As we all know, different cultures have very different communication styles, and these differences can become even more exaggerated when dealing with international students from East Asian cultures.
The Concept of “Saving Face”
The concept of “saving face” is highly emphasized in Chinese culture, and can lead to a lack of communication on the part of Chinese students. Unlike in the U.S. where we are taught to politely but directly address disagreements or conflicts, in China such an open confrontation would be deemed rude. When students encounter issues with host families, they are afraid of embarrassing their host family by raising their concerns. In fact, most students would sooner request a new host family than face discussing a disagreement with their hosts. Moreover, Chinese students are fearful that they will not be able to maintain a smooth relationship with a host family once an issue has been discussed openly. This lack of communication can be frustrating for host families since they cannot fix problems of which they are not aware.
As host families, you should be aware of this misunderstanding. Engaging your students is the best fix. It can be something as simple as food. If your students do not like the food eaten in your homes, they will not say so. It works better if you ask your students which foods they prefer. This allows them to communicate their preferences honestly without fear of embarrassing you — their host families.
As host families welcome their Asian students, they should be aware and show patience for communication difficulties. Behavior that could appear to be impertinence or passive aggression may be frustration due to language barriers, culture shock, or simply a “failure to communicate.” Be empathetic and show your student you want to understand.
Here are some more ways to break down the barriers:
- Conversation: Find non-judgmental and universal conversation topics, such as family or sports. Stay away from any subject that could instill conflict. Asian students will do anything to avoid conflict in conversation.
- Manners: Don’t expect your student to say “thank you” as often as you have taught your own children to say it. “Excuse me” – another phrase Americans are taught from childhood — is also not used as often in China, so you should not infer your student is rude if this is not a common phrase.
- Discipline: When there’s a problem, being direct with your student could backfire and result in a less meaningful relationship between student and host. Try to be diplomatic and tactful when possible, while still exercising parental authority. China has a culture where it is a terrible thing to be criticized in public, so showing empathy and control will help mediate whatever issue you may be facing.
- Language: Your international students will speak English, but may be shy to use it. Many students find they are more comfortable and can communicate more effectively using a language translator available on many devices. You may find a translator helpful also – not only to better understand your visiting students, but also to learn their native languages.
As you and your international students begin your relationship, it’s important to keep in mind that they are entering a brand new culture with nuances that may not be immediately evident at their young ages. Understanding the differences between our culture and theirs makes that transition easier on your visiting students, on your families, and on you!