Diversity and Democracy

Potential, Not Problem: An Expanded View of Cultural Difference

In an address at the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ 2015 Global Learning in College conference, L. Lee Knefelkamp noted that college and university campuses are among the most diverse places in society, and opportunities for intercultural interaction abound there. Fittingly, one of higher education’s key goals is to help students gain intercultural competence, or the ability to interact effectively with people who are culturally different from them.

Despite its important role in higher education’s work, cultural difference often has been perceived as problematic. It has been conceptualized as a source of dissonance (Allan 2003), anxiety and uncertainty (Gudykunst 2005), or shock (Pedersen 1995); the cause of miscommunication or misunderstanding (Ting-Toomey 1999); or something to be accepted, accommodated, or integrated (Bennett 1986). Renowned intercultural researcher Geert Hofstede has described cultural difference as “a nuisance at best and often a disaster” (quoted in Stahl and Tung 2015, 391). In keeping with these frameworks, intercultural competence often has been defined as the ability to deal with problems.

In our Intercultural Work Project, we are exploring an alternative approach to intercultural competence development. The project is organized around a central question: What if cultural differences are seen as sources of positive potential rather than as problems? Such an adjustment in perspective might allow us to interpret and support intercultural interactions in different ways. For example, when supporting intercultural group work, our focus might shift from avoiding and managing problems to identifying how cultural differences can enhance the quality of a group’s interaction and work product.

Based on our initial research findings, we believe that the impact of cultural differences may not be as large or as negative as it is frequently characterized. In fact, cultural differences could be viewed as assets with the potential to improve collaborative work. Moreover, the degree to which differences are sources of either problems or potential may depend on contextual factors such as the nature of the work and the individuals involved. In some contexts, cultural differences may indeed be problematic. In others, these same differences may be assets. With an asset-based vision in mind, we are examining how colleges and universities can help students develop a new form of intercultural competence.

The Intercultural Work Project

In the Intercultural Work Project, we have explored one possible approach to helping students develop intercultural competence. As the project’s name suggests, we have focused in particular on what happens when culturally different students come together with the primary goal of producing good work (as opposed to coming together primarily to talk and reflect on their cultural differences).

Our initial study focused on undergraduates from the United States, China, and Japan as they worked together over a two-week period on a meaningful project in Japan. The American and Chinese students were participating in a study abroad program organized by the College of Education at Michigan State University (MSU), while the Japanese students were enrolled in education courses at Shimane University.

In order for students’ work to foster their appreciation for the potential of cultural difference, we decided that it should have the following characteristics. First, the task had to be collaborative, with students working together rather than in parallel. Second, the task had to be meaningful to the students. Third, the work had to be complex enough to require sustained, thoughtful, collaborative engagement. Finally, the markers of high-quality work had to be relatively unambiguous.

We placed students in five different mixed-culture groups and presented them with a task selected by the president of the host university: to develop a plan for making the host university more “global.” Each group could focus on one of two strategies: increasing the number of international students on campus, or sending more students abroad. After two weeks of collaborative work, the groups presented their ideas to an audience of high-level administrators who selected one group’s plan for implementation during the following school year.

Project Findings

As the students worked, we gathered observational and survey data on how cultural differences affected the quality of their work processes and products. Before collaborating, students completed a survey composed of modified items from well-known measures of intercultural values and communication, with surprising results. Prior research (Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov 2010; Ting-Toomey 1999) revealed large differences among similarly constituted groups related to individualism and collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, and communication style. However, among these students, differences were small to moderate.

At the conclusion of their collaboration, students completed another survey regarding how cultural differences influenced the quality of their work. More than one student noted that contrasting conversation styles actually helped the groups collaborate. For example, one Chinese student had the impression that American students were better at talking, while Japanese students tended to be better listeners. Students seemed to think that this difference improved the quality of the collaborative work. Similarly, an American student noted that the Japanese students excelled at collaborating and may have inspired American students to be more cooperative.

In contrast, language differences stood out as adversely affecting the quality of the work. The groups conducted their work in English, and Japanese students reported struggling with comprehension and expression. Moreover, communication difficulties between groups were caused by differences not only in English language proficiency, but also in background knowledge. For example, campus-wide change occurs differently within the Japanese and American university systems. For the Japanese students, the very idea that students can promote change was hard to comprehend. Finally, the groups understood the meaning of “globalizing a campus” differently, since MSU’s campus was already significantly more internationalized than the Japanese campus.

Next Steps

In our initial research, students demonstrated the ability to do good work both in spite of and because of their differences. It’s not hard to see how even the “problems” we identified could, in certain contexts, become springboards for productive discussions where the diversity of students’ experiences inform their work. The pedagogical task facing institutions is that of fostering situations that enable cultural differences to contribute to good intercultural work. Our next step is to determine what kinds of collaborative work are most likely to benefit from group members’ intercultural differences.

While our initial study focused on assessing how cultural difference affected students’ work products, we suspect that students developed greater understanding and respect for each other as a result of their work together. Even though students were working with their differences instead of working on them (as is common in many on-campus intercultural discussions), we imagine that understanding and respect were indirect, natural consequences of their collaboration. In future investigations, we might assess whether this is indeed the case.

Moving forward, we are inspired by a series of remaining questions. How might students learn to better recognize and actualize the potential of cultural differences in collaborative group work? What types of preparation or training might foster this type of intercultural collaboration? We plan to explore the construct of “intercultural metacognition”—knowledge, awareness, and strategies for working productively with people who are culturally different from oneself—by implementing a short training program to foster American and Japanese students’ intercultural metacognition, and examining the program’s effects on their intercultural collaborative work. We invite readers to share their thoughts with us at dwong@msu.edu and simps249@msu.edu.


Allan, Michael. 2003. “Frontier Crossings: Cultural Dissonance, Intercultural Learning and the Multicultural Personality.” Journal of Research in International Education 2 (1): 83–110.

Bennett, Milton J. 1986. “A Developmental Approach to Training for Intercultural Sensitivity.” In “Theories and Methods in Cross-Cultural Orientation,” edited by Judith N. Martin. Special issue, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10 (2): 179–86.

Gudykunst, William B. 2005. “An Anxiety-Uncertainty Management (AUM) Theory of Effective Communication.” In Theorizing about Intercultural Communication, edited by William B. Gudykunst, 281–332. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hofstede, Geert, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov. 2010. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill USA.

Knefelkamp, L. Lee. 2015. “Infinite Possibilities in the Face of Intractable Problems: Living In the In-Between.” Presented at Global Learning in College: Defining, Developing, and Assessing Institutional Roadmaps, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, October 9.

Pedersen, Paul. 1995. The Five Stages of Culture Shock: Critical Incidents Around the World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Stahl, Günter K., and Rosalie L. Tung. 2015. “Towards a More Balanced Treatment of Culture in International Business Studies: The Need for Positive Cross-Cultural Scholarship.” Journal of International Business Studies 2015 (46): 391–414.

Ting-Toomey, Stella. 1999. Communicating Across Cultures. New York: The Guilford Press.

David Wong is associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology at Michigan State University and Dawn Simpson Branham is a doctoral candidate in higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University.

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