Cross-Cultural Challenges In The Life Of An International Exchange Coordinator

Thierry Kakouridis (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Physique de Marseille)
Régine Lambrech (Ecole Centrale de Lyon)

Any study of the interactions inherent in managing international relations necessarily implies an analysis of the crosscultural environment in which an International Relations Office performs its task and accomplishes its missions. Paradoxically enough, culture is what binds us together but, at the same time, it is what keeps us apart. It is precisely this duality that we would like to explore in this presentation as we study the intercultural problems encountered in the running of an international office.The very words « intercultural problems » imply an interference between our cultural background and that of our international colleagues. One of the harshest realities of intercultural incomprehension is the natural tendency to contrast the « others' » cultural framework to our own. This results in a systematic juxtaposition of « us » and « them ». These two frameworks cannot, however, be understood separately because the latter is developed as something we « know » as seen from our own cultural framework. It is, if you like, a mirror image that only provides us with what we want to know or accept about ourselves. Ideally our own culture must not to be taken as the standard or « right » one while we look at the rest of the world as having « strange behavior ».

Misunderstandings often arise from our lack of understanding of the « cultural mindset » of those we interact with. Here is a very telling example of cultural « interference » and its effects on a student:

« All this morning, » said Akibombo mournfully,  » I have been much disturbed. I cannot answer my professor’s questions good at all. He is not pleased at me. He says to me that I copy large bits out of books and do not think for myself. But I am here to acquire wisdom from much books and it seems to me that they say better in the books than the way I put it, because I have not good command of the English. » (1)

This quotation comes from the work of an author whom we identify with the study of crime and its effect on human nature. In this passage, Agatha Christie introduces an African student who is studying in London. She evokes Akibombo’s different cultural view of plagiarism, which is generally defined as the unauthorized and unacknowledged borrowing of another’s words and ideas. When treated at the hands of the queen of crime, plagiarism can been seen in a very different and intercultural light. Perhaps Agatha Christie with her in-depth evaluation of human nature, would have also made an expert at intercultural communication!

Language is a vehicle for communication since it is the most visible and available expression of a culture. The way an individual thinks, acts or feels; the way he or she communicates, views the world about him or her and the way an individual identifies him or herself are all affected by a transition from one culture to another. This creates what theory now refers to as cultural bias. Running international exchanges necessitates a constant cultural shift as we strive to contain our cultural bias by attempting to find inroads into the cultural framework of the person we are dealing with.

Any activity we undertake is weighed down by our own cultural bagage and by our language. In our roles as directors or coordinators of international exchanges we are confronted daily with problems of a cultural nature either within our own institutions or within the framework of our contacts with international colleagues or students. In order to understand how we handle these problems and in order to better appreciate the cultural expertise required of the successful international exchange officer, we would like first to examine his or her constantly evolving role.

In the « ancient » times of the pre-ERASMUS program, a professor was sometimes called upon to receive international students in the classroom or in the laboratory. With the advent of the mobility scheme called ERASMUS, great numbers of students began arriving in our institutions and funding became available for student mobility and for the administration of the exchange programs financed by the European Community. It was at this time that the role of « international exchange coordinator » was created. Professors, with no reduction in their teaching load, then became Erasmus coordinators called upon to supervise the exchange of students with their own institution’s partners as well as becoming « accountants » responsible for the payment of student scholarships and the maintenance of strict accounting procedures to respect the guidelines set out by Brussels for each ICP contract it funded. As the flows of students increased, the professor turned administrator/accountant was increasingly being sollicited as a « psychologist »/hand holder » for the incoming international students and for his or her outgoing study abroad students. It became apparent that students were ill-prepared (both linguistically and culturally) for their study abroad period and, at the apparition of their first difficulties, they immediately went to see the exchange coordinator in the host institution and contacted the « sending professor » from their home institution. Students have too widely differing language and cultural preparations for their period of study abroad. These range from no preparation at all or often hastily thrown together pre-departure orientations, to well thought-out cultural modules or ideally, courses.

Thus, in addition to already heavy teaching and research loads, the professor-administrator-accountant-hand-holder began spending time counseling disgruntled or homesick students. These professors, specialists in their respective fields, are not trained as intercultural specialists. They may even have been « victims » of cultural misunderstandings in their dealings with fellow professors or administrators in their partner institutions. Suddenly, the tables were turned on these professionals trained to impart information to students. They found themselves not only taking on added tasks, but also being transformed into self-taught and makeshift students of intercultural communication themselves. As specialists of cross cultural communication and international relations office management, it is our responsibility to make ourselves heard by decision-makers not only in our own institutions but also in the European Commission. Due to the quantitative and qualitative development of educational exchanges which are the prerequisite of true European citizenship, it has now become imperative that the promotion of language and cultural competencies become an integral part of the mission of each and every international office across Europe. In some countries inroads have been made to achieve this integration whereas in others much remains to be accomplished.

Besides problems of dwindling budgets, demanding students, timetable juggling, financial reporting, etc. there are numerous problems of an intercultural nature that are encountered in the running of the international office. These are the most difficult to resolve because they necessitate cultural insights (foresight and hindsight) which are far more subtle than the purely administrative tasks of the international office.

Before looking at what we call « international intercultural problems » we propose to begin our focus with some of the often forgotten cultural problems that we have come to terms with in our own institutions.

Cultural clashes are not necessarily international. Take, for example, the coexistence and often, mutual misunderstanding, of the scientific and the humanities cultures within our higher education institutions. This could be generalized as the opposition of the scientific culture, characterized by the « brevity + directness = efficiency » formula that sometimes omits accuracy and refinement, to the humanities culture which sees the scientific « lack of eloquence » as being equal to the omission of important information. Scientists, more often than not, are unaware of the fact that they impart their knowledge through language and that language cannot be separated from culture since it reflects particular thinking patterns. They denigrate the role of language teachers whom they see as « bilingual babysitters » and promote science as the only important element in a student’s education. Language teachers are humanists and have, by the very nature of the bilingualism/biculturalism of their training, an intercultural outlook on education and see their contribution as helping to make the student « a citizen of the world ».

Again within our own institutions, each International Office or other administrative office faces having to deal with the « cultural » chasm which often exists between academics and administrators. Each thinks that the other is contriving insurmountable obstacles to foil the plans of the other. In most cases, this is remedied by installing a good level of communication between the administrator and those being « administered ». The centralized international office is perceived to have structural power over the different university departments due to its control of financial resources and information.

There are thus undeniable differences between, on the one hand, the « cultures » of scientific and humanist academics and, on the other hand, between the « cultures » of academics and the culture of administrators. The academics are in daily contact with the international students and are the first ones consulted by these students when problems arise. They see things in the light of their scientific specialties and often in the light of the demands made on the time that they normally devote to research and teaching and that qualifies them for promotions within their scholarly ranks.

On the other hand, administrators are concerned with the cost effectiveness of international exchange programs and often do not realize the significant personal input of the professor when he or she is not primarily an administrator. The transformation and absorption of the ERASMUS program into the new SOCRATES program has brought with it even more clashes between the two « cultures ». Whereas previously the professors were individual administrators of each ICP, the new SOCRATES program requires each university to have a central office responsible for the administration of all the international exchanges taking place with the various departments of the university. Overall responsiblity has thus been centralized in all institutions be they large or small. This was immediately seen by the professors as a bureaucratic effort to give them all of the work and none of the credit for handling international exchanges. Thus, intercultural misunderstandings need not be international in scope!

Besides dealing with « internal » intercultural realities, we are called upon to reckon with intercultural problems on an international scale. In International Offices the old proverb « Seeing is believing » becomes the intercultural proverb « Experiencing is learning ». We have all been faced, at one time or another, with situations in which we cannot understand the reaction or response of an international colleague. Some of the more common cultural differences encountered in the running of international offices are examined below.

Let us start by looking at the person responsible for the International Office. In most large French educational institutions, the person officially in charge is a professor promoted to the position of Vice President for International Relations. How close this person is to the daily running of individual exchange programs is what differs from one institution to another. Most of the time, however, the international office is managed de facto by full time administrators who do all the real work behind the scenes, and do not get all the credit that they so rightfully deserve. That being said, there are mammoth institutions both in France and elsewhere in Europe where full-time professors are heads of these offices but spend their time primarily in their classrooms or laboratories. When such is the case, administrators in the international offices of partner institutions abroad can be faced with a slow response time to problems or requests because no immediate contact with the professor-administrator can be made. Because of infrequent and/or irregular presence of the head of the International Office, the daily running of the office is entrusted to individuals who are not authorized to make important decisions. This leaves international colleagues perplexed as to the degree of importance given to the international office in their partner institutions. In other words, if I can’t get someone on the phone to immediately resolve a problem, how can I be perceived in my own institution as being efficient when this problem is seen to drag on? More importantly, why doesn’t my partner institution feel that international exchanges are important enough to confide the running of the international office to a full time administrator, i.e. someone immediately available to respond to requests or problems? Cultural differences both within our institutions and beyond do, indeed, come into play here.

Time, and how it is viewed, can also be an intercultural problem encountered in the running of an international office. Differences in the treatment of time is one of the most often cited sources of misunderstanding between peoples of different cultures. Here in Europe, this has led to the opposition of cultures of the « North » to cultures of the « South ». In his book entitled The Hidden Dimension (2), Edward T. Hall examined the influence of time across culture. He distinguished between « monochronic » which he called « M-time » and « polychronic » which he called « P-time » treatments of time .

In our case, The M-Time can be seen to be the Northern European culture and the P-Time, the Southern European culture in international offices. In M-time cultures, things are taken care of one at a time. Time is linear and segmented. People in M-time international offices like events to be scheduled and they are often distracted or distressed by unplanned and unforeseen interruptions. In general, they have a more immediate time-related response to faxes, electronic mail and phone calls, which are regarded as « urgent » top priority requests and must therefore be treated without delay. But these are requests that can be « budgeted » in terms of time and can then be turned into planned events.

On the other hand, P-Time is characterized by many things happening at once and P-Time individuals have a much more loosely defined notion of what is « on time » or what is « late ». Interruptions are a fact of daily life in these international offices and delays are to be expected. Deadlines never have anything of the word « dead » in them and human activities do not proceed according to a well-defined and linear scenario. The notion of what is « urgent » is thus very different. This P-Time culture consequently can explain the « cultural » clash between administrators of « Northern » international offices who consider that faxes require an immediate reply and administrators of « Southern » international offices for whom time is not linear and who are engaged in many activities at the same time and therefore do not see why one activity should be given any more « urgency » than another.

Another of the major intercultural problems that international offices must deal with is the range of grading systems used throughout Europe. Students who study abroad return home with transcripts of their grades as given in the host institution and seek home institution validation for the coursework accomplished abroad. Should we go by the straightforward ECTS grading scale which, if easy to handle, remains inaccurate or incomplete since it makes a clean sweep of the cultural dimension inherent in a professor assessing an international student or an international student being assessed by a professor from a different cultural background? Or conversely, should we officially recognize and take into account the added difficulty of successfully studying in another language and culture?

The importance grades have on a student’s career is a cultural phenomenon in itself. In Germany, for instance, grades appear on a student’s diploma and thus, students register to take exams only when they feel that they are properly prepared to take them. On the other hand, in France, students only strive to obtain the minimum passing grade that will enable them to obtain their diploma. This is because their employers will never see their grades since they are not mentioned on the diploma.

As a general rule, individual coordinators and/or universities have established their own assessment procedures for recognizing course and project work done abroad by their students. These procedures, which have evolved over time, range from block recognition of the work to direct grading equivalences for each course. These systems have been somewhat complicated by the recent introduction of double diploma schemes such as that of the TIME network (Top Industrial Managers for Europe) where two continuous years of study abroad lead to the obtaining of engineering degrees in both the home and the host institutions. Within this network both grading and course equivalence procedures have had to be worked out. In other words, we have had to work out the cultural differences of grading systems to handle the credit transfer between two institutions as well as establish waivers for course requirements taking into account work already accomplished in the home institution. Here the problem has been to overcome the common reaction: « No course could ever replace mine! » All of this has been accomplished without having recourse to the European Credit Transfer System which did not exist when many of our double diploma exchanges were created. It remains to be seen whether ECTS will be a cultural « help » or « hindrance » in the pursuit of these double diploma or other exchanges since, under pressure from Brussels, most of the twenty-five universities which are members of the TIME network have had to incorporate ECTS into their SOCRATES institutional contracts even though the course requirements and grading equivalences had already been worked out.

Another intercultural problem encountered in the running of international offices is the way information is treated. Here the word intercultural assumes its double meaning – inter-culture as in the opposition between the culture of academics and that of administrators and inter-culture as in between cultures. In France, for example, to possess information is to possess power. Sharing information puts you on the same foot as the one with whom you share the information. If you practice information retention, then you can be seen as being superior to the other because you know something that he or she does not. Unfortunately, information is frequently not shared between academics and administrators because each feels that the other will gain the upper hand. What then suffers from this lack of information sharing is the quality of the international exchanges and, perhaps, even the reputation of the institution.

Another problem encountered by international exchange coordinators is the enormous differences in the reasons for internationalization of the university or for international mobility. Some establishments seek numerous bilateral exchanges because they see them as a means to increase their status and give publicity to the institution. Others see internationalization in purely mercantile terms and seek to increase their enrollments with fee paying students since ERASMUS/SOCRATES exchanges provide clauses for compulsory tuition waivers. Still others have the ingrained attitude that teaching is less « international » than research, that « noblest of all callings »!

In dealing with our international colleagues we must keep in mind that their reactions are often produced by the university « culture » that is their working environment. In other words, their decisions and/or actions may often be based on university politics rather than on a cultural heritage. To this university « culture » we must add intercultural differences which automatically cause us to see internationalization in a different light.
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As has been shown in the first part of this paper, the international relations manager is faced with cross-cultural problems, not only when dealing with his/her counterparts in foreign institutions, but also, and perhaps more significantly, when trying to interact with other members of staff in his/her own institution. Short of finding solutions to this intricate knot of cross-cultural problems, it will be extremely difficult to set up and develop a truly effective and satisfactory international policy. Suffice it to remember that European unity is at stake, so that the cross-cultural challenge is for each and every institution across Europe to take up.

We will now present a few « interculturally correct » solutions to the problems identified previously. Before doing so, however, it is necessary to define such fundamental concepts as « culture », « self-awareness », and « cross-cultural competence », as these concepts underpin our approach, and as people have too often come to use them without being fully aware of their meaning.

Culture : – A set of material and ideological phenomena which distinguish an ethnic group, or a nation, a civilization from any other group, nation or civilization : Western culture. We consider the following as material and ideological phenomena : language, thinking patterns, mindsets, reference systems, religion, political and socio-economic systems, social behavior and interaction, uses and customs, the arts, clothing, food and cuisine…

– In a social group, set of signs typical of someone’s behavior (language, gestures, clothing, etc ) which set off members of one social group from another.

This essentialist definition should be considered alongside a more existentialist one, where culture is also defined not only as somebody’s identity, as dependent on the aforementioned elements, but also as the way this identity is expressed and asserted as a function of one’s interlocutor’s culture. For instance, somebody’s  » Frenchness  » will not be vindicated or made apparent in exactly the same fashion, whether the Frenchman addresses a German, a Briton, an American, a Chinese or an African. Indeed, the difference in asserting one’s identity will depend, among other things, on the historical factors or the well-established stereotypes that have shaped the relationships between the two cultures.

The existentialist definition of culture makes cross-cultural interaction all the more difficult to master. The next two definitions should be construed in this light.

Self-awareness : People do not perceive their own culture in the same way as they do others because it is invisible i.e an intimate part of their being. Self-awareness is the ability for someone to perceive their own culture as if from the outside, and consequently to examine it critically. Self-awareness is a necessary key to understanding others. It makes ethnocentricity irrelevant by justifying and legitimizing otherness.

Cross-cultural competence : The ability to function efficiently in another culture and to interact with a correspondant whom you can have function in yours, so that neither culture is at a disadvantage. Work is done on equal terms and to the mutual benefit of both cultures. A common language may be used to communicate, English for example, but both parties are aware of the limitations of this lingua franca and of the necessity of perceiving, understanding, respecting the other’s culture.

Following the above definitions, we consider cross-cultural competence to be the means whereby people from different cultural backgrounds, in and out of their institutions, will really understand each other and interact together for their mutual benefit. As has been hinted by the first two definitions, there can be no cross-cultural competence without the awareness of all the specific aspects of culture in general, and of one’s own cultural identity in particular. Indeed, comprehending otherness, or difference, so as to better cope and interact with it, entails understanding and coming to grips with how other people’s values, mindsets, practices, organizations and the like really differ from one’s own. Very often difference, which is inherent in transnational, transcultural interaction, is perceived as an obstacle, and sometimes as a trap. This is because, not being fully aware of our own culture, we are quick to find fault with other unusual ways of doing things, and we do not consider that to others, we, too, do things in a strange fashion. One way to remedy this state of affairs is to become conscious of our own identity, and to look at our own culture critically, as if with the eyes of a stranger. This has proved to be the best weapon against intolerance. Thus, self-awareness is not, in essence, different from the awareness of others. Combined together, these two forms of awareness constitute cross-cultural awareness, which permits one to see otherness not as a threat, let alone an obstacle, but as a source of complementarity and mutual enrichment.

Identifying the various components of culture, becoming aware of one’s own, and seeking to understand otherness, are the three pillars of successful cross-cultural interaction. They are already solutions in themselves, or are at least, the very first keys to finding solutions to the problems analyzed in the previous pages. In what follows, we offer solutions that are anchored in the concepts defined above. These will systematically underlie our reflection and our approach.

In each European institution of higher education, all members of staff should understand that they have a crucial role to play in assuring the quality of their institutions’ international policies. This means that, contrary to what is too often thought and done today, people in the International Relations Office should not be the only ones left to decide on their institution’s international policy, to initiate and develop international programs, to take care of administrative issues, in short, to take responsibility for getting things done in a context that in fact concerns the entire institution. Internationalizing the institution, that is, broadening its scope in both education and research, should indeed be everybody’s interest and goal.

The starting point for a new, more communal and coherent approach to international relations, must be a better mutual understanding of non language academics and language specialists. More often that not, language professors are looked down upon by, say, science, law or economics professors, on the grounds that languages are marginal, ancillary disciplines, not fully relevant to their specialized disciplines. This widespread attitude best reveals that science, law and other such fields of expertise are believed to be self-sufficient, at least within a strictly national context, and that languages and cultures, which are by definition transversal disciplines, i.e. a common competency in today’s Europe, are still made to vegetate on the outer fringes of specialized curricula. This, we may argue, is the first manifestation, within the institution, of cross-cultural unawareness or, to be more explicit, of the inability to consider others as being able to contribute, on equal terms, to the education of students. Undoubtedly, Europe has been decreed politically, but it still has not been planted in the minds of all Europeans ! Yet, this situation must not solely be put down to non language specialists : language professors in non language curricula, also, in general, have but little awareness of their colleagues’ specialties and subsequent approach to education. They hardly ever try to probe the specific disciplines, and the related cultures, in the curricula where they are asked to carve their non-intrusive niche. Now, wherever education becomes internationalized, language specialists should make their own expertise valuable to non linguists. To do so, they should stop considering language as an end it itself, regardless of the many specialized professional contexts within which languages are used. They, too, should no longer be content with their classes being set aside from those of their colleagues in the so-called specialized disciplines, giving students, professors and other staff the feeling that languages disrupt the unity of the curriculum. Instead, language specialists had better plow ahead and advance their own competencies as being instrumental to the education of would-be international students and European citizens, be they scientists, lawyers, medical doctors and the like. To put it briefly, language specialists should first convince themselves that they are privileged vectors of European identity, by reason of the subjects they teach, then convince their colleagues in the other disciplines that they can add a new dimension to the teaching of their specialized courses. Eventually, cross-cultural awareness in the academic field would, among other things, be conducive to the pedagogical consistency that many an academic purports to hope for without really knowing how to go about it.

We have concentrated first on the relationships between non language and language academics because an institution of higher education concerns itself with education first. Nothing meaningful can be achieved on a European scale without offering a coherent all-embracing education to national and would-be international students.

That students, independently of their specialized backgrounds, should be allowed to become international students, studying their specialized subjects in different cultural and language environments, is not the sole responsibility of the specialist of languages and cultures. Harking back to non language specialists, it stands to reason that professors of physics, law, etc. must be made aware of the specific cultural baggage of the international students who attend their classes. Far too often, these professors are not mindful enough of the cultural heterogeneity or diversity of their students. They have a tendency to force all their students into a single mold, and to take it for granted that any student can adapt to their way of teaching. At best, they will understand that international students may be faced with a language problem, which becomes very acute when the terminology used in the classroom is highly specialized ; but they will not sense that a difference in the conceptual approach to a particular subject, as well as different teaching methods, may leave the international student flustered, confused, and sometimes at a loss. For instance, British students are not used to several hours of lecture every week as are French students. When they come to France, they often skip lectures, and learn from books, and they go to the professors for help as they would do in their home institution. They are often fazed by the professors’ lack of availability and admonishment to sit through their two-hour lectures. Of course, international students ought to adapt to their new learning environment ; but professors should be kept informed of the different teaching and learning habits across Europe so as to better respond to their international students’ need for smooth adjustment. At this point, specialists of languages and cultures should be called upon to make their colleagues culturally aware, which implies that they should be better integrated with the other professors in the first place, and that their competence should be acknowledged and put to good use outside of the traditional language classroom.

If all academics ought to become aware of the multiple applications of the language specialist’s competencies, beyond the somewhat marginal and narrow circle of traditional language teaching, it goes without saying that, in the framework of an institution’s international policy, administrators, too, should avail themselves of such competencies. Truth to tell, International Relations Offices, especially in the large institutions, lie solely in the hands of administrators who have not been encouraged to really consider languages and cultures as the mainspring of successful international programs. The situation is quite problematic. Indeed, if we consider that cross-cultural problems stand in the way of better international collaboration, both quality and quantitywise, then International Relations Offices should constantly keep their focus on these problems and seek to solve them. Instead, most of them keep administering programs as if international relations were nothing but redtape. There is no denying that some paperwork and administrative formalities are required, but that most, if not all international programs should be set up and run over and beyond cultural differences, that is, the cultural identities of the partners involved, is quite unsatisfactory. Again, in most institutions, specialists of language and culture are kept out of the International Relations Office, as though their competencies were irrelevant to interaction with international partners. This results in business being done between institutions on a purely administrative level, in a so-called common language – English most of the time – which is often tampered with, through lack of formal training, so that communication is never as accurate as it should be under such circumstances. The end result often is misunderstanding : agreements, albeit formal, remain on paper, and they hardly ever get off the ground. And when they do get off the ground, problems appear, especially with exchange students, most of which turn out to be insoluble in a purely administrative way. Among these problems, of course, are those of a cultural nature, such as the difficulty in adjusting to new study habits, new social patterns, and, last but not least, language. Most of the time, these problems arise because of the students’ cultural ignorance and unpreparedness, which bear witness to how little account most International Relations Offices make of culture and language in setting up and monitoring international programs. Here again, language specialists can best help international students grapple with these problems, first in the home institution, through mandatory full-length language courses and/or pre-departure orientation seminars, then in the host institution, as people more likely than others to help students adjust to their new work and living environments. Consequently, it is highly advisable that every International Relations Office either employ an academic specialized in languages and cultures, or at the very least, that it systematically refer to a cross-cultural consultant. Besides, an academic will ensure the structural link that must exist between the International Office and the learning environment of both outgoing and incoming exchange students. It is high time, also, that institutions stopped considering international relations only as a means to statistically enhance their prestige ; boasting scores, sometimes hundreds of formal international agreements, is not sufficient if such agreements remain only on paper for lack of an adequate cultural and language preparation of students.

Students, who constantly find themselves at the heart of their institutions’ international policies, are not the only reason why language specialists should be present in the International Office. The pedagogical effort extends far beyond the student population. Indeed, approaching – or being approached by – a prospective partner abroad, negotiating an agreement, and following it up, entails being aware of how both one’s own institution and the other function, and of what each has to offer in the way of complementarity. Last, one must be aware of how the partner institution should be dealt with once the agreement has been implemented. In short, trying to apprehend one’s partner’s culture while fathoming one’s own is a truly cross-cultural exercise. In addition, one should also bear in mind that using English as a common language is not always ideal; thinking that a working knowledge of this convenient but makeshift lingua franca is the ultimate solution is not only erroneous, but it can be hazardous if one tends to forget that English, when spoken and written by non native speakers, is but a pale and distorted reflection of their own thinking patterns. This, in fact, is a fundamental point of modern research in cross-cultural interaction.

As we have tried to show so far, every institution of higher education should place languages and cultures at the center of its international policy. Language specialists, by virtue of their cross-cultural competence, should not be locked up in their language departments and classrooms, but made to act as linchpins of their institutions’ international efforts. It goes without saying that if all institutions across Europe agreed to organize their international policies along those lines, the relationships between them would be greatly facilitated and rendered more effective.

Once each institution has invited specialists of languages and cultures to participate actively in thinking through and pursuing its general international policy, how is it going to interact effectively with other European institutions ? Given that most international policies are more or less dictated, or at least promoted by the European Commission in Brussels, it would be quite a propos for the European Commission to issue a few binding guidelines in accordance with what has been proposed above. Getting all European institutions of higher education to adopt the same language and culture oriented policy is not doable otherwise. Let it be unmistakably clear that we are dealing with European politics, to wit, politics conducted with a view to furthering European citizenship through a consistent European educational policy.

The first step toward a unified educational policy would be for the European Commission to organize cross-cultural seminars or symposia gathering European officials, university rectors or presidents, international relations officers, specialists of languages and cultures, and more cross-culturally aware university personnel. These symposia would be aimed at defining a common policy and common standards for the advancement of European education.

If we agree that cross-cultural competence is the basis of successful international policies, the aforementioned symposia should give their multicultural participants the opportunity to redefine a number of key concepts, whose meanings vary from one culture to another, thereby fostering misunderstanding, sometimes frustration, impatience, discouragement and distrust. One of the concepts that require a common, mutually agreeable definition is « responsibility ». Even though the term sounds almost the same in many European languages, its meanings are as numerous as the languages themselves. North Europeans, for whom being responsible often means the same as being in charge, are often struck, even dismayed, by the fact that many of their so-called southern counterparts do not have nearly as much initiative and decision-making power as they do. Often, in international conferences for instance, one comes to realize that the real counterpart of the northern international relations manager is a southern vice-president or president, who takes the initiatives and makes the decisions, but does not attend the conferences, and deputizes the international relations manager to simply give and collect information. In some cases, the entire International Relations Office only serves an administrative purpose, all the key decisions being made by academics, who do not attend the conferences either, on the grounds that conferences on international education are a waste of time and energy.

To some, being responsible means taking it upon oneself to do or manage all the work and making sure the work is done in time, according to a predetermined schedule. This is the typical conception of northern efficiency. To others, being responsible means having acquired a particular status and trusting the work to a number of people who need not report at a specific time, so that responsibility can seem diluted and impossible to pinpoint. Likewise, when it comes to exchange students, responsibility offers a wide range of acceptations. In some cases, international relations officers not only take responsibility for ensuring that the students are culturally and linguistically ready for departure, but they also insist that these students keep in contact with them throughout their period of mobility. Besides, they will also take charge of incoming students, some of whom may not have had any specific preparation prior to departure. Monitoring the progress of both outgoing and incoming students is not, to say the least, a task that is assigned to all international relations officers across Europe.

The varying degrees of responsibility make it very difficult to identify a reliable partner or counterpart with whom to do the work and refer to under all circumstances. It is essential, then, that all institutions across Europe define common standards of responsibility. This, again, is a cross-cultural effort as cultures have to take a few steps in each other’s directions, and as no national pattern is, or should be, applicable to other international organizations. Considerable emphasis must be placed on the non-transferrable character of national patterns because, to date, in most international programs, northern organizations are de facto trying to impose their own administrative and academic criteria on southern organizations, which results in warranted resentment and irritation from the latter.

It should easy to intuit that the variety of approaches to responsibility, both for the work done and to people all along the hierarchical ladder, from the President or the Rector all the way down to the student, stands in the way of effective international interaction. Hence the need for a cross-cultural definition of this and other related concepts, such as reliability, quality, and even deadlines !

The point of this paper is not to propound such definitions : its primary objective is to make European institutions aware that differences in approach, if unheeded or neglected, are bound to result in frustration, impatience and a sense of helplessness, all of which are harmful to the quality and durability of international programs. Finding common definitions for basic concepts is tantamount to negotiating and signing a new contract, wherein tasks will be clearly identified, assigned and performed in compliance with common standards. This contract would establish new rules of conduct and a new work ethic that all actors of international relations across Europe would find possible to abide by. The key word is compromise, which is, in point of fact, what cross-cultural competence and interaction boil down to.


(1) Christie, Agatha. Hickory Dickory Dock. New York: Dodd, Mead. pp.149-50. Back
(2) Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books , 1966, 1990, pp. 173-174. Back

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