Ideas to prevent cultural collision

December 22, 1995

Olga Wotjas reports from the Society for Research into Higher Education at Heriot-Watt University.

British academics may mistake politeness and respect from overseas students as shiftiness and snobbery because they are ignorant of cultural differences, the conference was told.

Eunice Okorocha, a research student in Surrey University's department of educational studies, has called for staff training in cross-cultural issues to help minimise the problems faced by overseas students in this country.

Her research has found that most overseas students arrive with high expectations of the United Kingdom, but that problems with adjusting to the weather, food and academic system can be compounded by cultural misunderstandings.

Ms Okorocha said that while the British used eye contact as a sign of listening, Africans listened with their ears, and avoided eye to eye contact as a mark of politeness and respect to a professional superior or older person. But she had found academics interpreting this as dishonesty or insincerity. Staff were also indignant about "aggressive" students who made demands rather than requests, although the students had no intention of being rude.

"It would be helpful for the member of staff to point out to the student the acceptable way of making a request," she said. Some staff were particularly appreciative of Japanese students' politeness, while others dismissed their continuous smiles as frivolity or snobbery, instead of seeing it as respectful, Ms Okorocha said. There were also difficulties of knowing whether a "present" was a bribe or a show of appreciation, whether to open gifts in front of the giver, and whether to greet someone with a handshake or a nod.

Some students were used to collectivist problem solving, and would say, for example, "I need to consult my brother," which would be interpreted as indecision by the staff member. African and Asian students in particular did not have the rigid British concept of time, and might not see it as a serious offence to be late for tutorials or appointments, while the academics found this extremely annoying. "This needs to be brought out into the open, for the staff to say that time is important," she said.

* Applicants from ethnic minorities pay more attention to an attractive prospectus and a teacher's recommendation when they choose a higher education institution, while white applicants place more weight on a good leisure and social life.

These findings come from a pilot study by Junying Zeng, a research student at Leeds Metropolitan University. She also found that ethnic minority students had more difficulties with loneliness, and lack of staff support, while white students had more financial problems and difficulty in adapting to study.

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