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Telling Chinese students to conform won’t fix cross-cultural issues

The classroom can be a cultural minefield or a place to grow cross-cultural understanding, depending on how you engage with it. Shutterstock

Telling Chinese students to conform won’t fix cross-cultural issues

Incidents of Chinese students being offended by Australian lecturers have become a heated topic in the media. Some reports blame lecturers for mentioning sensitive matters (such as the status of Taiwan), others express concerns about preserving the freedom of speech in Australian campuses, and some attribute the students’ reaction to deliberate influence from the Chinese government.

Government influence or not, these incidents should not come as a surprise. Universities are cross-cultural contexts which, by default, come with endless opportunities for cultural blunders.

Australian universities now include over half a million international students (30% hailing from China), along with lecturers who are not always Australian-born, and Australians who have diverse cultural backgrounds.

Depending on how you engage with it, the classroom could be either a cultural minefield or an opportunity to improve cross-cultural competency.

In the incidents we hear about, lecturers are portrayed as unaware of or not caring about their students’ sensitivities. Chinese students are portrayed as failing to observe the old principle “when in Rome, do as Romans do”, recently reaffirmed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in a statement:

That’s who we are. And they should abide by it.

There is value in both these perspectives. Lecturers can and should improve their understanding of cultural implications, while international students should engage with (and respect) Australian values. But these “shoulds” do not fully capture the complexity of human behaviour or cross-cultural interactions.

Checking our assumptions

One of the problematic assumptions underlying opinions about what lecturers and students should and shouldn’t do is the expectation that one could learn everything there is about all cultures, and as a result, avoid any mistakes. This is simply impossible.

There have been numerous incidents of international marketing campaigns that got “lost in translation”, despite companies devoting significant resources to understanding their customers.

This is not to say that learning about cultures is useless. Learning about cultures will increase your cultural intelligence, but it will not make you completely immune to blunders.

A second problematic assumption is that we process information rationally. This is an unrealistic expectation, even in the university context. There is extensive literature about the pervasiveness of cognitive biases – those mental shortcuts that help us cope with both overload and lack of information, but that also make us producers, believers, and defenders of “alternative facts”. Simply put, we’re subjective in our perception of the world.

In a study I conducted with colleagues in the US, we found the university context is not immune to such biases. We evaluate information that is presented to us through personal lenses: “what does that say about me?” A Chinese student who strongly identifies as Chinese is likely to struggle with information that challenges a view that was always presented as “the truth”. Just like any of us is likely to struggle with information that challenges our own understanding of who we are, or what we stand for.

Last but not least, generalisations never help in cross-cultural contexts. Not all Chinese students are offended when exposed to culturally sensitive topics, and not all Australian lecturers are cultural offenders. But sooner or later, each of us can be – in and outside of the classroom.

“Demining” the cultural minefield

Given that it’s unrealistic to fully prevent cultural blunders, and that blunders are likely to offend, we need to consider an alternative approach.

A “demining” approach begins with letting go of the “us” and “them” narrative. Decades of research on social identity tell us that the “ingroup/outgroup” framing leads to tension, competition, and prejudice. The remedy is to re-categorise the two groups as one. In the classroom, an easy way to achieve this is to define the class as a community, with the lecturer being part of it.

It is also helpful to have students and lecturers explicitly work towards a common goal. This idea has been confirmed again and again since being introduced in the 1950s as part of the contact hypothesis, which suggests that under certain conditions, bringing groups together improves inter-group relationships.

My cross-cultural research and teaching experience confirms that refocusing on common questions (as opposed to divergent opinions) is useful and possible. Unfortunately, both students and lecturers involved in the recent incidents missed the opportunity to do that. When we frame freedom of speech and cultural sensitivity as competing goals, we miss that opportunity too.

Finally, showing curiosity and genuinely trying to understand other people’s perspectives works in every context, including classrooms. That means focusing less on what we know, or believe, and listening to what others know or believe.

Such “demining” approaches can transform a cultural minefield into a place where different worldviews are not necessarily problematic, but rather, a learning opportunity for all involved.