We have all had those reactions, “Why didn’t the student look at the student portal to see what they needed to do?” or “Why is this parent accepting loans in the student’s name?” or “I explained what they needed to do last time, why didn’t they listen!?” Although these frustrations are an inevitable aspect of our jobs, our reactions to these situations might change if we stop to consider whether the complicated financial information we are discussing is truly understood by our constituents. Our universities and colleges are attended by extremely diverse student populations and an unintended consequence of this diversity is often a failure to communicate clearly.
Recognition of the importance of cross-cultural communication is growing, but many of us are not sure what this means or how to do it. An important place to begin is to consider that our worldview and culture is distinct from others. In the US, in general, we value autonomy and linear thinking. We expect students to come to school and manage their financial aid by following written directions. We expect students to identify problems that they may be having and search out the solutions.
This individualistic worldview contrasts with the worldview of many other cultures which are community oriented. In many societies, problems are communally discussed and resolved. Individuals see themselves as part of a larger group, like a family, and decisions about their future are made collectively. In these cultures, it is natural that parents would be actively involved in day-to-day decisions and financial aid actions. In the same way we may dismiss and disparage “helicopter parents,” families from other cultures cannot understand our hands-off attitude.
The foundation of cross-cultural communication is built on mutual respect and patience. We need to approach students and families with the recognition that we each have distinct histories and lived contexts. Our first generation students or international students may not even know the questions that they need to ask and they may become frustrated when they talk to us.
There are several basic communication strategies that will help us to communicate more effectively with all of our students (culturosity.com 2007).
- Speak slowly (not so slowly that you imply that they aren’t smart enough to understand): Although we hear and answer the same questions repeatedly, for the students and families calling us, the information is unfamiliar. By slowing down, we avoid the tendency to gloss over information that we know well. It also gives the student time to formulate and ask questions.
- Listen carefully: Restate what you think the question is to make sure you understand what they are asking. I have many calls begin with parents who are angry and frustrated. These same parents often do not know what they need to ask.
- Ask that your listener repeat back to you what needs to be done.
- Remain calm and listen carefully; often frustrated parents and students will calm down in response to your demeanor, especially if they feel as though you are hearing what they are saying.
- Don’t give too much information at once. It may be better to give a few steps and then follow up. I find it useful to follow up with an email reiterating the main points of the conversation and then bulleting what needs to be done.
- Don’t use jargon, slang or sayings. For students and families whose first language is not English, colloquialisms and slang may be difficult to understand. Even students from different regional areas may have difficulty understanding your area’s taken-for-granted use of sayings and slang. Try to keep your language clear and unambiguous.
Recognition that communication style is culturally specific is the most important first step for increasing the effectiveness of your communication with all students. We know that paying for college is a stressful issue for many parents and students. When we add in the difficulty of understanding the complex information that is sent out by financial aid offices, it may become too overwhelming for students to continue their educations. A critical step for the retention of students and the successful completion of requirements is the clear communication of needed steps and information.
Brought to you by:
Dawn Nottingham, DMCI Committee
Counselor, Client Services
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO