Nora Sobel has been with Red River College since 2008. She specializes in intercultural competence and diversity, including communication across cultures, and gender and sexual diversity awareness.
We wanted to interview Nora and get to know her role as Diversity Initiatives Coordinator. In this interview, Nora will walk us through some of the challenges she observes with students when they are in a new cultural environment, strategies to navigate cultural differences, and how we can work towards becoming Allies to foster respect and inclusion for gender and sexual diversity.
Q: What are some intercultural challenges you see international students face in a new environment? What supports do the ASC provide to these students?
Nora: When you think about any new environment that you are not familiar with, you will encounter different ways of doing things. The cultural values that guide us on doing those things are usually not visible to the eye. You need to learn what individuals’ cultural values may be, while at the same time ensuring you are very self-aware of your own value system. This way, you can begin to bridge the gap between interpersonal misunderstandings.
Example #1: Think about your personal relationship to the communities you belong to (e.g. family, peer group, a program of study). Do you ever put your own needs before those of the group? Do you feel responsible for only your own actions and decisions? Or do you make decisions out of your peers’ best interests and well-being, putting their needs above your own? Do you prioritize group harmony instead of voicing any potential disagreements or differing opinions?
These questions touch on the core values of both individualism and collectivism. Depending on where you may fall on this cultural spectrum, it will impact any differences or obstacles you may experience while working in peer groups at the College, whether it’s during a lecture activity or assigned partner project.
Example #2: Think of the communication style(s) you may prefer. Do you prefer direct communication (e.g. explicit verbal statements and hardly any opportunities for “reading between the lines”)? Or do you prefer a style that is more indirect (e.g. favoring body language, suggestions, and pauses to convey the full meaning of what you are trying to share)?
Depending on where you fall on the direct and indirect spectrum, you may misperceive a more direct communication style as perhaps rude or antagonistic. Or you may similarly find an indirect communication style as vague, confusing, or misleading.
All these cultural misperceptions (or gaps between expectations) can cause confusion, misunderstandings, or conflicts with other people in these new environments. So when we encounter unexpected cultural situations, when one person’s behavior does not meet with the expectations of another, it is important to stop any immediate judgments we might have about those situations. Avoid seeing those situations as right or wrong, or good or bad. This reaction is based on our own set of cultural values, but these quick judgments don’t allow us to reach common understanding. So, instead, try to analyze the unexpected cultural situations from different cultural perspectives and values, and see what might be a good approach to address those situations based on what you observe and reflect.
Q: What strategies do you recommend to students who wish to navigate and bridge intercultural gaps (e.g. different communication styles, misinterpretation and interpersonal conflicts that arise because of them)?
Nora: To learn and understand other peoples’ cultural identities, we need first to learn and understand our own cultural background and identity. Remember that our cultural identity is very complex; we belong to diverse groups and cultures which influence who we are and how we see the world. We need to allow individuals to be who they are, and to use the language that resonates for them, in terms of how they explain who they are.
To navigate cultural differences, students should try to distinguish between intention (aka the meaning peers give to their behaviors) and perception (aka our cultural lens which assigns meaning to others’ actions). They should look for both visible cultural differences (e.g. art, recognized holidays, cuisine) as well as invisible differences (e.g. beliefs and values that influence behaviors) to manage more effective intercultural interactions.
Students should also keep in mind that cultural assumptions and expectations impact our communication. They influence how we express our knowledge, ideas, and opinions; and how we receive, interpret, and respond to others’ insights as well. We are always communicating, even when we aren’t verbally speaking. We need to be aware of our body language and tone of voice.
Q: What does it mean to be an LGBTQ ally?
Nora: As we share in Red River College’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Awareness Course housed in LEARN, Anne Bishop defines an Ally as “a member of an oppressor group, who works to end a form of oppression which gives him or her privilege. For example, a Caucasian person who works to end racism”.
For common understanding, we define privilege as the access we give to different people according to their membership status, assumed or known; and oppression as the differential attitude or the access we deny to individuals based on their membership status assumed or known.
At Red River College, we use Bishop’s definition to inform our own. We see an Ally as – “a person who is committed to interrupting oppression (racism, sexism, homo/ bi/ transphobia, classism, etc.) whenever they see it, hear it or experience it.”
The Allies at Red River College have taken awareness training on Gender and Sexual Diversity, including how to be informed about homo/ bi/ transphobia and heterosexism.
Allies work towards creating more inclusive and safe spaces for LGBTT* (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirit) individuals, their friends, and families. Allies create and support change, by challenging and providing awareness or education around homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, heterosexism, stereotypes, and myths around LGBTT* individuals.
Allies are also aware of LGBTT* resources and how to refer to support programs or organization when needed. For example, in Winnipeg, Rainbow Resource Centre is a local agency that provides counselling, education, and social support for LGBTT* individuals and their families.
All of us can be Allies to each other, regardless of our particular social locations or experiences. Some of the following steps are adapted from Bishop’s words:
Bishop, Anne (1994) “Becoming an Ally” Halifax. Fernwood Publishing. Pp 96-100 & 126
Q: What supports are available to students to enhance their intercultural competence, and gender and sexual diversity awareness?
Nora: The Academic Success Centre offers in-classroom workshops and online training across all programs and campuses. As part of our suite of supports, we have three Diversity Awareness Online Courses in LEARN: the Cultural Diversity Awareness Course, the Gender and Sexual Diversity Awareness Course, and the Disability Awareness Course.
We have also developed a new Library Guide on Intercultural Competence and Diversity. Students can find books, e-book, videos, and other key resources to enhance their ability to interact effectively and appropriately with people from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Q: For incoming students, is there any advice concerning their first term you want to give?
Nora: Listen, observe and ask questions! Intercultural competence is a lifelong journey. We are always in new and diverse cultural environments, such as a new job, starting a family, or moving places. We will always encounter cultural differences, misunderstandings, and ambiguity. Just be patient with yourself as you navigate all these different intercultural journeys, throughout your entire life.