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Considering an intercultural incident

“Critical incidents” apply cross-cultural concepts to real-world situations. Analyzing cases helps us face confusing encounters, develop awareness, and note potential causes of intercultural misunderstandings.

Have you ever been in a situation where people from different cultural backgrounds tried to communicate but it ended with confusing outcomes? Or have you noticed cultural miscues where different perceptions, interaction styles, or expectations somehow caused tensions or frustrations? Perhaps you were not able to clearly understand what “went wrong” or why, but the sense of dissatisfaction or failure seemed to have something to do with cultural differences.

The following case describes such an encounter. Please read the story and try to identify with what each of the characters seems to be expecting or experiencing as the situation unfolds. A full analysis is provided in downloadable article.

“A Trip to Forest Park” – An Intercultural Interpersonal Case (SUMMARY)

An eager young traveler and student of Chinese named Markus had just arrived in Shanghai from Germany. After months of study “back home”, he was thrilled to finally “be here,” getting to know the city, settling into the new campus, figuring out his class and adjusting to new study routines.

But after a few weeks, it seemed Markus’ enthusiasm was wearing down – he was increasingly unsure of himself in this new environment, missing home, and felt he needed a break. A trip downtown jostling down the crowded streets and confusing sights only made his sense of displacement stronger.

Seeing a Starbucks store, he slipped into the quiet, familiarly-decorated, air-conditioned café for a welcome cup of coffee. But his silent escape was soon interrupted by a young man who attempted to greet him both in English and German. Though initially bothered, Markus was surprised to hear such a good German accent. The eager, but polite conversant introduced himself as Chen Lin, a post-graduate student of the German language. Relieved that the interruption was at least with a nice, knowledgeable guy, Markus felt more comfortable about what this new acquaintance might offer toward understanding the city and the culture, so they exchanged cell phone numbers and went their ways.

Hardly a week had passed, but Markus’ sense of alienation and confusion increased. He decided to call Chen Lin, who was happy to receive his call. Stressed out by the congested city, Markus inquired if there might be some place to get away to nature and fresh air. Chen happily proposed they go to “Forest Park” near the river on the north edge of Shanghai. Chen promised to arrange everything, so they planned to meet the next Saturday morning at 9 o’clock at Markus’ dorm for this get-away.

The weather was beautiful as Markus woke up Saturday, raising his enthusiasm even higher for the chance to get away and talk in depth with Chen Lin about all the cultural challenges he was facing. But just as he showering at 8:30, he heard a knock at the door. Dripping wet and draped only in a towel, he opened the door to see not only Chen, pleased that bus connections were quicker than expected for an early departure, but four others! Markus was shocked, not only by the early arrival, but that Chen invited others to join them – Chen’s two best friends from high school and two female classmates. Embarrassed, Markus reluctantly let them into his living room and rushed back to the bathroom to dry off.

Though he dressed quickly, Chen Lin and his friends seemed to have settled in, sipping on drinks they brought in their daypacks and crunching watermelon seeds. The guys were busy examining his CDs and books, loudly chatting, laughing, and spitting cracked seed hulls on the table, while the girls were giggling their way through his personal photo album.

Noticing that Markus was agitated, Chen tried to cheer him up and suggested they set off. It took at least 15-minutes walk on a hot, humid morning to get to the bus stop, and then a long wait before they crammed in for the hour trip to the park entrance. On the loud, bumpy journey, Chen tried to introduce each of his friends, but Markus became increasingly withdrawn, craning down to look out of the window. He hoped to see the city coming to an end, but it seemed just as dense as downtown. To his dismay, after a sharp turn and stop along another busy road, Chen announced they had arrived at the park! All Markus could see was busloads arriving in a jammed parking lot, where the only “natural” thing seemed to be a sea of people pushing toward the park entrance!

As they walked past several grassy areas and small tree groves, Chen and his friends tried to converse with Markus, sometimes in English and both of the girls in good German. But Markus was increasingly distant and despondent. Chen Lin was perplexed about why all his efforts seemed to have been in vain. Couldn’t his guest appreciate that he had called out these good friends to help Markus feel better connected and enjoy this outing together?

Not finding the quiet he had hoped for, Markus suddenly headed back to the bus area, wanting to go back. Mostly silent and sullen on the bus, with Chen’s friends talking in pairs, each felt frustrated and disappointed about how the whole day had transpired, and Markus and Chen had no further contact once they got back.

Your thoughts?
Reflecting on what you’ve read, have you ever seen or experienced anything similar? Are you able to detect or suggest any possible cultural differences that may have influenced the resulting disappointments?

Please download the full case “Getting Personal About Interpersonal Communication” so we can discuss these in the next step. You might especially appreciate the analysis it includes from both Markus’ and Chen Lin’s points of view.

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)