“A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.”
— Sundar Pichai
Communication is like a chain story. One phrase or statement or action leads to the next. The major reason we are conscious about intercultural communication are due to globalization and diverse workforce.
In this series of Elephant in the Room, I would like to narrate certain communication breakdowns.
I have been teaching at the language institute where we have students from various parts of the world. Interacting with different cultures is always enriching, encouraging and at times, entertaining!! I have called it entertaining on purpose! Over the period of time, I have come across several incidents which brought ROFL moments, moments of sheer embarrassment and also moments of enlightenment (we enlighten our fresh teachers an orientation programme of facing awkward situations!) At my institute, every day it is a disclosure and a learning process for good.
Our college has been a ‘Home away from Home’ for several international students. In this diverse workforce we the teachers of ELTIS, Symbiosis, Pune learned to embrace multiplicity. My colleague Dr. Yogita Bhamare and I have always shared our unique experiences and this resulted in better understanding of culture and various aspects. These experiences build our cultural awareness, curbed our ethnocentrism and became more and more open. We learned the difference between generalizations and stereotyping. Like a true mahout, we have tamed the elephant in the room with an open mind.
Our international students generally have a great difficulty to understand our mystifying head nod. Our heads unconsciously wobble, bobble, waggle for ‘Yes or No’. This created mystery and flummoxed them and they used to ask is that a ‘yes’ nod or a ‘no’ nod? This is what every traveller speaks about India and we were conscious not to create confusion with our Thalayattum Bommai (like the head shaking doll) habit.
Students from Thailand appreciate their teacher by saying “Teacher look beautiful”. The teachers’ natural question would be which teacher? Again, the student would repeat pointing at the teacher, “Teacher look beautiful”. Now it was her moment of surprise.
Another Thai student expressed his disappointment saying, “I told teacher to give me extra vocabulary but my teacher forgot”. This confused the teacher whether she should comment anything on some other teacher’s behalf or just ignore the complaint.
Later on, she found the mystery that Thai students speak without pronouns. They consider it impolite to use “You” or consider it rude to use the pronoun “YOU” for a teacher. Like many Indian languages, we have different pronouns to show respect, Thai language too has pronouns to show respect. That is why they find it uncomfortable or rude to call a friend and a teacher with a same pronoun- YOU!
Another disclosure was how Arabs and Middle Eastern countries use go back and come back the same way or rather in confused way! A student from Iran would say, “I come back to Iran” when he travelled to Iran for holidays. And similarly he would say, “I went back to Pune last night”. As teachers, we try to explain the difference between the usage. However, it hardly helps them as they tend to compare the grammar of English language with the grammar of their mother tongue where they use the phrase in Persian bargardan for both come back and go back in English. They cannot identify the difference in both the usages. A great erudition for all of us.
Our teaching experiences have created more awareness for intercultural sensitization as a soft skill. We had several instances where in we have learned that intercultural communication influence communication patterns.
Another such instance was when the Arab and middle eastern students request the teacher that every Friday teacher should consider their coming late to the class by 10 to 15 min because
‘Every Friday we bray at the barking area’. The absence of sound /p/ in Arabic creates such hilarious moments every year without a fail.
A few more examples would be:
I am in ‘bune’(Pune) and
I like to eat brawn(prawn).
I love Be
The pronunciation of many English sounds is problematic for Arab speakers mainly because certain consonants do not exist in Arabic. Certain vowels (especially long drawn out) are difficult to reproduce when they are followed by certain consonants or diphthongs. They find the name Apoorva as a tong twister- they end up calling her Abroova teacher and Teacher Chitrupa becomes Teacher Tichrupa for them. Similarly, absence of the sound /dʒ/ in Arabic, creates confusion and they pronounce the word Engineer with a /g/ sound.
Don’t you feel surprised that is there are no /p/ and /dʒ/ sounds in Arabic”?
In one Writing class, the teacher was teaching singular and plurals. The topic of the day was some unusual plurals. As a rule of ‘oo’ in singular noun becomes ‘ee’ in plural, she gave an example-
‘Goose and Geese’.
There was an eerie silence in the class and the teacher tried to explain with more examples and how does a goose look like? The teacher felt uncomfortable later on with the silence and she understood that there was something amiss. Gooz in Persian language means ‘fart’ in English. So now readers you are silent…
Another such moment of awkward silence was in a speaking session when Yogita almost came running out of the class with embarrassment. The topic was Festivals and special foods. After the students spoke, they asked the teacher about Indian festivals and foods. While talking about special sweets and desserts Yogita mentioned the dish “kheer” and how it is eaten as delicacy in different parts of India on different occasions. There was a dead silence!!!! Yogita was confused as a class full of enthusiasm to know Indian foods and festivals suddenly went silent and started avoiding eye contact. She tried to explain it more but in vain. Then an elderly lady student from Iran came to her rescue (!!!) and requested Yogita in whispers not to say the name of the dish again ever, as it means a male organ in Persian!!! Imagine the embarrassment??? Yogita never forgets to alert all the teachers teaching international students with her hard earned “experience”.
Many international teachers who visited ELTIS have faced a dilemma with our habit of avoiding to say ‘No’ to anything unlike Americans who are much more direct. This was quite annoying for them when we say ‘Okay, no problem’ when we actually mean ‘No’ and they take it at face value. Another revelation for us to think on…
This multicultural workplace has definitely increased our creativity and developed understanding and respect for cultural differences. This was an assorted and pleasant treat all of us, teachers at ELTIS. This has helped us to align with an increasingly global students and their needs.
Cultural issues are like oil to an automobile… when functioning well, culture is not recognized.”
-- Wendy Hall
Jayasree Menon is an Academic Projects co-ordinator and a Business Communication trainer at ELTIS, Symbiosis, Pune. She has several years of teaching experience and quite passionate about learning and improving her skills to match the needs of the 21st century students.
Dr. Yogita Bhamare mentioned in the write up is her colleague and an experienced senior faculty at ELTIS, Symbiosis, Pune.