Intercultural communication: navigating international students’ cultural norms

  • 5 min read
Intercultural communication: navigating international students’ cultural norms

Intercultural communication is a crucial skill within international education. To effectively communicate and connect with international students from across the globe, understanding their culture is paramount.

Studee’s student advisors are expert interculturalists, having trained with NAFSA and engaging with international students on a daily basis. By practically applying theoretical concepts, Studee’s advisors have formed impressive intercultural communication techniques.

Here are the intercultural factors you should consider before you liaise with international students, as picked by our student advisors.

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Understand culture

To be a successful interculturalist, the foundations of culture need to be understood: what culture is, its principles and characteristics, why it’s important, and how it develops.

Learning the fundamentals of intercultural communication will enable you to develop a comprehensive understanding of cultures, paving the way for greater levels of empathy and understanding when communicating with international students.

According to the most recent International Student Survey, adopting an intercultural communication strategy could also help your institution hit its international enrollment targets. It concluded that universities demonstrating an empathetic understanding of foreign students’ mindsets and cultures could more easily “manage them along the inquiry and application process”.

Analyze which countries the majority of your international students are from, and learn about their cultural values. Get to know their history, customs and beliefs to understand why the culture is the way it is.

This will help you form considerate and meaningful interactions with students - they will feel understood and valued.

Identify cultural differences

For international students, moving to a different country is hard, as the culture of the new country might be drastically different from home. As one study summarizes, “students attending universities in a culture different from their own have to contend with novel social and educational organizations, behaviors and expectations – as well as dealing with the problems of adjustment common to students in general”.

The International Student Survey revealed that 29% of overseas pupils looking to study in the UK were concerned about cultural differences, while 38% worried that they would be made to feel unwelcome. However, 47% of respondents said that knowing more about the culture they’d be moving to would make them feel less worried.

To help students settle in, try to identify cultural differences which may require some adjustment e.g. In the west, Sunday is a holiday, unlike the middle east, where it’s Friday. If they know what to expect before they arrive, then culture shock will be lessened, resulting in reduced stress. This could go a long way in helping students feel comfortable in their new home.

By showing you understand their struggles, students will feel reassured. This builds trust and can increase the likelihood of international students choosing your university.

Treat each international student as an individual

Cultural identities can have many facets. Understanding each one will help you provide bespoke service. Get to know each student personally.

For example, Kamal and Sue are eighteen. They were born and raised in Texas, and are looking to study in Europe. Kamal identifies as a second-generation practicing Sikh male of Punjabi origin. Sue identifies as a first-generation Chinese female of no faith.

Although they’re both American, Kamal and Sue have different cultural associations. Their cultural identities are distinct. They’re likely to have different needs and goals when it comes to studying abroad, highlighting the need for a tailored service.

It’s also important to recognize the existence of stereotypes, biases, and prejudice with a non-judgmental approach. Make students feel welcome by celebrating other cultures and promoting equality. This also encourages them to accept cultural differences, resulting in an increasingly pluralistic atmosphere.

Learn how to communicate across cultures

It’s vital to understand how people communicate in different cultures. Without this knowledge, you risk miscommunication or causing offense. This can negatively impact your reputation and applications.

Understand the communication styles of each culture. For example, in western countries, direct communication is preferred, explicitly saying “no” conveys honesty and clarity. In Asian cultures, this is considered rude and blunt, indirect terms like “maybe” are favored.

Greetings are also important. In many countries, It is acceptable for unrelated men and women to shake hands. However, this is forbidden in conservative Muslim cultures.

An investigation into the challenges faced by international students found that pupils often struggled to adapt to “different value systems, communication patterns, signs and symbols of social contact, and interpersonal relationship patterns”. This sometimes led to “misunderstandings and uneasiness” when studying abroad. Based on these findings, the authors recommended intercultural competence training for students and faculty, as well as cultural orientation programs, and colloquial language workshops.

It’s also helpful to create regional culture specialists within your institution. Split your team into smaller groups and assign a world region to each team e.g Asia, EMEA, etc. Train each group on the cultures of their assigned region. Each team will become experts at liaising with students from their given region, which will help you efficiently maximize engagement and applications.