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Textbook Example

Intercultural insights from St. Norbert College undergraduates are benefiting communication students around the world.

When studying abroad in Italy, there are a few gustatory must-dos. Like eating pasta and gelato. And sipping cappuccino at a local café. Hanna Klecka ’16 couldn’t wait to do all three when she landed in Florence in January 2015. But when she strolled over to Café Michelangelo for that cappuccino on her second day in town, she was shocked. And confused.

Instead of a quiet, orderly queue streaming back from the counter, she was faced with a mass of humanity: everyone pushing, yelling and fighting to be the next one to score a cup of coffee from the barista. It was her first experience with culture shock. Or, more accurately, her first introduction to one of the common ways in which Italians communicate – a way that was very different from what she was used to in America.

Klecka’s experience in Café Michelangelo found its way into the pages of the widely used textbook, “Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach,” authored by Jim Neuliep (Communication & Media Studies). “The disorder at the café caused me confusion and stress,” Klecka wrote in her one-page narrative, titled “Stepping into a Different Culture.” “The act of getting coffee, something that was so simple for me to do in America, was proving to be very difficult in Italy.”

Ultimately, Klecka wrote, she learned to be a more persistent, aggressive café patron during her semester in Florence. And ultimately, the seventh edition of “Intercultural Communication” rolled off the presses containing not just Klecka’s story, but those of 22 other St. Norbert students. 

Learning By Teaching
It’s not often that college students can contribute to their own learning experience, or that of their peers. But that’s exactly what’s been happening for years with Neuliep and his popular textbook, in use around the globe.

The book’s inaugural edition was printed in 2000, about a dozen years after Neuliep created a class called Intercultural Communication. He did so because then-president Tom Manion had charged the St. Norbert faculty with internationalizing its curriculum.

There weren’t many textbooks on the topic when Neuliep’s new class debuted. The scholarly field of intercultural communication was founded in the 1950s, making it relatively young. So, in 2000, Neuliep wrote his own. The book became quite successful, and in 2012 Neuliep was working on a fifth edition (an impressive accomplishment, as the vast majority of textbooks never even reach a second. Part of the book’s new content? Student narratives about their experiences communicating abroad. Or, in the case of international students, reflections on their own cultural communication practices.

Why student narratives? Neuliep often had students in class who had studied abroad, or were about to. International students were also attracted to his class. When the students shared their experiences with one another, it greatly enhanced his classroom teaching. He could do the same thing for his textbook readers by including some of his students’ intercultural experiences in the book.

“My students believe what I teach about communication in different cultures,” Neuliep says. “But when a fellow student who has actually experienced it talks to the class, it adds credibility. So I thought, I need to profile these students in my book. I hadn’t seen that done in any other textbook.”

So Neuliep included the profiles in his book’s fifth edition, and also in the subsequent sixth edition and recently released seventh edition. An eighth edition with a January 2020 publication date is in the works.

From Afghanistan to Zambia
The bulk of the profiles are fresh in each new edition so, to date, several dozen SNC students have had their stories published. So far, no student has turned down a request to contribute to his book. Most are flattered and readily agree. Like Lindsey Novitzke ’11.

Novitzke traveled to Africa with SNC’s Zambia Project, which helps provide education to kids who don’t have the opportunity to attend school. When she returned, she often discussed her experiences in the African nation with Neuliep, who was curious about Zambian communication practices. Novitzke explained touch was very important in the country, and Neuliep realized her experience would be perfect for the chapter in his book that discusses the role of touch in various cultures.

Novitzke’s experience is outlined in Chapter 8 of the seventh edition, entitled The Nonverbal Code. In her essay she discusses how Zambians have a very small personal-space bubble, and adults often touch one another as they interact. “Many of the children loved to rub my skin and touch my hair, since many of them had never seen blonde hair or a Caucasian person up close,” she wrote in her narrative, “Touch Patterns in Zambia.” While it took her a while to adjust to the constant contact with others, she was surprised to find she missed it when she returned to the U.S., which is a low-contact culture. “… I actually craved touch,” she wrote, “and felt that people in the United States were unusually distant.”

Many of the seventh-edition narratives came from St. Norbert’s international students, including those from China, Germany, the Faroe Islands and Saudi Arabia. Narratives were also penned by students who had studied abroad in places as varied as Ecuador, England, Japan and Spain. That geographic diversity, typical of all editions, impressed Joe Lancelle ’16, a communication and media studies major who used the sixth edition when he took Neuliep’s class. “When you go to a small school like St. Norbert, you don’t realize there are people here from all walks of life, and from different places all over the world,” he says.

Although Lancelle never studied abroad during his years at SNC, he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 for 12 months, where he served as an Army infantryman. Neuliep asked Lancelle if he’d be willing to write a narrative on culture shock in a war zone. “It’s not something I usually talk about,” says Lancelle. “I’m pretty private when it comes to what I did in the Army. But I really respect Dr. Neuliep, and I was honored that he asked me.”

Lancelle’s narrative described both traditional culture shock – for example, dining in the home of a local, where cleanliness during food preparation didn’t appear to be a priority – as well as the angst of being in a foreign country and war zone, where he needed to be vigilant at all times. He also touched on “re-entry” shock, or the shock of experiencing your own culture once you’ve been away from it for an extended period. After the seventh edition came out with his tale inside, Lancelle was glad he opened up. “My family read it, and it was a pretty cool experience for them to see how I felt and the experiences I had, knowing it’s not something we talk about a lot.

“I have a cousin who goes to St. Norbert. If she takes that [Intercultural Communication] class, she’ll use the book and see me.”

All three students say they didn’t fully grasp that they were contributing to an educational field while they were still studying it, something quite innovative. But as time passes, they realize what a special opportunity they had. And they definitely believe in the need for everyone today to know at least something about different cultures’ communication styles.

“No matter what job you’re going to do, you’re probably going to run into somebody from a different culture,” says Lancelle. “Even if you go on vacation, you have to be keyed into the fact that other cultures live their lives differently, just like we live our lives differently.”

As a super-fan of intercultural communication studies, Neuliep obviously agrees. But he also hopes his students and textbook readers learn more about themselves, too. “You don’t know your own culture until you step into somebody else’s,” he says. “Let’s start to appreciate our differences while seeing how alike we are, so we can all get along. Because really, we’re all very much alike.” 

March 20, 2018