Open yourself up to foreign affairs

February 9, 2007

Working with colleagues from overseas need not be difficult so long as everyone is aware of and sensitive to the cultural differences and similarities of the host and home countries, says Harriet Swain

You might think that it is all very well students being from different countries and cultures, but half your colleagues these days just don't know how things are done in a UK university. However, Martyna Sliwa, a lecturer in management at Essex University, who came to study in the UK eight years ago from Poland, says that the increasing number of academic staff from different nationalities and with different experiences offers an ideal opportunity to question the status quo and celebrate cultural difference.

Nor should you assume that because they originate from overseas they are ignorant of UK universities, she says. The chances are that your international colleagues will have either studied in the UK or worked with UK academics, so they won't be completely unfamiliar with a British academic environment.

On the other hand, it's useful for you - and them - to know about potential cultural conflicts to avoid embarrassment. "Practically, it means that sometimes it might be necessary to say things more directly, to dedicate more time to checking how a given situation is understood or interpreted by those involved, and to avoid taking one's own assumptions for granted and projecting them onto others," Sliwa says.

These efforts aren't necessary only when someone from overseas first joins the university. Sliwa says it is often when the initial excitement and hard work of starting a new job wears off that awareness of cultural differences sinks in. "I might be in an environment with a few colleagues and sometimes conversation goes to something I just cannot relate to," she says. She says that you need to realise that colleagues from overseas are likely to have fewer networks and will be grateful to be included in social events.

But don't lump all international staff together. This is the danger with setting up special events or organisations for them. The chances are that a young Eastern European woman will have much more in common with a young UK woman than a middle-aged Middle Eastern man.

"Being aware of differences is the first step," says Arthur Francis, dean of Bradford University School of Management, which has brought out a guide for academics and others working in multicultural groups.

He highlights three areas where differences regularly crop up. The first is degrees of deference: people from Asian cultures tend to display a higher degree of deference towards their seniors than people from Western cultures, which can affect interaction in multicultural groups, he says.

Second is teamwork. Francis says this is something that people from an Eastern European background can find particularly difficult. "Forty-eight years of working under communism means that people haven't felt as free to operate in a team context as they have in Western Europe," he says.

Third, he says, countries differ in their attitudes towards assessment. In North America, undergraduates are considered a failure if they get less than 85 per cent, whereas in the UK that would give them a first. At his university, markers are given advice about expectations in the distribution of marks across a particular assignment to avoid misunderstandings and also to explain to UK academics that the tendency of some overseas colleagues to mark generously is to do with culture rather than lack of skill.

The Management School also developed a conversion table comparing US and UK marking styles. The guide says it is important to recognise how views of success and failure differ. While it is common in some countries to see failure as a way to improve and to refer to problems as "challenges" and disagreements as "issues", in other countries people are embarrassed by failure and tend to deny it exists. This means some nationalities are less likely to let on if they have failed to understand a discussion point, or they may become uncomfortable if their mistakes are pointed out in front of others.

The guide warns that higher education systems differ from country to country in the extent to which they stress critical thinking versus memorising facts, as well as in how far they encourage students to be outspoken. It advises anyone managing an international group discussion to make the rules explicit and to ensure that westerners do not dominate simply by being pushier. In addition, it highlights different attitudes to swearing, time-keeping, formality and keeping eye contact.

While this kind of help targeted at international staff can be welcome, it has to be developed in conjunction with the staff concerned to ensure it is what they want and need, Sliwa says.

It must also be offered sensitively. Some lecturers won't take kindly to offers to help improve their pronunciation or accent, for example, feeling that as long as they are understood it shouldn't be an issue.

Jonathan Ray, a spokesman for Nottingham University where there is a high number of international staff, says many are well versed in cultural differences and don't want to be regarded as any different from UK staff.

But for those who do want more support, Nottingham offers inductions in which it can let overseas academics know about research programmes at the university related to their country of origin, staff and student numbers from their country and university societies that may be of interest. It also offers help to the families of overseas academics.

Bristol University offers to put new academics in touch with more longstanding international academic staff. But Susan Robertson, professor of the sociology of education at Bristol, who originates from Australia and has worked in universities in Canada and New Zealand, says it is often becoming involved in social and community life outside university that helps someone settle in.

Further information
International Cultures: Differences that Enrich our Lives: a Guide to Working and Studying in the UK , Bradford University School of Management Network UK - the researchers' mobility portal:

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