The second week in Seoul was packed full with some of my more favorite trips on our study tour, but the one experience I keep coming back to (and telling anyone who will give me five minutes) is our visit to Hanyang University and getting to meet and work with the students there. Spending the day with them was one of the richest learning opportunities I’ve ever had.
It wasn’t without awkward moments, nerves, or tension. We weren’t sure what to expect beyond the initial “We’re going to a university for a day to meet with students there,” which seemed straightforward enough. Once we arrived and met with the professors, and learned that they were expecting us to break into small groups with the Hanyang University students to write a public relations plan for a small business, then the adrenaline kicked in. The language barrier was really the only problem, and yet it affected nearly everything about the day.
Right away, you could see the differences between the two university groups. During the 30-40 minute introductory period in the beginning the professors from Hanyang kept making encouraging remarks to their students, prompting and reminding them to ask questions and comment during discussions throughout the day. Our cohort group doesn’t speak any Korean really, and the Korean students knew English in varying levels, but were very shy and reserved at first. The first roundtable went smoothly as the Hanyang professors introduced themselves, and we took turns introducing ourselves, stating our individual research interests and focus in communications. I kept wondering what would happen when the professors were no longer there to translate what we saying and I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to communicate at all with the students when we were alone.
Almost as quickly as those thoughts passed through my head, suddenly the professors were leaving and our groups of students were left almost entirely to ourselves. It was very nerve-wracking at first.
The language barrier can be monstrous. When you want to communicate with someone, yet can’t even understand the most basic of questions or phrases, it can make you feel helpless. Add in the fact that we were supposed to partner with these individuals later that afternoon and actually put together a semi-professional public relations plan and something like panic starts popping up. What if this doesn’t work out at all? What if at the end of the day, we just end up sitting in silence? It could have been a disaster.
Luckily, that didn’t happen!
No doubt, it’s difficult to communicate when two parties don’t speak the same language. But what I learned was when the will and desire to understand what the other person is attempting to communicate exists, then communication gradually becomes easier. Our conversations with the students were very basic at first, with hesitant questions and one-word answers. But we very much wanted to speak with them, and I believe they wanted to speak with us too – both groups were just very unsure of themselves. As we moved through the day, from lunch to a coffee shop, to a tour around campus, eventually the questions flowed easier and the answers got longer. Our two groups, separated at first, began to slowly spread out and intermingle with each other as we grew to know one another. We found similarities in hobbies and food, and shared stories from our university experiences in dorm rooms and classes. We laughed and they showed off their beautiful campus, and we enjoyed ourselves so much we actually showed up to our afternoon class late.
I think the public relations exercise was so enjoyable because we had built that rapport with the students. Each side felt comfortable sharing their ideas and insights because we had just spent an afternoon learning how to communicate with each other (speak evenly and slowly, which I need to practice) and learning more about each other. True, more often than not Lindsay, Simone, and I were speaking up and taking charge in the group. But our new Korean and Chinese friends were eager to contribute their own concepts and explain details of Korean food and life, which were vital for developing a public relations plan for our Korean restaurant client. The more questions we asked about their lifestyles and culture, the more they opened up with their own suggestions and thoughts.
I think what I truly enjoyed about the day was what we learned about connecting across the language barrier. Even though communicating was difficult and super awkward at first, the more effort we put into building rapport with the students and developing those relationships, the better the conversations became. In the communications field, even if two parties speak the same language it is still hard to accomplish much if one or both sides are unwilling to put the effort into understanding what the opposite party is trying to say. But by being open (and improvising somewhat) we were able to not only communicate but learn from each other. The day ended with Facebook friend requests and email addresses being shared, which I also take as a good sign.