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This research study evaluates the effects of intercultural exposure and interaction on intercultural communication competence. It examines the correlation of mere intercultural exposure compared to meaningful intercultural interactions expressed through deeper relationships among local and foreigner students in the development of intercultural communication competence. This study uses a sample of 200 business students in an international university in Southeast Asia. A survey instrument was administered to 90 local students of business study programs with local students and teachers and 110 students of international business programs with a high percentage of foreign teachers and classmates. The study supposes that both groups are equally exposed to a multicultural setting since both of them are held on the same international boarding university and students in both programs live together in the same dorm buildings. But it also supposes that the second one, due to its international nature, fosters deeper intercultural interactions. A survey based research method was used to predict correlations between variables. The purpose of the study is to evaluate if the group with higher intercultural interaction develops significantly higher intercultural communication competence than a group with just a minimum intercultural exposure. This study is intended to serve as guideline for parents and international universities in Asia about choosing or offering programs involving basic intercultural exposure or international programs that encourage high intercultural interaction.
Effects of Intercultural Exposure and Interaction on Intercultural Communication Competence of Business Students in a Southeast Asian International University
As the marketplace continues to go global, so does the workplace. The success of a company today depends, in large part, on how it deals with cultural diversity within (The global workplace, 2005). The ability to understand and embrace cultural differences is critical to all aspects of a business, and diversity should be viewed as an asset that leads to innovative problem solving, a stronger workplace and better business.
How ready students are to face the diversity of a globalized workplace will make a difference in the preparedness of the output of today's universities. It seems that the general believe at the end of the 1990's was that sending students to study abroad programs in foreign universities would equip them with a meaningful enough experience to foster their intercultural sensitivity. Asian parents started sending their children mainly to America for them to achieve the desired intercultural skills. However, recent studies have shown that nearly 40% of foreign students were unable to establish meaningful relationships with American students. Participants from English-speaking countries were most likely to report having three or more close American friends, whereas students from East Asia often had no close American friends. The most common reasons why students attributed their friendship difficulties to Americans or to U.S. culture were superficiality (32 percent) and not being open-minded or interested in other cultures (25 percent) (Riskind, 2012).
Several questions on this regard may arise in the parents' mind today. Is it effective to send their children overseas in a study abroad program just to be "exposed" to an international cultural setting? Does a locally established international university offer enough opportunities for them to acquire the required intercultural communication competence? Finally, what is the real difference between just "exposing" their children to an international cultural setting and providing them with real opportunities to socially "interact" with students of other cultures and backgrounds?
Global Workplace Readiness
A globalized world is driving governments and universities to think deeply about the appropriate training that should be given to the 21st century students for them to be ready for the challenges and demands of markets that are not local anymore.
In America, just to bring an example, the San Diego County Office of Education (2010) has developed a framework that includes an inventory of skills required by students to face the growing global workplace. One set of skills included in it is called "social and cross cultural", which recognizes the student as part of a more diverse workforce and their need to effectively interact with individuals from different countries and cultures. However, it seems that the main focus of education leaders is to provide students with the appropriated language skills rather than focusing on fostering cross-cultural interactions.
Recently, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America, which brings together leaders in business, government, and civil society to generate and implement commitments to create jobs, stimulate economic growth, foster innovation, and support workforce development in the United States invited Jeff Livingston a McGraw-Hill education college and career readiness expert to share his insight on how to better equip America's young adults with skills they need to compete in the 21st century global workplace (2012). He identified "effective communication" as one of the required skills of the workforce in the latest century.
Effective communication helps us better understand a person or situation, enables us to resolve differences, build trust and respect, and create environments where creative ideas, problem solving, affection, and caring can flourish. By learning these effective communication skills, workers could better connect to their peers driving them to establish effective interactions.
The need for effective interactions with people from different cultures has become a fundamental management skill (Thomas & Inkson, 2005). These skills are no longer a requirement to expatriates or jet-setting corporate executives. It has become a fundamental management skill for all business students facing the challenges of globalized markets in the 21st century.
In their goals and mission statements, most colleges and universities include some version of 'knowledge of other cultures' as a component of a liberal education (Williams, 2005). The reason for doing so is not just their awareness of their need of providing their students with enough intercultural sensitivity but because "Today's students and their parents are more inclined than ever to hold colleges and universities to account for the quality of the educational opportunities they provide--educational consumers want assurances that institutions will provide the knowledge, skills and awareness that will contribute directly to success after graduation" (Berg, 2001, p. 31). Today parents and students are more aware of their need for an education that get them ready not only for the local market but for a global workplace, an education that may provide them with enough intercultural exposure to achieve their goals. There are two different approaches for achieving intercultural exposure in the higher education area for Asian students: Study abroad programs and international programs in local universities.
Study abroad programs, defined as all educational programs that take place outside the geographical boundaries of the country of origin, increasingly gained popularity and interest in the 1990's (Carlson, Bum, Useem & Yachimowicz, 1991). They are usually a one semester (4 months) stay in a foreign country in an academic environment.
Typically, skills acquired in a study abroad program involve improvement in foreign language skills and knowledge of a new culture. But, do study abroad programs provide student with effective intercultural communication skills? A study developed by Williams (2005) indicates that study abroad students averaged a greater score in their Intercultural Communication Awareness (ICA) test than campus students. That's because students who studied abroad had more exposure to the type of situations which would bring about an increase in intercultural communication awareness. The study showed that the main predictor for intercultural communication skills was indeed "Intercultural Exposure". Interestingly, the same study seems to suggest that study abroad programs are not the major predictor of intercultural communication skills when close intercultural interaction was not achieved by participants.
International programs in local universities where created due to the dramatic changes caused to the character and functions of higher education in most countries around the world by globalization and the evolution of the knowledge-based economy. One major trend related to reforming and restructuring universities in Asia that has emerged is the adoption of strategies along the lines of the Anglo-Saxon paradigm in internationalizing universities in Asia with the intention to make the higher education systems more globally competitive.
In a way, Asians have one more economically feasible choice than sending their children for a study abroad program. Now they have local universities with foreigner teachers, students and desirably with a high cultural promotion commitment. In theory, those programs could ensure intercultural exposure for longer periods of time than study abroad programs since they last 4 or 5 years instead of 4 months.
A study developed by Clarke and Hammer (1995) described the quality of intercultural interactions as one of the predictors of intercultural managerial success.
Against the background of international student bodies, intercultural interaction between the students from different nations has become a key success factor for internationalized universities. This is particularly true for border universities, often founded with the objective of advancing mutual understanding between students from different countries and preparing them for a globalized world (Groeppel-Klein, Claas, & Glaum, 2010).
In this study we make a clear differentiation between intercultural exposure and intercultural interaction in a multicultural international university. We understand the first one as a mere immersion in a multicultural setting and the second as the one involving meaningful relationships among students from different cultures. The unique characteristics of multicultural international boarding university located in Southeast Asia along with the differences of the local and international business programs allow us to study those two variables independently.
Intercultural Communication Competence
According to (Hynes, 2011), every year multinational companies send their best employees for international assignments to grow new markets, maintain existing operations, or develop their high potential. That pushes those employees to care about how to effectively communicate with their colleagues while respecting their cultural background.
Intercultural communication means that people from different cultural backgrounds interact with one another. Cultural differences can create potential to make intercultural communication very difficult, and sometimes impossible. Culture strongly affects values, beliefs, world views, nonverbal behavior, language, and how to have relationship with others (Chitakornkijsil, 2012).
Saee (2007) expresses that managers have to become interculturally competent to capitalize on unlimited opportunities and benefits afforded by cultural diversity within a global economy.
The first stage toward developing intercultural communication competence is that of Awareness. A person has to become aware (a) that there is a major influence called culture that has major effects on people's lives and (b) that different behavior are consider culturally appropriate in different parts of the world (Jones, 2000).
One way cultural awareness can be developed is by being assigned to global teams as global teams are the most important contributor in organizations to the development of intercultural competence (Bartel-Radic, 2006). Another way to develop cultural awareness and, therefore, develop intercultural communication competence is by intercultural exposure and intercultural interaction (H & Duhon, 2006) in higher education programs.
This study uses a sample of 200 business students in an international university in Southeast Asia. Survey instruments were distributed to 90 local students of business study programs (only local students and teachers) and 110 students of international business programs (high percentage of foreign teachers and classmates). In total, 156 returned usable survey instrument, resulting in a response rate of 78%. Men constituted 46% of the group. The average respondent was 22 years old and had an average of 2 years studying in the university.
Predictor variables were intercultural exposure and interaction. Criterion variable was Intercultural Communication Competence.
Means, standard deviations, intercorrelations and reliabilities were calculated for all variables.
Intercultural communication became a noticeable sub-area of Asian communication studies only in the 1990s (Kim, 2010). A few Asian countries have generated relevant research on Asian intercultural communication. That fact makes this research a relevant study for the intercultural communication awareness in the region.
Specifically, findings showed that meaningful intercultural interaction, understood as the establishment of effective interpersonal relationships between students with different cultural backgrounds, constitute a stronger predictor of intercultural communication competence than a shallow intercultural exposure to an international university setting.
This study, due to the specifics of the sample, becomes just a pilot study and opens the door for future and broader studies involving more and bigger international universities located in several countries in Southeast Asia.
Further study opportunities are opened comparing the effectiveness of the development of intercultural communication competence of study abroad programs with international university programs for additional conclusions. Also, a comparison of the same variable for boarding international universities and regular international universities would be interesting.