Campus - 30.08.2018 - 00:00 

Intercultural Skills – Doing Business in Eastern Europe

What are "intercultural skills"? What significance do they have in a university setting, and how can students acquire these core competencies? An interview with Gulnaz Partschefeld on intercultural challenges for students and their importance from a Russian perspective. By student reporter Sascha Duric.

30 August 2018. Dr. Gulnaz Partschefeld is Head of the HSG Kick-off Days, Student Welcome Services and Graduation Days and lecturer in the areas of tourism and history.

Ms Partschefeld, what do you understand under "intercultural skills"?

As the composition of this word itself tells us, it concerns skills – competencies, capabilities, that is to say the ability to react appropriately, communicate comprehensibly and act correctly in another cultural context and/or a new cultural situation. In the literature, intercultural interaction is often spoken about in reference to an act of communication between the representative of culture A and culture B. Since we are not monocultural entities and identify ourselves through many varying social aspects of life, modern academia has moved away from this binational perspective and expanded the notion of belonging to a culture through economic, social, political and environmentally specific criteria. We no longer refer to interculturality, but rather the transculturality of modern society.

What role do "intercultural skills" play in the university setting? Does the University of St.Gallen offer students the opportunity to acquire these core competencies?

Intercultural skills are an indispensable part of everyday life at HSG. From the international atmosphere on the campus through to the various study tracks, cultures are interlinked with one another. Among these are also various types of "corporate culture" – with study tracks ranging from Banking & Finance through to Law, International Affairs and now also the Joint Medical Master's, this diversity is already a given. The format and location of the university alone create a transcultural educational context that is almost impossible to avoid.

The simplest path to developing intercultural skills naturally lies with the seminars and courses offered at various levels of study. You can learn about "doing business" in various countries throughout the world, immerse yourself in more than ten foreign languages and, within Contextual Studies, you will find many exciting courses with topics to be uncovered, focusing particularly on the areas of history, society, creativity, media, technology, law, responsibility and cultures.

You yourself teach Contextual Studies. How do you find the students in your courses? Is the openness to interculturality there?

I am always amazed at how well our students react to such offers. The willingness to take on another perspective is indeed there. In the course "Intercultural Aspects of Tourism", we tackle the concepts of authenticity in tourism and the intercultural aspects of travel. We discuss the idea that while tourism promotes intercultural skills, it also simultaneously goes hand in hand with the generalisation of cultures and the reinforcement of stereotypes, to some extent.

The same goes for the course "Russian Cultural History", in which I'm less concerned with presenting Russian politics or economic development and more with understanding why Russia is the way it is. Here as well, it is important to look at topics from their emergence through to the present, to make connections, sometimes also comparing your own values with another vision, the western European with the Russian. The students readily take on such reflective tasks, even if they are a little irritated at the start that dimensions other than "right" and "wrong" are applicable here.





The formula consists of grappling with the history and culture of the country, reflection and self-reflection and a developed sense of empathy, the skill, to put oneself in the position of another.




With regard to "Doing Business in Eastern Europe", in which areas are students certain to meet intercultural challenges?

Fundamentally, challenges can be found in every aspect of day-to-day business and currently there are two tendencies running in parallel with one another: towards rapprochement with Europe and towards separation/isolation. They are accordingly currently encountering these two ways of thinking, around which they can orient themselves. What is important besides this, are somewhat different values with an emphasis on consumption, a different perception of the question of gender and above all homo/transsexuality, a less sincere belief (in comparison to Europe) in politics and democratic values, a more critical view of Europe and the USA and increasing patriotism. And of course, a different work ethic, greater orientation around hierarchy and a different understanding of time. At the same time, you will also come across start-ups with very modern forms of working, co-working spaces and universities and business schools that are innovative and/or willing to innovate. Presumably it is this mix and/or this diversity that poses foreigners the biggest challenge. In decision-making positions, today you will find more western-orientated representatives from the 70s and 80s generations, as well as the young patriots of the new Russia, but also the people who spent the majority of their lives in the Soviet Union. Often attitudes become mixed within generations and dealing with your own history constitutes a highly sensitive and difficult topic. How can students be prepared for Russia. Definitely not with a book listing the so-called "dos and dont's", even if these can make interesting reading. I think the formula consists of a) grappling with the history and culture of the country, b) reflection and self-reflection and c) a developed sense of empathy, the skill, to put oneself in the position of another. Even in a globally networked world, business partners want to get to know one another. Sympathising with the business partner makes a lot of things easier and this emotional component is very important for Russians. Here you must naturally decide for yourself, whether to take part in a business meal, as your integration into Russian culture is directly linked with your ability to enthusiastically engage in celebrations. At the same time, you will be seen as a representative of your country, you will be perceived as a connection to European culture, you will be proudly presented to colleagues and family and hear many questions about life in your home country. I am always telling my students that they should not study stereotypes about Russians before travelling, but those about their own countries instead, because addressing your own culture and other topics with humour will be appreciated. Humour can break the ice.

How do you assess the importance and focus on "intercultural skills" from a Russian perspective?

This is a difficult question, but here is a brief summary: interculturality was already a part of the curriculum in Russian universities during my time as a student in the 90s, and so it has remained, even if the quality and the content varies from location to location. The intensive exchange with Europe and the west in general has contributed to a change in thinking, nevertheless Russia's focus is currently on the CIS countries. There is still great potential for development with regard to the openness of Russians to other cultures however. Currently, Switzerland is quite a mysterious thing, somehow like a cuckoo clock yet full of cheese with holes and with chocolate icing.

Sascha Duric is a conversation course instructor for Swiss German as well as Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian (BCMS) at the Language Center of the University of St.Gallen and is pursuing a Master's programme in law.

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