While any communications professional knows of the value of AP style, interview etiquette and deadlines, some argue that there is another increasingly necessary skill that journalism students should be familiar with in a globalizing world: cross-cultural competence.
Canadian communications specialist Patricia Paddey is one such advocate.
Paddey has worked with Canada’s mainstream and niche media for 30 years. From managing a thriving freelance business to creating print, broadcast and online communications for various media and non-profit organizations, she has worked extensively for a North American audience.
However, Paddey is also the director of communications with Save the Mothers, an international organization committed to improving the health of mothers and their babies, with an especially notable presence in Uganda. In that role, she provides direction, oversight and guidance to interns and summer students who offer communications support to Save the Mothers — in North America and in East Africa.
EducationShift connected with Paddey to get her perspective on why cross-cultural communication is important for journalism education and how it can best be taught.
What are some of the challenges in cross-cultural communication?
Patricia Paddey: First, there are all the practical, physical challenges — dealing with a significant time difference, for example. Here in North America we’ve become accustomed to people being online and accessible during waking hours. But when it’s afternoon here, colleagues on the other side of the world may already be in bed. When you need a quick answer or turnaround, that reality can feel frustratingly slow.
There are technical challenges. Internet service in East Africa isn’t always reliable. So you might send off an email and not get a timely response and wonder why, only to learn later that your colleague’s Internet service has been down. Or their power was out for hours. Or their computer was stolen, or crashed due to a virus. These things are far more common in the developing world.
Then there are the harder cultural realities that can be challenging to relate to. One young intern I worked with suddenly went incommunicado without warning for several weeks. Completely on his own (he’d grown up an orphan), he’d collapsed due to a kidney infection and wound up in hospital. There was no one who could “call in to work” for him to advise of what had happened. When he got out of the hospital, he went home only to realize his tiny apartment had been robbed and his cell phone and laptop had been stolen. With few financial resources, he had no way of communicating. It took him weeks to get back on his feet. I was in Uganda a few months after his health crisis and was shocked to learn he had still not replaced his computer and was diligently using the computers in his school’s library whenever he could get time on them to complete his work for us.
Finally, education and literacy standards are very different here than they are in East Africa. I’ve had written pieces submitted by highly educated East Africans that for reasons of syntax, spelling and grammar, you simply couldn’t publish for a North American audience. But when you realize they might be writing in a language, English, that is not only not their mother tongue, but might be one of 10 or more languages they speak — you’re willing to go the second mile to help them get their work up to a publishable level.
How do you combat challenges like these?
PP: I try to approach all such challenges with patience, good humor, compassion and in an attitude of “help me to understand,” recognizing that what may appear to me at first to be someone not doing a good job is often deeply rooted in a situation far more complex. More than once I’ve been humbled to realize I had completely misjudged a situation.
More specifically, what ethical considerations arise and how do you balance that with the strategic communication you are producing for Save the Mothers?
PP: That’s a tough one. In terms of ethical communications, I suppose it’s all about honesty — being truthful about the need you’re addressing and how you’re addressing it, without exaggerating either area.
Part of my responsibility as communications director is to oversee the content on the organizational website. Shortly after I started with Save the Mothers, I remember receiving a complaint, indirectly, through one of our board members, about a photo on the site. It depicted a woman with a baby in her arms, sitting on the ground on a dusty street with her hand and arm outstretched, begging. The complaint originated with an African, I believe, who felt the photo degraded East African women. So I had it removed. But that experience sensitized me to the fact that it’s important not to perpetuate stereotypes to advance a cause or accomplish a mission.
Why is it important for students studying communication to be exposed to cross-cultural experiences?
PP: Marshall McLuhan was right that the world really is “a global village.” And while I’m convinced there’s more that unites than divides us from our fellow human beings who live half a world away, cultural differences are very real and they can lead to grave misunderstandings. Spending time in another culture has a way of causing your own preconceptions about that culture — or those people — to fall away. It opens your eyes to reality as you might never have seen it. It can be a very humbling experience, but that’s a good thing. Because a person who has been humbled is a person who is willing to learn and to listen.
How can educators better prepare students for cross-cultural communication?
PP: By cultivating genuine humility, curiosity and a hunger to learn. Teach students to be observant, to ask respectful questions and to be good listeners. Help them understand we all have our biases, but to really get to the truth of a situation, it’s important to be able to identify them in ourselves, and to be prepared to have our misconceptions corrected. It’s no good being observant if your own cultural conditioning causes you to misinterpret what you’re seeing.
What are some common mistakes you see in cross-cultural communication about Africa?
PP: We all have stereotypes we cling to, ideas about how things are and why. I’ve been to East Africa three times now, and I know I still have them. But when you get to know people in another culture as friends, when they’re willing to be open with you because they trust you, stereotypes get shattered and then it’s easy to spot them when you see them. One of the most common mistakes I see is perpetuating the idea that Africans need the West to save them, to swoop in with Western solutions, Western ideas and Western money to make things better. But I think that it is Africans who will ultimately make that difference. Can the West help? Of course. But the best help will come in the form of equipping Africans with the education, resources and tools they need to effectively speak to their respective cultures and bring about needed change.
How have changes in technology influenced cross-cultural communication?
PP: In more ways than I can possibly address, but I’ll cite one example. I manage various social media accounts for Save the Mothers, including an organizational Facebook page. Our audience is just about evenly split between North Americans and East Africans. When I post status updates, photos, graphics and videos to the page, I’m typically targeting our North American stakeholders providing organizational news, commenting on developments in the field of maternal health in East Africa, making appeals, that sort of thing. But I’m acutely aware that East Africans are seeing what we’re saying about them. And if I get something wrong, they’ll let me know about it. So it helps to keep our messaging honest, I think. And by that I mean true to reality as East Africans would identify reality.
What do you hope communications interns with Save the Mothers walk away with after their experience?
PP: For all of our communications interns — whether they are East Africans working for STM in East Africa or North Americans working for STM here or overseas — I hope they will sharpen their existing skills, be challenged to develop new ones, and grow personally through the experience of being mentored, whether cross-culturally or not. I hope they will walk away from their time with STM feeling like they’ve made a valuable contribution to the work and therefore to the lives of the women and children of East Africa. I hope they will catch a glimpse of the important role good communications can have in helping to resolve huge global problems like preventable maternal death, and that they will be inspired to believe that by using their God-given talents and passions their own lives can make a difference.
Meagan Doll is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying journalism. She is an intern for the EducationShift section at MediaShift and recently completed a six-week communications internship with Save the Mothers, where she reported from the field in Mukono, Uganda, on maternal health and associated issues.