Module 3: Cultural Awareness

Culture is everything that people have, believe, and do. It is their ideas, values, attitudes, and material things that manifest in normal or expected behavior. All cultures are ethnocentric. That is, all peoples believe that their behavior and thinking are natural, logical, and best. Culture is learned and is not innate. This module will help hone your cultural sensitivities for travel abroad.

A. Cultural Common Denominators

Cultural universals are common denominators. Each culture will have

  • an economic system;
  • a marriage and family system;
  • an educational system;
  • social control systems; and
  • religious belief systems.

Successful navigation in other cultures requires focusing on similarities rather than differences in these universals. The extent of individualism in a given culture correlates with that culture’s value of time. In monochronic cultures, American habits of planning, scheduling, and punctuality align well. In polychronic cultures American time orientation will not align well with local customs and practice.

B. Language and Culture

Language reflects culture, not the reverse. There is implicit language and explicit language. There is high context language and low context language. Implicit language tends toward high context. The message is in the context. Explicit language tends toward low context. The message is in the language.

Examples of implicit / high context languages include Chinese, South Asian, Japanese, and Middle Eastern. In implicit / high context language cultures:

  • learned implications are necessary for comprehension;
  • disharmony, criticism, and individual focus are avoided;
  • “not knowing” is avoided rather than confronted; and
  • a non-response or deflection is used rather than disagreement or acknowledgement of “not knowing.”

Examples of explicit/low context languages can be found in Germany, North America, The Netherlands, and the British Isles. In explicit/low context language cultures:

  • the goal is clear understanding;
  • the focus is on clarity and comprehension of the individual;
  • knowing that one does NOT know, is valued; and
  • informing that one does not know is not threatening or culturally uncomfortable.

Cultures of implicit language tend toward an imperative of “group harmony.” Focus on the individual is avoided. Cultures of explicit language tend toward an imperative that is “individual centered.” Focus is on the knowledge, comprehension and success of the individual.

During interviews of students and faculty in implicit or high context language cultures, confronting an issue directly may not elicit the information desired. You may need to alter your questioning to be more implicit and recognize the answer you might receive is non-responsive or a deflection of the issue. Your ability to recognize these situations will benefit your review of the program.

Team members on both U.S. and non-U.S. review visits would do well to overcome a communication problem described by George Bernard Shaw, “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it occurs.”

Special Note: During all review visits, team members are the face of ABET. Professional deportment and courtesy are required and work well throughout the world. When faced with an unknown situation, watching and taking the lead from the hosts can often times reduce or eliminate a potential embarrassment. During the visit, the institutional host can be a valuable resource in addressing significant cultural issues that may arise.

C. Customs and Etiquette

Prior to the visit, team members are encouraged to learn about the host country and its customs. Information is available from the U.S. Department of State, libraries, and the local association or group of individuals native to the country being visited. Many of these groups are eager to provide information to assist you in being a good American while in their native country.

Customs and etiquette may vary or differ greatly from that in the United States in many areas. Although uncomfortable, expecting the unusual can provide a feeling of preparedness. It is not possible to provide the customs and etiquette for all potential visits. But, the following few examples will make you aware of the need for pre-visit research and learning.

  1. Colors may have significance. In some countries, the color white is related to death.
  2. In some countries, showing the soles of your shoes when seated is considered an insult.
  3. In some countries, shaking hands while the left hand is touching the right forearm or wrist is a sign of respect to someone in higher station.

D. Diversity

In the United States we place high value on diversity, especially diverse thinking. The United States is considered the most diverse nation in the world. The lack of diversity within a non-U.S. institution and its programs should be expected. An all male student body or segregated male and female class settings should be expected. While Americans may think lack of diversity is a detriment to the educational process, the evaluator and team must set that thinking aside and evaluate, within the environment they reside, how the programs attain compliance with the criteria. However, just as in a U.S. program review, if a curriculum is offered in multiple settings or delivery modes, all paths to the degree must be reviewed and accreditable.

E. Gifts

Team members are not to expect or request gifts. On U.S. review visits, the program and institution are well aware of ABET’s policy prohibiting gifts to team members. In many other countries, it is customary for the host to offer gifts to team members. The institution may be fully aware of ABET’s policy, but choose to ignore it and follow native custom. These situations must be handled with tact and without embarrassment or insult to the giver. During the visit, your team chair is the arbiter in these situations.

If gifts are offered equally to the entire team, follow the lead of the Team Chair in accepting. If a gift is offered in an individual setting, use your best judgment in accepting with tact and without embarrassment or insult to the giver. Then, advise your Team Chair and obtain his or her directions. In some cases, the gift will have to be returned with tact.

The acceptance of token gifts during visits outside the U.S. visits is not considered in violation of ABET’s policy prohibiting gifts. The emphasis is on “token.” Examples of token gifts previously accepted by ABET evaluators include: pens, books by local authors or of local interest, jam, jelly, candy, boxes of tea, and book marks. Most of these token gifts had the college or university name or seal on them or were made in the local region or country being visited.

On rare occasions, the Team Chair may consider a non-cash gift to be more than a token gift, but chose to accept it only to prevent embarrassment or insult to the giver. Upon returning to the United States, the Team Chair will advise ABET headquarters staff about the situation. The team or individual may be allowed to keep the gift or they may be requested to send the gift to ABET for returning to the institution. In these situations, ABET is the final arbiter.

Gifts from the review team to the institution or faculty or students are generally not offered. It is difficult to know to whom they should be given and greater embarrassment can occur by accidentally leaving someone off the recipient list. However, the customs of the country being visited, regarding gifts by visitors, should be researched by the Team Chair, who will determine the need for the team to provide gifts to eliminate the possibility of embarrassment or insult to the institution. Only token gifts should be deemed appropriate. ABET does not provide gifts to be given. The team will determine, obtain, and pay for the appropriate gifts without reimbursement from ABET or the institution.

Important Note: Cash of any amount is not considered token and should not be accepted in any case.

F. Invitations to Meals, Social Events, or Sight-Seeing Tours

The review team should anticipate invitations to and pre-arrangements by the institution for receptions, meals, and social events. These events are arranged for many reasons, including controlling costs, controlling attendance, and providing a social setting for team members to interact with their counterparts at the institution. In some cases you would be culturally insensitive if you decline, which would reflect negatively on ABET. The Team Chair will coordinate these events with the institution prior to the visit and, with the Team Chair’s permission, the team may accept these invitations. During these occasions, ABET encourages team members to build rapport and improve communication. However, accepting sightseeing tours held by a company/agency may be viewed/perceived as accepting expensive gifts from the institution, which constitutes a conflict of interest. While the Team Chair could ask assistance from the institution in identifying a reliable tour company with an affordable price, the review team should arrange, set up, and pay for any sightseeing tours directly without involvement of the institution.

Team members who plan to take any sightseeing tours should obtain cash in the local currency in the event that they need to pay for the sightseeing costs/tips or buy some souvenirs when a credit card payment is not accepted. Please be reminded that team members should not accept the visit institution’s offer to pay for gifts.

Team members should also anticipate individual invitations from program faculty to join them for dinners or social events away from the team. Prior to accepting, you should consult with the Team Chair, who will be the final arbiter on individual team members accepting such invitations.

G. Dress Code

Business casual attire is appropriate for travel to and from the review city. However, business dress is required during the review visit. Business suits or coats and ties for men and business suits or dresses for women are appropriate. Team members should also consider the climate at the visit site and remember to check the forecast weather for the site location when packing for the visit.

H. Use of Titles and Names

In many countries, the use of a person’s title is a sign of respect. Using it correctly is paramount to good relations. This requires pre-visit research. A faculty member with a Ph.D. may be called something other than “Doctor.” Knowing a student’s father is King may require you to address him or her as “Your Highness” during an interview with students. Your counterpart within the program or institution will usually be the best resource for titles and how to use them correctly.

In some Spanish speaking countries, individuals use both their father’s and mother’s name. It may be unclear which is which. Therefore, it is appropriate to address the individual using both names.

Log in to read the country profile for additional guidance on naming situations.

I. Business Cards

Obtaining business cards from those interviewed during a review visit helps the team member to spell names properly and use correct titles. Please bring a supply of up-to-date business cards.

Cards for use during international business are often printed on one side in English and the other side in the language of the country being visited. ABET does not require team member business cards to be printed in that manner. However, if the team member chooses to have business cards printed in that manner, it would be at his or her own expense without reimbursement by ABET or the institution being visited.

Special Note: The exchanging of business cards in some countries is a more formal process than in the United States. In some countries, presenting the business card with both hands, with the text up and facing the receiver for direct readability, is considered a sign of respect. Likewise, receiving the card with both hands is also considered a sign of respect.

J. Religion and Politics

Religion can factor into a review visit in the United States when the institution being visited is aligned or affiliated with a religious denomination. In those instances, learning about the affiliation can help the evaluator understand funding and support for programs and the requirements for certain religious classes in the curriculum. Beyond that, religion does not impact the accreditation review.

Similarly, religion can factor into a non-U.S. review. In many countries, there is a predominant religion that most everyone practices. Understanding how that religion impacts the delivery of the program can aid the evaluator in making the appropriate accreditation judgments. There are also times when religion will factor directly into the accreditation visit. For instance, in the Middle East, the call to prayer will interrupt review activities, and team members must respect that interruption. In coordination with your program counterpart, your daily schedule can easily accommodate those interruptions. For instance, you can use that time to review student work.

Normally, as in the United States, national politics play no part in the accreditation review visit to a foreign institution. As with U.S. visits, understanding the internal and external politics of the institution can help the evaluator and team understand underlying issues of a non-U.S. program. What is said or written by the team can be used for:

  • leverage with Higher Education Ministry;
  • comparison with other institutions;
  • justification for additional funding, staff, space;
  • justification for workload adjustments; and
  • recruitment of students.

Additionally, the team member is cautioned that the draft or final statement may be used by the program, institution, or government in ways totally unexpected to the team or ABET. In reality, ABET cannot control the use of the draft or final statement after it is provided to the institution. Inappropriate use of the report can, however, be condemned by ABET. But, the last resort available is the removal of accreditation, which is a severe penalty to the students and graduates of an otherwise quality program. Therefore, team members must carefully consider the text chosen in the statement, relative to it being interpreted incorrectly or taken out of context.