the beginning of the semester about their backgrounds and goals for the course to get a sense of their expectations, and collecting early feedback to see how things are going. Some additional caveats that came up are the importance of making expectations clear, such as with classroom participation and assignments, and being open and explicit about instructional methods. 

Future workshops include Verbal Communication Styles on Thursday, March 3rd and Body Language: Sending the Right Message, on Thursday, March 31st. Both take place from 3:00-4:30 at 125 Mt Auburn Street in room 307. Come discuss topics in intercultural communication with Bok professionals and experienced Harvard undergraduates! 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.