1. Expect Language Difficulties
Misunderstandings are very common, even when speaking with participants with a strong command of English. The AFS volunteer is key to helping participants feel heard and understood. Tips include:
- Speak clearly when addressing the participant and, whenever possible, face him or her directly while speaking. When the participant does not understand, speak slower (not louder).
- When the participant asks you to repeat, do so the first time by using the same words. If s/he still does not understand, rephrase the message using simpler words.
- Maintain patience with repeated requests for help. Offer encouragement when it’s needed; praise accomplishments.
- Do not assume you are understood. Even if a participant is smiling and nodding his or her head “yes,” ask him or her to paraphrase what you have said.
- More communication problems occur when the participant can speak your language to a moderate extent than when s/he can barely speak it. Many misunderstandings occur in this situation because one assumes a greater level of fluency and understanding than actually exists. Also, many participants tire of always asking for an additional explanation every time they are not completely certain of a full understanding. They often just nod their head to “get on with it.”
- A participant may wish to use an online translator on their cell phone to make sure they understand and are being understood. This is okay, however, if the student seems to depend too frequently on this tool or it is causing disruption in school or at home, please notify your Participant Support Specialist.
2. Be Aware
Because cultural differences are involved, there may be aspects of the participant’s attitude and behavior that you do not fully understand. Take every opportunity to become increasingly aware of the attitudes, values, roles, expectations, and points of view that are characteristic of the culture from which the participant comes. Always look for these hidden dimensions as you work with participants from day to day, and then put yourself in their place when discussing any challenges or concerns.
3. Suspend Judgment
Quick judgments can hinder open and effective communication and complete understanding, especially in cases where problems or misunderstandings are involved. Act on the assumption that the participant is a person of integrity and goodwill. In addition, consider reflecting on your own cultural and other biases that might be playing a role in your values and behaviors. Click here to learn more about suspending judgment.
Listen carefully to what is being said and ask for clarification if needed.
5. Be Sensitive and Accepting
Be open to whatever the participant may be telling you, verbally and nonverbally. Remember that s/he will often feel under stress and may become lonely, anxious, frightened, or confused from time to time. By being a sensitive and accepting listener, participants will feel able to look to you for support during difficult periods.
6. Be Honest
If a misunderstanding arises between you and the participant, discuss the matter with him or her openly and honestly. Be aware, however, that in some cultures it is not considered desirable to have frank and open discussions about personal misunderstandings. You will need to keep the participant’s cultural background in mind.
Take every opportunity to share your way of life and that of other members of your community with the participant. The participant’s intercultural experience is enriched through community involvement. Keep in mind, though, that the stress of an intercultural experience can be quite exhausting. Some participants will need more “downtime” than others.
8. Show an Interest
Make an effort to find out as much as possible about the participant’s life in his/her native community. Many participants are eager to talk about home and appreciate having this opportunity.
9. Attempt to Empathize
Imagine yourself in the other person’s place—far from home, friends, and family; communicating in a new language; trying to understand so many new ways of interacting and communicating, and trying to understand what everyone expects of you. Empathy is a mental effort based on knowledge, not merely on emotion. Having empathy becomes especially important, and is especially difficult to achieve when cultural differences are involved.
10. Be Aware of Nonverbal Communication
The nonverbal actions of both you and the participant affect the conversation. Watch for what is not being said. Body language like posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and hand gestures can reveal how a participant is feeling. Body language can be different depending on where the participant is from. For example, in some cultures, eye contact is seen as disrespectful while in others it is the opposite. Try to verify your interpretations of a participant’s body language with another person familiar with the participant’s cultural background, or consult with your Participant Support Specialist.
Some participants for one reason or another may be more comfortable expressing themselves in writing instead of with speech. If you are having trouble getting information from a participant, try having them write their responses to your questions instead. Try using the Reflective Essay
12. Be a Sounding Board
Listen and reflect back words and feelings. A participant may not need you to do anything except to listen. Try to encourage the participant to identify solutions for themselves, instead of telling them what to do.