Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #2: Don’t Be a Cultural Idiot: Exploring Intercultural Communication Competence to Improve Communication

February 1, 2014
Intercultural Communication

In a connected world, the likelihood we will encounter people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds is ever increasing. From large international organizations, to work teams or small groups in college classrooms with members from diverse cultural backgrounds, communicating with others who have backgrounds vastly different from our own is inevitable. As such, it is becoming increasingly important to create an understanding and awareness of cultural values, ethnocentrism, and intercultural communication competence.

Intercultural communication competence requires us not only to recognize and appreciate cultural differences, but also to develop skills to effectively interact with others from different cultural backgrounds. The college classroom is a prime setting that enables instructors to teach students this crucial skill that is relevant in both professional and personal settings. In an attempt to create an environment where students felt comfortable discussing their own cultural values and intercultural communication competence, we challenged our students to participate in a case study by watching a variety of clips from the British travel documentary series “An Idiot Abroad.”

“An Idiot Abroad” is a British documentary television series that follows Karl Pilkington, a man who would prefer to stay home in London than travel abroad, but is forced to travel by his friends and former radio show co-hosts, comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Across the three series, Pilkington explores the Seven Wonders of the World (Season 1) experiences a variety of bucket list adventures (Season 2), and follows the journey of Marco Polo along the Silk Route (Season 3). Pilkington travels to a new destination in each episode and describes his reactions to the cultural differences he faces. He often demonstrates that intercultural communication can be a source of frustration and misunderstanding filled with obstacles such as preexisting attitudes and stereotypes, and even ethnocentrism.

To get started, students watched clips that show Pilkington interacting with individuals from a wide variety of cultures, as well as segments that focus on his commentary and observations about the culture. For example, in Season 2, Episode 1, Pilkington travels on the Trans-Siberian Express; in Season 2, Episode 5, he travels across America on Route 66; and in Season 2, Episode 6, Pilkington travels to Japan to climb Mount Fuji. After viewing the clips, students participated in a facilitated discussion by answering initial questions designed to encourage critical thinking about how culture, cultural values, and intercultural communication competence influence our interpersonal communication and our ability to listen effectively.

Based on the observation and analysis of the clips, students recorded notes about Pilkington’s cultural values, the cultural values of the people with whom he interacts, and perceptions of Pilkington’s ethnocentrism and intercultural communication competence level. Following each clip, students worked in small groups, sharing their observations and challenging each other to explain and provide support for their observations. The final component of this assignment required students to report on their findings of the clips shown in class.

Discussion around strategies for improving Pilkington’s intercultural competence became challenging as students tried to support their claims with observations from the clips. For example, students described the role of motivation as a factor that may hinder the success of improving competence levels—since Pilkington does not want to travel in the first place, would he be motivated to improve his communication? In the end, students described how they perceived Pilkington to have a moderately high level of ethnocentrism and explained how it was an obstacle to improving his intercultural communication competence and his ability to adapt his communication to his conversational partners.

An additional component of the assignment asked students to complete an observational learning assignment whereby students collect their own examples of ethnocentrism, cultural values, and intercultural competence. For example, students can observe intercultural communication at their workplace, in their dorm, or by watching a television show or movie. Then, they relate their observations back to intercultural communication concepts discussed in class, providing detailed examples. This optional component of the exercise served as a transformational moment for some students. Students seemed particularly skilled at recognizing connections between cultural values, intercultural communication, interpersonal communication competence, and implications for interpersonal and business communication. Exercises in self-analysis and reflection help students increase their awareness of their own communication values and patterns and can help set them up for more successful interactions in the future.

Students have shared that participating in this activity aids in their ability to recognize differences in cultural values. Further, students tend to provide thoughtful contributions to the discussion about their own intercultural communication and its implications for their personal and professional lives. For example, a student from a small country town disclosed she had not been exposed to different cultures and had not understood the necessity of adapting her communication when interacting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. She went on to share she did not fully appreciate how challenging it could be to communicate with other cultures when traveling or working.

In today’s society, the issue of intercultural communication is central in both professional and interpersonal relationships. It is essential to cultivate comprehension and mindfulness of cultural values and intercultural communication competence. This assignment proves effective in using popular culture and humor to build real world skills, helping society to have one fewer cultural idiot.

About the author (s)

Brittani Crook

University of Texas at Austin

Doctoral Candidate