Background - 30.01.2017 - 00:00 

Intercultural communication: to India with Contextual Studies

How can intercultural communication be learnt? Sabrina Bresciani is convinced that it’s best to do so on site. The Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at the University of St.Gallen spent a week in India with 15 students in November 2016.

31 January 2017. Contextual studies at the HSG provide students with intellectual and cultural competencies which go beyond their Core Studies. With her seminar entitled "Field trip to India: practising social and intercultural communication skills", Sabrina Bresciani deliberately wanted to try out something new. Someone who has already lived in eight different countries is aware of the challenges of intercultural communication.

An innovative seminar concept

"India has a unique culture going back thousands of years," Bresciani emphasised, "you can’t learn about it from books alone, you have to experience it." She had planned the seminar for several years, established contacts, and tested accommodation and activities. "I noticed the seminar in the course directory at once," reminisces Fabian Kunz, who is studying Accounting and Finance in the first semester at the Master’s level, "it was simply something completely different." Daniel Vogt, Master’s student in the third semester of the Banking and Finance programme, was also interested immediately. He had been abroad several times before and travelled through some countries of South East Asia, but India had long been on his wish list. "Visiting India not merely as a tourist but getting a professional introduction to the country and learning something – I found that very appealing."

Accepting cultural differences

Two months after a general, theoretical induction day at the HSG, it was up to the students to practise intercultural communication directly on site and to establish contact with people. "It’s particularly with minor details in everyday life that you observe the biggest differences," explains Fabian Kunz. Someone who shakes a woman’s hand in public in India expresses a clear interest. All in all the symbolism of hands is quite complex. The left hand is reserved for personal hygiene, is regarded as "impure" and must not be used for eating or greeting. What is important is the acceptance of otherness and the reduction of prejudices. "Intercultural communication is not a general key. Rather, you have to acknowledge the fact that and how cultures differ," says Daniel Vogt. This does not only refine our understanding of foreign cultures but also of our own.

A day in the country

The highlight of the seminar was a visit to a rural village near Suryapet. Most of the families there live below the poverty line and saw Europeans for the first time in their lives. "All of them wanted to touch us," recalls Fabian Kunz, "people were completely overwhelmed." But the students, too, were surprised – by the village community’s openness, cheerfulness and hospitality: "They threw flowers at us and received us like kings." In small groups, the seminar participants were allocated to various families in order to spend the afternoon with them and become acquainted with their everyday life. Only very few of the locals spoke English, but hosts and guests were still able to communicate. Communication with hands and feet – this is something most people are able to do. Sabrina Bresciani is certain that "by immersing themselves in authentic village life, the class learned a lot about Indian culture on this day in particular."

Unexpected currency devaluation

"In India, things don’t always go according to plan," the faculty member had explained to students while still in St.Gallen. But that during their one-week stay, the Indian prime minister would devalue the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes overnight was not expected by anyone. "One evening in the hotel in Hyderabad, a waiter suddenly came with this news," remembers Fabian Kunz. "To begin with, we were unable to take it seriously." Cash plays an important role in India, and the population’s worries and mistrust were correspondingly big. ATMs were emptied, and there were demonstrations in front of banks. "Of course this caused problems for us, but it was still exciting to experience such an incident live. This, too, is part of India."

For Fabian Kunz and Daniel Vogt it is clear that this was definitely not their last time in India. Whether on business or in private – they feel well prepared for the next stay. Sabrina Bresciani’s commitment to India will also continue. Since 2012, she has run the non-profit company "Kolours", which supports Indian girls with a disability. Owing to the positive feedback, Bresciani would like to repeat the seminar and is pleased that the Contextual Studies Committee has already approved its continuation in November 2017.

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