Thursday, September 27, 2012

They Don't Care How Much You Know...But They Might Want to Know You Care

I just learned that North Station has free wi-fi, courtesy of Dunkin Donuts.  I'm still not sure whether all corporations are people, but I know Dunkin Donuts is, and I'm grateful for its generosity.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my time at school so far has been getting to know the international students in our cohort.  I'm not quite sure what the total number is, but I'm guessing between 30 to 40 percent of the student body is made up of foreign nationals.  Major countries of origin are:  China, Brazil, India, Israel, Chile, and Japan, with some others scattered across the globe.

Since all of the international students took the pre-term classes back in August, I've had a lot of time to get to know them...and given my prior professional experience, I take a natural interest in the views and perspectives of people who have 'come of age' somewhere other than here.  For all the time I've spent studying issues surrounding the Taiwan Strait, for instance, it wasn't until this program started that I got the chance to sit down with a real live person from Taiwan to ask her opinion about cross-Strait relations.

Here's a funny observation about that: Every time I've seen an American student approach an international student with a story about [insert 'crazy and zany' story about 'wild and spontaneous fun' along the Great Wall or other famous symbol here], or try out some halting [insert name of language], it never seems to go over well.  I can see the eyes glaze over, I can see the dispassionate body language, and I can tell by the quick response in English that this isn't going to be someone's time to play Berlitz.

However, when I have seen people really connect with international students, it's come from the conversation-initiator leading in with something very open-ended that blends honest curiosity with an appeal to the other person's experience or expertise.

In other words, "Tell me your opinion about what's going in Venezuela...I caught the news about Chavez's re-election campaign hitting a few snags" is an almost guaranteed winner (directed to a Venezuelan, of course).  Ditto for "Hey, what's up with the cartoon controversy in France?" or "Bibi really put the smackdown on our Iran policy.  Do you think he's frustrated with our lack of clarity?"

Those are all winners, provided the other person has the time and inclination to engage in discussion about said topics.

By contrast, a long recounting about one's zany and wild adventures in [insert name of country], or, even worse, opining about the true strength of the Chinese economy [or, say, Charles deGaulle's offense to NATO in 1966, or the merits of returning to the pre-1967 borders with respect to Jordan, Palestine, and Israel] just tends to neither win friends nor influence people.

When reflecting on this for a minute, I thought back to a quote I had heard once when I was training to become a teacher:  "They don't care how much you know until they first know that you care."  In other words, build rapport.

If that quote applies to teaching, an inherently didactic activity in which one person presumably does need to enable another to glean new information, I think it needs to be slightly altered for these real-world peer interactions.  As long as we're speaking about purely social contexts*, no one really cares how much you know, but they might want to know whether you care.  

And then I thought, why only apply this to conversations between U.S. and foreign nationals?  I think the applications are much broader...and years from now, I will almost certainly have forgotten whether a particular former banker or consultant made the most pithy and incisive comments in class.  Whether he was a good guy who enjoyed friendly conversation over a cup of coffee between classes, though?

That I might remember.

* I think if you're talking about professional or academic contexts, this doesn't really apply in the same way.  In other words, people might care what you know, and it might be part of your job to offer that up. For this entry, I'm referring to peer-to-peer social interactions with an academic backdrop...which really aren't too different from social interactions anywhere else.  

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