Nieuws - 13 juni 2013

Group work across cultures

Nowhere in international Wageningen are cultural differences more tangible than during group work. The multi-culti version of the polder model can be hard work.

Group work lies at the heart of the Wageningen approach to education. 'It has a lot of advantages,' explains Dine Brinkman, lecturer in intercultural communication at Education and Competency Studies. 'It brings you in contact with other fields of expertise. Many foreign students already have work experience and they bring that with them. They bring different competences in and another perspective that makes you think. And in the process you gain all sorts of social skills: meeting skills, decision-making skills, dealing with leadership, etc.'  But for many of our international students, it is a totally new experience. And not an exclusively positive one either.  
'Everyone should listen quietly to the leader. The other members of the group are subordinate to the leader. Everyone should obey the appointed leader.'
Brinkman reads this aloud with a smile. 'This was what a Taiwanese student wrote. At the end of the course I always get my students to write a short reflection on their experience. These sorts of ideas about leadership are very different to what westerners are used to.' A clash of ideas about leadership is very common in group work. Is the chair the boss or an equal who happens to have been allocated the task of guiding the process?
Another major cause of conflicts, according to Brinkman, is the fact that Dutch (or western) students are product-oriented while many international students are process-oriented. 'Product-oriented means: we must finish the paper. And that means working efficiently, dividing the tasks and setting deadlines. People from Asia and Africa invest a lot more in the relationship, the process, and engendering trust. The differing emphasis on task or trust causes clashes. The Dutch are extremely task-oriented: what is important to them is that something gets done and is completed. Foreign students are far more concerned with their role: you only do what is part of your role. This is not reluctance on their part, just a different way of seeing things.'
The key question of course, is how to handle these differences. In Brinkman's view, it is all about expectations. 'In group work you have to take the time at the outset to discuss explicitly what everyone's expectations are. What will each member contribute? How much time are we going to put into this? What is the deadline? What are people's qualities? What do we expect of the chair? Are we going to work at weekends as well? And (very important): how high a grade are we aiming for? The Dutch are often happy with a six or a seven, foreigners aim for a nine.'
The Dutch have an insuppressible urge to discuss everything at length which provokes much bafflement and irritation. 'We can't help it,' says Brinkman. 'Dutch students learn by discussing a lot, asking lots of questions and exchanging opinions. That is strongly stimulated in our education system. But foreign students see all those questions as laziness and find them annoying. They learn by reading up on things themselves and by listening. We learn by arguing, which is something new to many international students.'
Just as new and just as annoying is the notorious Dutch directness. 'That is very bothersome for foreign students. The direct feedback, the direct way of blurting out your opinion are often seen by foreign students as very threatening, offensive and rude,' says Brinkman. 'Asians and African seek harmony in the group. Arguing and giving negative feedback disturbs the harmony. So they say yes, I agree, even when they mean no. Whereas for the Dutch it is indirectness that is annoying and unclear.'
But there are ways around the problems. Brinkman: 'By giving feedback online more instead of face to face, for example. That way it is less threatening. There are some things that are better not done in groups. And try to be less direct as well. Give options, for instance, so that people have a choice. We Dutch very often say 'do you follow me?' That can be very insulting. It is better to say, 'To make sure we've got it clear, shall I go through it again?' That is more indirect.'
Actually, says Brinkman, students could prepare themselves better working in international groups. More than 120 students take her module on International Communication Skills every year to support the Academic Consultancy Training course. But that is a drop in the ocean if you look at how much group work goes on across the Wageningen curriculum. And the module is not even compulsory. 'It is not a lack of interest,' says Brinkman, 'but every extra you offer has to be done at the expense of something else. I know there are initiatives aiming to make the curriculum in WUR more international. Intercultural communication could be part of that.'
Haoran Yang
Environmental Sciences
'Dutch people are quick to offer their opinions, and they are quite outspoken about their ideas no matter they are right or not. Asians like to listen, and probably so do Africans. They only directly express something if they are really sure it is worth saying. Dutch students could be more accommodating and supportive towards other members of the group so that they speak up too. Another difference is the attitude to the conception of hierarchy. In Asian cultures the chair is the boss. But in Dutch culture the chair is your equal. It is really important to know that. A lot of Asians don't understand it. It has to do with the polder system. I got it after one workshop as well as the experience of working in VeSte and the Student Council. The group work is just like the Dutch landscape: flat and lacking in hierarchy.'
Yingying Zhang
Applied Communication Sciences
'There is very little group work in the Chinese education system. But I like it. I chose to study abroad, and if you do that you should adapt. What I would suggest to Dutch students is: be aware of what is involved in working in an international team. Accept that it is not like working with only Dutch people. Take on the challenge. Dutch students express themselves freely and directly. But make space for other members of the group too, especially at the start. Stay modest and polite and don't use cultural differences as an excuse ('That's just the way we do things').