Monday, September 21, 2009

Is Spanish Important to Your Future?

by Ann Abbott

I just read Peter Bregman's latest post on the Harvard Business Publishing site. In it, he gives excellent examples of cross-cultural work scenarios, and the potential pitfalls that occur when you don't fully understand the cultural expectations of all parties.

But we aren't born knowing what the expectations of all cultures are. Many times we don't even recognize our own until we run up against someone who doesn't share them.

The traditional approach to teaching cultural expectations has been to come up with lists. Asians do this. Latinos want that. Americans are like this. Gift-giving cultures expect that. High-distance cultures need this. It's a weird combination of specificity--lots of detailed items on these lists--and huge generalizations--painting entire continents with one big brushstroke.

When teaching my Business Spanish class yesterday, I had to cover the section of the textbook that talks about how important family is in Hispanic cultures. While this is indeed true, in general, I asked the students, "Does that mean that family is not important in North American culture?" Of course it is important! It just manifests in different ways. It's deceiving--and insulting--to make this broad statements about cultures.

A better approach to teaching how to work with people from different cultures (and as Bregman points out, we all work with people from different cultures, even if they're from the same country--or even city--as us), is to ask them to be astute and careful observers. And to ask questions. Investigate. Teach themselves about the people they work with. They might start off with one of those "lists." But they have to move beyond them.

So how can we connect this to Spanish community service learning (CSL)? Something as simple as a reflection prompt can urge students to think about how their experiences in the community might translate to their future jobs. For example:

  1. Think back to a time when you worked on a group project and your way of working was different than another person's on the team. Describe how that created a problem for you.
  2. Think back to the same time, or a different one. Describe how a teammate's different way of working actually benefited you and/or the project.
  3. Think about someone you have worked with in your CSL work who has done something differently than you would do it. It could be a Latina/o community member, a student, a client or your supervisor. Tell how you could successfully complete a project with that person by taking advantage of both your work styles.
If you use this with your students, leave a comment to let me know how it goes!

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