Campus News

Professor outlines the secret to effective intercultural communication

The secret to successful intercultural communication lies in listening for echoes, Donald Rubin, professor emeritus of speech communication, said in a seminar on multicultural communication sponsored by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“The feeling of being understood by another person with whom you’re interacting is like hearing an echoing voice, you hear them empathize with you,” he said. “And it’s not important that the voice agrees with you.”

Rubin, who is also an adjunct faculty at Georgia State and Emory universities, focused his talk on international communication between the U.S. and Eastern countries, especially as it concerns lending aid. He began by dispelling the notion that some people are gifted communicators whose talents are inborn.

“If communication was just a natural talent, I’d be out of a job because we couldn’t teach it in a class,” he said. “What it’s about is training yourself to be mindful of other cultures. When you see a new category of experience that you don’t understand, you have to be willing to open yourself to that experience.”

Using cross-cultural examples from his life, the Peace Corps, agriculture and politics, Rubin stressed the importance of sensitivity when dealing with people from diverse backgrounds.

“There are many different dimensions of diversity: gender diversity, sexual orientation, able-ness. Within the context of cultural diversity we can talk about people who are speakers of a variety of languages, people from various ethnicities and nationalities and inter-racial diversity,” he said.

“In my mind and as I’ve been teaching this over the last 30 years, you cannot conflate all those different kinds of diversity,” Rubin added. “Each dimension of diversity has some unique issues that set it apart from the other kinds of diversity. On the other hand, there are some commonalities to how we learn to adjust and communicate with people who are dissimilar than ourselves.”

Cross-cultural dialogue gets bogged down unless people are able to understand this spectra and appreciate that collectivist societies will make decisions slowly and by committee, that they do not commend individual achievements and that, unlike Americans, their highest goals in life may not include happiness, according to Rubin.

“You have to be willing to reveal things about yourself, to establish an interpersonal relationship, before we can say that you are creating an effective culture communication,” he said. “You cannot be a tourist and just ask and listen to another party. You have to talk about yourself, too. It’s all about identity confirmation.”