Considering a case

Cultural values can often seem abstract until we have to face them in life situations. Below we provide a case to help you consider the impact of some of these dimensions on intercultural interaction.

Collegial exchange and extended stay request

During the last decades of the Chinese Open Door and Reform policies, the rapid development of universities, expansion of faculty, increased academic performance and review standards, and a push for internationalization have made campuses very competitive places. For many Chinese professors, it is not easy to get opportunities or funding to study abroad. And if there is any possibility, it is best to go to the most famous university possible for prestige and advantages when one comes back. Trying to build these links and open doors is no easy task.

But Dr. Chen was fortunate last year. Just as he had enough seniority and service to consider a year abroad and submit an application to the China Scholarship Council (CSC), he met Dr. Bill Johnson along with several other US professors at an international conference in China. They presented papers in the same panel session and discovered they had shared research interests. Dr. Chen mentioned his upcoming opportunity to be a Visiting Scholar “for a short time” and Dr. Johnson expressed interest in hosting him at his State University. For Dr. Chen, it was a bit of a balancing act, because two of the Keynoters from Ivy League schools could possibly provide more prestigious options, but he wasn’t sure he had made a good enough impression on them, so he made sure that at conference meals he sat with Prof. Johnson to keep this option open.

After the conference, as series of emails followed with each of the professors that Dr. Chen networked with at the conference. But as he feared, no matter how hard he tried to build connections with those scholars at the higher-prestige universities, no invitation transpired. In the end he decided it would be best to ask Prof. Johnson to be his sponsor for one semester, then try once he got to the States to go to one of the other universities.

The emails with Prof. Johnson were positive. Details were clarified, and when Dr. Chen passed the CSC interview and was later notified he was awarded this year abroad, he enthusiastically prepared, packed, made his journey and began his semester stay at Dr. Johnson’s college. Their cooperation went well! He was doing research, giving a few lectures, having a chance to use the excellent library resources, and talking about joint projects with Dr. Johnson. Their relationship and cooperation was growing nicely, providing what seemed to Dr. Chen an ever-brighter prospect should he need to say longer (its always good to have a back-up plan and build trust relationships).

But he also tried hard to balance his time, kept contact with the professors at the East Coast schools, and even made a private trip there (feeling it best not to tell Dr. Johnson yet) during the fall break, but still no offer came. Just before the Thanksgiving Day holiday (late November) he realized he had no other option but to ask Dr. Johnson if he could extend his stay. He was actually now becoming excited about the option of staying because of their good working relationship. In addition Dr. Johnson had now become Dean and the State University’s latest ranking had moved up.

But when Dr. Chen paid for a nice meal out to bring up the extension, he was stunned. Dr. Johnson was as warm as ever, but simply said it was not possible. Johnson calmly explained that the forms that had been signed represented a contractual agreement, the university had quotas, another scholar had been given the position for next semester, and nothing could be done. The conversation was open and friendly, so Dr. Chen tried to explain his predicament, mentioned that other options had failed (carefully mentioning the Ivy League contacts), and appealed to Dr. Johnson’s new appointment as Dean to find a way. Johnson just smiled and said, “Sorry, there is nothing that can be done. Rules are rules. But we’ve established a great basis for ongoing collaboration, so let’s drink to that!”

Chen didn’t feel like drinking. The expense of the dinner, the good wine and whole evening had been a failure. He tried to put on a good face as they finished, and started to bring it up one more time, but Johnson waved it off and said, “Sorry an extension won’t work, but let’s make the most of the month we’ve got left” tapping him friendly on the shoulder with a big smile.

Chen didn’t know how to deal with this huge setback. He asked other Chinese Visiting Professors for suggestions, followed up on several of the higher-up relationships they had strategically developed, made several appointments with university administrators, but nothing worked. He grew increasingly frustrated with the situation and trapped. After investing so much time to relate and work well with Dr. Johnson, he felt that no due respect was shown for their relationship, no effort taken to find some solution – surely a man in his position could work out an exception. Johnson continued with his usual friendliness an even threw a very nice party for him at the end of the term, but Dr. Chen found it almost impossible to meet with or work with him due to this let-down.

And it was an even greater embarrassment that during December he had to scramble to make contacts with former classmates to help with an invitation. Finally one who was teaching at a small Midwestern college found a way to provide him a place to go for the second semester. But that was very disappointing as it wouldn’t look good to his university back home, and there was no chance of research cooperation. Prof. Chen retreated to the library to find sources for a future book, but his motivation had slumped as the months slipped past. The glorious time he had planned and hoped for in the US ended with a bad taste and much disappointment.

Having been exposed to some cross-cultural values dimensions, which of them or others that you know about do you see operating in this story? How would you describe some of the values that are important to Dr. Chen in contrast to Dr. Johnson? Have you faced any similar differences in expectations that were likely rooted in values?

For further consideration, there are several helpful guidebooks that provide cases like this. This one was developed from and inspired by a case in Kenneth Cushner and Richard W. Brislin’s Intercultural Interactions (2nd ed, 1995) (Case 65, p. 159, “Can I Extend My Stay?)

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Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)