The Voice: Summer 2003

The Voice

Course gets students communicating across cultures

Dr. Emmanuel Ayee tries to model effective cross-cultural communication.

By: Sally Jongsma

Dr. Emmanuel Ayee wants his Cross- Cultural Communication course to be a transforming experience for those who take it.

“My goal is to help students appreciate the diversity of God’s creation and the people he has created—to understand that diversity is good,” says Ayee. He describes the process as looking at another part of God’s vineyard. Learning about others and their cultures gives people an opportunity to change the way they look at life, Ayee believes.

“Taking time to understand others makes us more human and helps us know them for who they are,” Ayee adds. He also says that in order to better know who we are, we need to accept ourselves as God created us, knowing that we fall short in how we live and relate to others.

“We need to look for the positive things in other people and other cultures,” says Ayee. Appreciating each other eases communication.

Ayee, with his family, has lived in many places: Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Germany. He visited the United Kingdom and traveled extensively in Africa before coming to the United States last summer to teach communication at Dordt College. He wants to get students excited about the similarities and differences in cultures as they study how people in different cultures communicate.

Knowing something about another person’s culture takes away some of the fear or nervousness that many people experience when they meet someone who doesn’t look like them or talk like them, says Ayee. Prejudice too often stems from lack of exposure to other people and other ways of doing things, he believes.

Ayee fosters the transformation he hopes will occur by building a strong sense of community in his classroom.

“I try to make the class a sample of the way things ought to be,” he says. “All of us in the class regard ourselves and sometimes jokingly address each other as ‘prince’ and ‘princess’ because we are children of the King.”

One of the first assignments students do is a cultural autobiography describing how their upbringing has shaped them. This immediately makes the issue concrete and establishes relationships between members of the class as they reflect on and share important influences in their lives.

Readings make students aware of such things as how specific cultures treat time differently and value interpersonal relationships differently. Ayee also discusses how worldviews shape cultures, how certain values manifest themselves, and how non-verbal communication functions. He has students do interviews with a person from another culture or write about living in another culture to help them appreciate the dramatic and all-encompassing challenges of living in an unfamiliar place.

Ayee uses narrative, stories and video, as case studies. “They help make learning more exciting and less threatening,” he says.

Ayee believes that the course is having an effect on students.

“Some stereotypes are falling apart as students read, watch, and interview,” he says.

And they are learning from each other. This semester the class includes both North American and international students. It is beneficial for both. Both begin to realize that the world is broader than they’ve experienced it as they listen to and share their stories.

“International students often feel lonely because there is more emphasis on individuals in North America and less on community than they may be used to,” says Ayee. He hopes that what they learn in his class will help them better deal with American culture. And he believes that American students become more comfortable with international students when put in a setting where they get to know and accept one another.

“The tensions that can arise on a campus are often not overt prejudice, but uncomfortableness that doesn’t get addressed. Minority students think people don’t care about them, and those in the majority don’t know how to approach minority students. Prejudice can grow.

“I go out of my way to ask ‘How are you today?’” says Ayee. “I consciously try to bring sunshine into someone’s life by taking the initiative.” For him, the best way to combat prejudice is to approach people with the underlying thought that “if you hang around me you’ll enjoy my company.”

Appreciating diversity is increasingly important in our world if we are to live as redeemed children of God, Ayee believes. It affects how we view international issues and how we treat people we live and work with. Growing populations of people from diverse backgrounds are changing many communities. Our world is becoming increasingly smaller through modern technology.

At present the course is offered as an elective in the communication department. This summer it will be reviewed to determine whether it will be listed as one of several options students can take to fill the college’s cross-cultural requirement.

Spending time in another culture is still the best way to understand people from other backgrounds and see the challenges cultural differences bring, but Ayee believes that this course can go a long way in helping increase understanding of and appreciation for diversity.

“I like people, and I love to study culture,” he says. He hopes that enthusiasm gets transferred to his students.