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Radio Series to Feature Interviews Highlighting
Cultural Communication Differences

RELEASED: Oct. 24, 2008

UW-Eau Claire international students Sylvia and Claudia Lozano Aguirre
Sylvia (left) and Claudia Lozano Aguirre, UW-Eau Claire international students from Bolivia, were interviewed recently by UW-Eau Claire student researchers in the WUEC-89.7 FM studio. The sisters are among those whose interviews will be aired in November during the “Culture Talk” radio series.

EAU CLAIRE — Is it important to always make eye contact during one-to-one conversation? To what extent should a person focus on his or her individual accomplishments during a job interview? Does that acquaintance really mean yes when she agrees to work with you on a new venture?

The answer to all of the above, according to a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire expert on intercultural communication, is "That depends," and a November series of Sunday evening radio broadcasts will explain why such questions can't be answered with a simple yes or no.

Because people's values and their related verbal and nonverbal communication behaviors vary greatly among cultures, what works in one setting may not necessarily work in all situations, said Dr. Judy Sims, professor of communication and journalism.

"If people simply assume that everyone in the world is taught the same values and communicates in identical ways, then it makes it much more difficult to try and do business with each other, resolve conflicts and so on," Sims said.

Sims, while on sabbatical leave for the 2008-09 academic year, is conducting a faculty-student collaborative research project titled "International Awareness Through Intercultural Radio Interviews." For the project, UW-Eau Claire student researchers are conducting 20 interviews with people of diverse cultural backgrounds. The first six interviews, to be digitally recorded and then edited to 30 minutes in length, will be aired as a radio series called "Culture Talk" at 6 p.m. Nov. 9, 16 and 23 on WUEC-89.7 FM, a regional studio of Wisconsin Public Radio that includes programming by UW-Eau Claire students and faculty. Additional interviews will be aired during the spring semester.

Following the radio broadcasts, the audio from the interviews also will be available on the WUEC Web site, www.uwec.edu/wuec, and the UW-Eau Claire Center for International Education Web site, www.uwec.edu/cie. "Culture Talk" is funded through grants from the UW System Institute on Race and Ethnicity, as well as UW-Eau Claire's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and department of communication and journalism.

Among the "Culture Talk" interviewees are international students and scholars visiting the university; community members who have emigrated from other cultures; community members who are Hmong, American Indian, African-American and/or Hispanic-American; and community members with disabilities. The interview subjects include individuals from Bolivia, Malaysia, Kenya, Germany, Ukraine, China, Portugal, Spain, Moldova and South Korea, as well as a UW-Eau Claire alumnus born in the United States but raised in Kuwait.

Eye contact is one example of a communication behavior that varies among cultures, Sims said.

"For example, in Bolivia, direct eye contact is very important," Sims said. "Failure to meet someone's gaze can be interpreted as untrustworthiness."

Cultures also vary in their degrees of "power distance," or the way they value status differences and social hierarchies, Sims said.

"For example, in China, one does not refer to brothers and sisters by names," Sims said. "Rather, one would say 'elder brother,' 'first sister,' 'younger brother,' and so on. The language reinforces this value placed on status differences."

Another cultural difference occurs with regard to communication style, Sims said, with some cultures tending to be direct and others tending to be indirect with more reliance on nonverbal cues.

"For example, use of the word 'yes' is not always an affirmative response in China," she said. "Instead, it may be a polite (indirect) response that really means 'no.'"

Nessa Severson, New Glarus, a UW-Eau Claire senior majoring in music and German education and an interviewer for the "Culture Talk" project, said participating in the research provides experience that will be valuable as she pursues her goal of teaching internationally.

"The ability to communicate with people from other cultures and backgrounds will be a valuable asset for a career in the United States or abroad," Severson said.

While the researchers gather background cultural information before each interview, the interviewees provide details not uncovered during the information-gathering process, she added.

"The great thing about this research project is that we learn so much from each interview," Severson said. "We prepare beforehand by becoming familiar with the culture, but the interviewees always give some answers that are surprising."

Anne Moser, Hudson, a senior organizational communication major and the interview transcriber on the project, also appreciates the knowledge she's gaining as a "Culture Talk" researcher.

"I'm learning to be patient," Moser said. "I'm also learning to be aware of situations where I may let my pre-existing opinions or ethnocentrism hinder my ability to withhold judgment of others."

Other students working on the research project include interviewer Pierce Koch, Green Bay, a junior information systems and communication major, and technical engineer Joseph Tierney, Shawano, a sophomore history major. Severson, Moser, Koch and Tierney will present their research findings next spring during UW-Eau Claire's Student Research Day.

The "Culture Talk" project can have a positive impact at UW-Eau Claire and beyond, Sims said, noting that in addition to benefiting the individual students involved, the project also will benefit the UW-Eau Claire community as it works toward its strategic goal to accelerate global learning.

"'Culture Talk' should help to foster an institutional environment that promotes the learning of intercultural communication skills, which are crucial in a multicultural world with an international marketplace," Sims said.

Beyond UW-Eau Claire, the findings from the research can be applied to business, political and social settings, Sims said.

"Companies doing business domestically, internationally, multinationally and/or globally have realized they must be educated and aware of the influence of culture on communication," Sims said. "Global leaders have been placed in the critical position of managing a multinational team or project, often in virtual space. This kind of work demands globally and interculturally competent communicators. It's all about cultural intelligence."

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JP/JB

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