Professor Xiaowen Guan lectures during a Communication in the Workplace class (Communications and Journalism) in Brady Educational Center (BEC) on March 10, 2014.

Found in Translation

2014 is the year of Horse. If you have heard about the Chinese zodiac, you might know there are 12 animals that circle every 12 years, and that each animal is said to symbolize certain personalities. If you were born in the year of Horse, it means you are energetic, passionate and independent  but also rebellious and impulsive.

Why do I mention this? Well, as you may have guessed, I was born in the year of Horse, and when I left China for the States, it was the year of Horse as well.

Twelve years ago, like many young Chinese students pursuing their dreams, I left my family and friends and started my graduate studies on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time that I ever left China, and I was 5,000 miles away from home, all by myself.

I was in my early 20s when I decided to come to study in the States. Back then, I didn’t have a clear idea about what I wanted to be. All I wanted then was to “get a layer of gold” which is what Chinese people say about students who go abroad for education. Twelve years later, I am a tenured professor at a university in the heart of the Twin Cities.

My path of life has everything to do with my research. Being an international student from China studying in the United States, I experienced many times that when I thought I communicated in a competent manner, only later did I find out that the exact message was considered inappropriate or even offensive in my American conversation partner’s culture. I was surprised and embarrassed when realizing that. But most of all, I wondered why it happened and how I could ever prevent it from taking place.

I started cross-cultural and intercultural communication research in graduate school. Since then, I have come to understand that everyday communication is rarely error-free, especially for those who come from different cultural backgrounds. As communicators we can learn about different cultural norms to form better understandings of our conversation partners’ intent, yet it might be impossible to completely prevent communication clashes from happening. However, that does not mean we should just stop trying to be competent in intercultural communication.

On the contrary, just as we can no longer escape conversing with someone from a different culture, intercultural communication competence is becoming even more imperative. But what does it mean to be interculturally competent, from a communications perspective?

In my doctoral dissertation study, I observed how Americans react toward embarrassment caused by someone from a non-U.S. culture. Opposite to the common belief that Americans are direct and confrontational, the majority of participants used avoidance and indirect strategies as the response. They ignored the embarrassing remarks, pretending nothing had happened.

I use this research to illustrate challenges in intercultural relationship-building in my Intercultural Communication class. From a practical point of view, ignoring and pretending nothing happened is an easy strategy; however, using such a strategy means offenders might remain unaware of their offenses for the entire course of the conversation. In addition, they may also continue to conduct such impolite and inadequate communicative acts in future conversations.

As a result, long-term relational harmony between these intercultural communicators might be at risk, and the culturally different communicators might be perceived as incompetent and inviting or reinforcing negative stereotypes about those who are culturally different. Because this avoidance has its drawbacks in the long-term impact of intercultural communication, my current research looks into perceived effectiveness and appropriateness of management strategies in problematic intercultural conversations. I want to examine not only the U.S. Americans’ perceptions and evaluations of management strategies, but those from non-U.S. cultures as well.

My research is immediately transferable to my teaching. Because I teach interpersonal, organizational and intercultural communication, my research not only keeps me updated in these areas but also provides the students with the latest findings in the subjects they are studying. In addition, my studies also have sparked my students’ interest in research. Two Communication and Journalism (COJO) major students worked with me under the Center for Faculty Development’s Partnership-in-Learning grant in 2010. They developed their own study on dealing with intercultural embarrassment and presented at the annual Undergraduate Communication Research Conference.

This year, I was awarded the Partnership- in-Learning grant again and am going to collaborate with another COJO major student on cross-cultural comparisons of parent-child communication.

Internationalization is one of the most pressing goals for higher education institutions. It does not only mean an increased number of international students, faculty and staff on our campus, but also means that we need changes in curriculum, extracurricular activities, and faculty research agendas.

When intercultural communication is at every corner of our professional and even personal  lives, becoming interculturally competent is no longer an aspiration but a necessity. So, 12 years after I came to this country, what I want to do couldn’t be clearer: I will further explore the impact of culture on communication in my research, finding both abstract and concrete ways to enhance our understanding of intercultural communication competence, and sharing them with our community.

Associate professor Dr. Xiaowen Guan teaches in the Department of Communication and Journalism. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.