One of my favorite activities from our Global Engagement class was a game called “The Outsiders.” In this game, four students were randomly selected to leave the room. The rest of us were briefed on the roles we were to play as citizens of a fictional country.
One student was to enter the room and ask us questions about our country, such as “How is the climate?” “What is the main industry of your country?” “Do women in your country have the right to vote?” If the visiting student, the “outsider,” asked us in a question in a friendly, non-confrontational tone of voice, were were instructed to reply “Yes, yes, yes!” in a cheerful manner. If the visitor asked us a question in a perplexed or frustrated tone of voice, our reply was to be “No, no, no!”
The main catch: As citizens of this fictional society, me and my classmates were only to respond to the outsiders if their sleeves were the same length as ours. A person wearing short sleeves could not make any response at all to a visitor wearing long sleeves.
The outcome of the activity was both hilarious and thought-provoking. (Long story short: based on our responses, the four foreigners came to the conclusion that we were a nomadic, all-female nation that reproduced via binary fission.) The four outsiders to our country weren’t remotely considering that we weren’t speaking with them because of their inappropriate sleeves. They were ignorant of our cultural practices — they thought that they had said something offensive to us, or assumed that a blank response meant “no.”
I became aware that communication between groups can break down not because of the subject that’s being discussed (in this activity, the subject was irrelevant to the members of the fictional country) but because of cultural expectations and differences in customs. I realized that there might be American mannerisms or customs that we don’t think about that are offensive to members of other countries.
The takeaway: before I study abroad, I need to research the customs of the countries I’m travelling to in order to be respectful to the people I meet. I don’t want to immediately shut down communication because I am ignorant of my host country’s cultural practices. I could fail to learn some really important lessons if I don’t pay attention to the way I approach people and the way people respond. I’m definitely going to keep potential communication barriers in mind when I travel in the future.