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Intercultural Communication Taught to Engineers is Behind the Times

engineers-communicating

Being able to communicate and collaborate across cultures is crucial for many of today’s professions, engineers included.

However, a Japanese-led research team suggests that the intercultural communication skills being taught to today’s engineers are not fit for purpose.

The researchers, spearheaded by the University of Tokyo, analysed a collection of written materials used in engineering education from across the globe. Researchers in universities in the U.K., Belgium and Australia also contributed to the analysis.

Their conclusion?

“The subject of these materials was intercultural communication and their analysis concludes education in this area is not just lacking but also behind the times.”

One of the major criticisms the research had of the materials was the basic approach to understanding people from different cultures.

Assistant Professor Yu Maemura, from the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Tokyo, explains:

“There’s an assumption that intercultural communication is about language barriers, it’s much more than that. Culture is also discussed purely in terms of nationality, but this essentialist view is very limited.”

Essentialism in this context refers to the idea that culture is innate and that you can categorise people broad factors such as race or nationality. Essentialism judges people by broad cultural characteristics.

“It’s easy to imagine why people think this way; it’s not only intuitive but it’s also ingrained in us,” explains Maemura.

“Much could be gained if educators in engineering instead viewed culture as emergent rather than something as a given.”

This ‘emergent’ view of culture is what is known as ‘constructivism’, which the researchers believe better reflects reality.

“The constructivist view implies there may be more in common between two engineers from different countries than between an engineer and someone in a very different profession from the same country, depending on the topic and context of the communication,” says Maemura.

“With this in mind, good intercultural communication could actually improve collaborative efforts between otherwise disparate groups of engineers.”

A simple way to instantly improve the teaching of intercultural communication, according to Maemura and his team, would be to educate engineers about cultural differences within their own countries, and similarities between different countries.

This they believe could open their minds to the constructivist view of culture, helping them to engage better with their global engineering colleagues.

“Even senior engineers such as managers go overseas and are not prepared to deal with all they encounter, manifesting in issues which can go unnoticed. Communication is the biggest issue in collaborative environments. Perhaps projects could be completed more efficiently, cost effectively and to higher safety standards with better intercultural communication.”

 

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