Like few others on campus, the short term and sometimes intense communication relationship between the ombuds and visitor relies heavily on a nuanced grasp of the visitor’s perspective. Highly developed communication skills and thoughtful attending skills are essential and undisputed components of ombuds effectiveness. Equally crucial, yet largely overlooked by the profession and hiring staff, is intercultural communication awareness and competency.
The essential work of the ombuds is based on accurately understanding what is and is not being said, to guide ombuds inquiry and the generation of visitor-oriented options. Therefore the effective ombuds works from the knowledge that various cultural perspectives often are present. And they may influence each aspect of the visit, from what the visitor presents, how the visitor engages, what meanings both visitor and ombuds make, and how these shape the identification of options and next steps. While varying cultural perspectives probably influence each encounter, this conference session focused on three categories of visitors to explore the implications: those who are international, those who are bicultural (a bicultural person uses two or more cultural lens to navigate), and a particular kind of bicultural individual commonly described as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK (a bicultural person who has obtained cultural perspectives by living outside their passport country) . First are some basics about intercultural communication.
Culture is the lens or mental framework a group uses to make sense of how the world works. It includes the following elements: values; underlying beliefs, assumptions, and norms (i.e., guidelines about what should be done in a situation); behavior; and power relationships. A cultural perspective generally is so ubiquitous it is taken-for-granted by the person using it. In trying to understand a person’s way of thinking and behavior, an ombuds could use the cultural template to deepen their grasp of the visitor’s nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, or profession, for example. That is, when a Dutch female professor brings a particular concern about a colleague, the ombuds would try to assess the influence of Dutch values and beliefs on how she defines the challenges she faces, or her desired outcomes. Of course there’s no one way to be Dutch or member of any other cultural group, but it may be appropriate to consider generalizations about Dutch ways of thinking and acting, without resorting to stereotypes and assuming they absolutely apply to this professor. At a minimum, it can help broaden the ombuds’ inquiry about how the visitor has framed what appears to be happening, or what options are preferred. One can’t know for certain what may be relevant cultural factors unless the ombuds checks out their assumptions, though this may not always be possible in the moment. Equally important is the ombuds’ self awareness of how cultural influences shape her or his own perspectives and all aspects of their sense making, assessments, communication, and such with visitors. For example, one might consider all the ways in which various cultural perspectives influenced the first 15 minutes of recent sessions with visitors and colleagues.
Learning some basics of intercultural communication can go a long way in practicing skills that can become competencies. Consider the cultural assumptions that saturate your ombuds style of relating. Do you tend to be fairly direct in how you speak with others? Look for ways to get better at indirect communication so you can use it when appropriate. Find some communication tools that help you check your own assumptions, and help your visitors do the same. Become intentional in inviting your visitors to consider taking more perspectives–while you do the same, as this can help make invisible and important factors more evident. Try asking each visitor whether there are particular cultural perspectives they’d like you to know about as you start work with them. By asking everyone, one can avoid acting on certain assumptions based on appearances.
There are cultural influences too numerous to count or know. By simply considering whether and how they might matter, the wise ombudsperson may discover more relevant information with which to help visitors meet their needs and objectives.