A student's perspective

Chowdhry Girirajanand is a student from India, who is enrolled in the "software systems engineering" Master's program at RWTH Aachen (Aachen University) here in Germany. He was also one of the participants of the first workshop on intercultural communication in December 2002 which we gave for students of all faculties at RWTH Aachen, and which since then has been held regularly. At the time of joining us for the workshop, he had only been in Germany for a little more than three months.

Immediately following the workshop, he began to notice the immediate relevance and applicability of the knowledge and tools taught in the workshop in his daily experiences in life in Germany, especially in communicating with fellow German and foreign students, professors and the administrative staff of the university. He experienced how knowledge and skills in intercultural communication, as we present them in the workshop, can in fact change the quality of interaction with people from different cultures. Over the subsequent months his conscious application of these skills enabled him to assess the other's actions or reactions more reasonably, thereby reducing or avoiding altogether unnecessary communication barriers. The result is not only a smoother adjustment to his new and very different cultural environment, but also the increasing confidence of possessing the necessary tools with which to deal effectively with the differences he continues to encounter.

Since his participation in the workshop, he has also had the opportunity to return to India for a short time, which exposed him to a typical experience of "reverse culture shock". Having adjusted to and acquired features of other communication behaviour abroad, he returned home noticeably changed in ways he himself had not been entirely conscious of.

Chowdhry Girirajanand has since written a short text on his experiences, which is not only fun to read, but also provides insight into the experiences of a successful traveller across cultural borders. We're happy to be able to make his text available on our web site, and hope you enjoy reading it!

Intercultural Communication: A Student's Perspective

by Chowdhry Girirajanand

I am a student from India doing my Master's degree at RWTH Aachen in Germany. In fact, this is my first experience out of my homeland. Aachen, a student city where if you board a local bus and turn around, you can see a German, an Italian, a French, a Russian, an Indian, a Chinese, an African, a Turkish and a Mexican all together around you (actually ths list is a bit short). It is naturally an exciting experience to live in such a colorful and diverse environment but with a pinch of salt.

I asked a Russian, a good friend of mine who is living in Germany from 9 years, "How much time did you take to learn German and feel comfortable here?" He said "German! Hmm I knew it before I came here. But I am still not comfortable with communication. I don't understand them!"

So this is the prelude. I am now in a position to see a line between language and communication. This is what I gained at the "Workshop on Intercultural Communication". Alexia, the workshop trainer started the workshop with an ONION! Opening each layer of this vegetable, we discovered more about the relation between the communication patterns of people and their culture.

I would say the workshop gave me fundamental framework to communicate across successfully in my intercultural student life. I can easily draw an analogy between the model presented in this workshop with that of Covey's "7 Habits of highly successful people". A few hard fast rules to start with and then I started making my own inferences of what the other person said and what he actually meant! Yes, there you see the irony. There is a gap between what a person says and what he means when you consider a multicultural environment.

I came to Germany about 10 months ago and when I sit today reviewing what I "communicated" since my early days in Germany, I am most of the times surprised to see that the inferences I draw from them today are completely different from what I drew before I attended this workshop. For example, take this simple dialogue: Max, a German student is studying seriously in the Library. With his head glued in a book.

Me (Indian): "Hey Max, can you help me with this writing?"
Max (German), without even moving his eyeballs: "No, busy at the moment."

Now, I was puzzled. Never in my lifetime had I got such a cold reply in my country. I expected a smile, or a small "Yes, but" or a bonus "Yes. Why not!". I started thinking in crazy ways about him. Now, I think completely different about him.

Another small example to show the non-verbal aspect of "communication". I was walking along a street with my friends after my German class. A Few Indians, Turkish and a Russian. Suddenly my Russian friend leaves the group without a reason. I asked him in private about the reason. I was surprised to hear the answer "I was not feeling comfortable in the group. You all walk in such a packed group without space for me". God! I never thought this can be a reason. Friends in India walk with their hands on each other's shoulders!

In my university classroom, the lecturer was giving an explanation. Suddenly a German stands up "Sir, I think you are wrong". I was puzzled with his behavior. It was a blind gaucherie for me. If I was that person, I would have considered meeting the professor after the lecture to discuss my difference with his idea. I was more puzzled when professor replied "Thank you. I just missed that". He repeated the greeting twice.

I would like to give another example with much wider look on communication differences across cultures. I remember a technical presentation in India and an important lesson from a professor there. After I made my presentation, he said "Giri! The content of your presentation was competitive. But you lost your points because of your plain flat slides. Next time, add some graphics and animation." Back in Germany, I was preparing hard for a presentation. I remembered the suggestions from my Indian professor. I sat the whole weekend to make my presentation slides more colorful and animated. I was ready with various exciting graphics and animations. The presentation went fine and ended with normal clapping. Then the professor walked to me in the break. I was expecting a pat on my shoulder for those wonderful slides. He said "Giri, the presentation was nice. But I would not recommend those slides. You should have made them more flat and without graphic effects. I would not recommend them". I was dumbfounded again.

In every example above, I can now reason out clearly the actual intent of communication. I would have understood it differently if I did not attend the workshop. The above 5 examples are just the tip of an iceberg. I could list many of such misunderstandings. The workshop however had given me answers to most of such behaviors. The workshop dealt with various scenes which happen around in our daily lives and gave me a perspective of how I can cultivate healthier communication habits. The workshop just did not included one way speech, but rather a multi-way discussion. Our group had people from different backgrounds and cultures which showed all the AHA-effect of communication gap between cultures right in front of us. I saw that for the same situation, I reacted differently than others. Slowly, the workshop increased our awareness in more detailed ways which included interesting tasks.

The workshop not only dealt with the way the deep rooted cultures affect oneself, but also with how to deal with the changes one undergoes after being in different cultures. I had felt clear differences especially when I was back to India. After 8 month living in Aachen, my surroundings did take me away from my culture, thus affecting my communication too. From my personal space to people I interact with daily, it was different back in India. As I had known before about such changes, I was able to at least manage a bit with my communication. But I would say I was not fully successful. The workshop taught me skills which grow and mature with constant practice and experimenting.

Most importantly, the workshop gave me reasons why a person may communicate in a different way. The reasons one sees, interestingly range from history, country, geography, family, occupation and many other aspects of life. I felt so strange how these things affected in the beginning, but then everything was made evident with more examples.

About 6 months after I attended the seminar, I started seeing a difference in my way of understanding people. I now can clearly know when a German is angry or when he actually appreciates me. The same words from an Indian would have rather meant to be said for a compromise. Or what actually I should expect when an Arab says "yes" and when an American says the same.

I would say if you are in a field meeting many people from different cultures, then this workshop will benefit one a lot, as I have clearly seen the benefits. Even now, I get emails from my friends saying that they liked my communication and even contrasting the way I communicated before. I have more friends today from various cultures and in the little time we meet, we exchange maximum information with minimum misunderstanding. I misunderstand fewer people now and when I do not understand, I am trying to put more time in knowing what actually the person meant, before coming to a conclusion.

Lastly I also learnt how to extract good things from every culture. The workshop showed me advantages of following some qualities of every culture. If anybody gets an opportunity, I would definitely recommend the workshop.

Copyright © 2003, Chowdhry Girirajanand

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