Intercultural Communication Workshops at the RWTH:
Extending the Concept of Literacy

On December 13 and 14, 2002, the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (Aachen University) is launching new intercultural communication seminar workshops open to students of all faculties.

Recognising its position at an important crossroad between the industry and post-secondary education, the RWTH Aachen's new initiative to support its foreign and German students in the development of intercultural communication awareness and skills is to be welcomed as foresightful and realistic. In co-operation with the RWTH Alumni Team and the RWTH's International Office, this initiative will not only provide the industry with more "interculturally literate" graduates with strong technical training, but acknowledges the need for a more application- and practice-oriented approach to teaching intercultural communication competence that should begin in the university. In keeping with its status as one of Europe's leading technical universities, the RWTH should seek to set an example of offering students a balanced foundation of technical and non-technical skills.

The expansion of the global market and rush by industry to internationalise means that multiculturalism is increasingly recognised as more than just the by-product of joint-ventures and partnerships.

The vdi nachrichten is the weekly newspaper of the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure, chock full of career counselling, job market analysis, and commentary aimed at university graduates entering the technical work force. Almost every other issue contains a commentary on entirely un-technical malfunctions in international joint ventures, failed start-up enterprises with foreign partners, or the unrealised commercial potential of first contacts established at trade fairs. Regular essays offer insight into how cultural factors inevitably affect co-operations with specific cultures, such as (not unexpectedly) more exotic locales as Brazil and Japan, and (more surprisingly) the United States, and the skills required of the new generation of German engineers to manage these multinational projects.

The expansion of the global market and rush by industry to internationalise means that multiculturalism is increasingly recognised as more than just the by-product of joint-ventures and partnerships. The fact of the matter is, partnership with one or more countries automatically makes for a multicultural meeting room. How effectively they interact interculturally is a skill that needs to be developed on a foundation of cultural knowledge and sensitivity. Much more than a by-product, a multicultural constellation contains the ingredients for considerable synergistic potential, provided of course it is tapped into timely and skilfully.

The industry is putting out an important call that universities should heed, but also because it is an example that should be learned and prepared against. While an increasing number of internationally-oriented German companies are recognising the indispensability of intercultural communication competence in their technical and administrative staff, they face an uphill battle on several fronts.

First, breaking down intercultural communication problems in the technology-oriented industry is a little like trying to do repairs on a moving car. The problems are already present, often ossified through long neglect, and have likely manifested secondary sets of weaknesses in the machinery as a whole. There is only so much damage control you can do by repairing isolated holes! To solve the primary problem and break bad habits at this stage, while not impossible, nevertheless requires considerable time and financing, both of which are at a premium.

Second, the trademark of German industry and engineering is rooted in the culture's valuing of and fundamental belief that technical (i.e. fact-oriented) competence will carry the day. The consequence of this cultural orientation means that developing so-called "soft skills" in company staff is often still considered dispensable; in other words, likelier when time and money are available, or if human resource management itself recognises a need. However, the basic stages of establishing initial international contacts, grooming potential in that relationship, exploring unexpected avenues through synergistic exchange of new ideas for old problems, are in fact communicated across cultures in varying styles based on a wide spectrum of different values. Cultivating an interpersonal (i.e. relationship-oriented) comfort zone that shares more than a common technical vocabulary can be in the least effective, and at the most definitive in developing the human connection to its fullest potential.

As an intercultural communication trainer, I see a tremendous gap that needs to be bridged between industry and the universities which feed it. For decades it has been the aim of universities like the RWTH to maximise technology transfer to the industry. In essence, the same approach is required to optimise the human resource skills that will facilitate cross-cultural technology transfers. However, in any kind of transfer, whether technical or intellectual or emotional, the burden falls on the transferor to be cognizant of more than his own set of technical criteria, intentions and expectations. Coloured as these are by cultural differences, an optimal intercultural co-operation requires the ability of both sides to anticipate behaviour and communication styles very different from their own.

Unlike engineers and managers already in the industry, students enjoy the luxury of being able to test new skills with relative immunity. Knowledge and skills do not yet have to be "nut-shelled" into industry survival tactics. This opportunity should be used to advantage to lay the foundation for intercultural awareness and sensitivity. Students' general flexibility make them open to new, often provocative ideas and models, which greatly facilitates the development of intercultural communication competencies at the earliest stage.

Through my seminar activities with student organisations such as AIESEC and IAESTE, it is obvious that a great demand is present among the internationally-oriented student body for an application- and practice-oriented approach to learning intercultural communication skills. Students already recognise, and should be prepared for the typical situations they will shortly encounter in their professional lives which will demand intercultural communication skills.

Years ago upon first arriving at the RWTH I noticed one phenomenon that would draw regular commentary from German students, that many of the larger groups of foreign students had a habit of "clustering". Whole corners of the student mensa would be appropriated by this or that particular group of foreign students, who essentially did little mixing with the local student body.

Therein is the crux of internationalising an institution: clustering is inevitable among any large national group, but the phenomenon contains both potentials and risks that are essentially the flips sides of the same coin. A major university like the RWTH with aims to expand internationally by attracting students from abroad cannot afford to overlook and underestimate the expediency of intercultural communication competence precisely because the majority of foreign students at the RWTH originate from relationship-oriented cultures. Essentially, the networking instinct is a completely natural one within these groups. A conscious effort should be taken by the RWTH to communicate the message that German engineering is more than just technical know-how and competence. It's primary aim must be to strengthen ties with foreign students during their stay in Germany, so that on their return to their home countries they go as enthusiastic messengers for their alma mater. Foreign students should carry a feeling of integration back home and sow the seeds of future ties. Universities should be remembered as being more than just a stepping stone. Ultimately, it is in their best interest to cultivate a sense of its community as a "home away from home". In much the same way that biological ties alone are not necessarily enough to draw an adult child home to his family, the university must consider its role beyond a purely technical or organisational function.

The initiatives undertaken by the RWTH Alumni Team to strengthen ties with foreign graduates indicate a fundamental understanding of the need to cultivate strong ties on an interpersonal level. The RWTH as a working example of effective intercultural communication will create a much tighter, resourceful community of personal feeling than a community defined merely by common academic subjects.

Alexia Petersen, November 2002

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