How Do We Become Great Communicators?

Two decades in academia, one of which was spent living abroad. How does that make someone a great communicator?

When I decided to return to Malaysia last year during the pandemic, I was not expecting a quick job offer. When Sunway University sent me an offer, I was overjoyed as my purpose was aligned with the University’s mission, which is to “help students become independent, lifelong learners who actively pursue knowledge and appreciate its global application to economic, political, social and cultural development; and develop strong leadership qualities and communication skills.” It was exactly what I wanted.

As someone who values communication and culture, I consider developing communication skills in students as important as developing their knowledge in the sciences when it comes to getting them future-ready for a continuously globalising world.

Even more so now that there’s a growing body of research that supports diversity as key to organisational performance. A study by Gartner demonstrates that a highly diverse environment can improve team performance by up to 30% and another by McKinsey showcases that diverse companies outperform their less diverse peers by 36% in profitability.

From my experience abroad, I fervently believe that cross-cultural experiences and communications can be deeply enriching for students or anyone for that matter – be it for their personal development or their career and business development in a globalised economy.

The famed linguist, Professor Deborah Tannen once stated, “In fact, however, most discourse analysts have a genuine concern with real-world issues, and cross-cultural communication is crucial to nearly all public and private human encounters. At the most global level, the fate of all people, indeed the fate of the earth, depends upon negotiations among representatives of governments with different cultural assumptions and ways of communicating. Moreover, to accomplish any public or private goals, people have to talk to each other, and in more and more cases, the people communicating come from more or less different cultural backgrounds.”

Cross-cultural experiences can change or shape a person. I am living proof of this. Having lived in several countries, I have become more than just a communication academician. It has transformed me into a better person. My communication skills and confidence increased as I put myself out there, talking to people from diverse backgrounds. It was a challenge, but it developed me exponentially.

From being bilingual, I became multilingual. In addition to Bahasa Melayu and English, I now speak fluent Portuguese (which I picked up when I lived in São Paulo, Brazil) and Indonesian (which I practised when I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia). I also managed to improve my Arabic, a language I had studied the language for three years in high school.

I learnt to communicate across cultures beyond learning the languages themselves. When communicating with diverse people, one of the things you’d learn quite quickly is how we talk and listen is deeply influenced by culture. One learns how to evaluate and interpret others from the cultural context that they are from, rather than from one’s own.  

How did all this help me develop personally? By befriending people from multicultural backgrounds, I overcame fears, learnt different languages, and cultures and cultivated meaningful relationships unfettered by cultural boundaries. By befriending people from diverse backgrounds, instead of associating myself only with people from similar backgrounds, I was exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking that benefited me as an academician. Imparting these experiences, and international exposure helped me be a better educator to my students.

Now I can share my stories with my students – the values I have learnt, and the experience and cultural exposure that have enriched me. These experiences help my students broaden their imaginations and horizons as they design their own futures. Most importantly, the way I communicate with them isn’t the same now compared to years ago. I have accumulated the cultural differences I have learnt and adapted to and combined them with who we are here in Malaysia, one of the most multicultural societies in the world.

One of the things that awed me when I first arrived at Sunway University was the opportunity to learn cross-cultural communications on campus.  Our president is Dutch, our pro-vice-chancellor is British, my dean is Kiwi, my associate dean is American and, of course, my colleagues in the Department of Communication are exceptionally culturally diverse. This is one of the main reasons I had declined the offers from other universities: the cross-cultural opportunity here that isn’t as readily available in other universities. The multi-cultural environment here could help anyone hone their cultural adaptation as it plays a great role in communication efficiency.

I believe that my academic background coupled with my experience of having lived in four countries has made me not only a good communicator, but a better educator and a person. I quote my PhD thesis (2018) which noted, “Further effort needs to be executed to search for explicit cross-cultural communication.”

By Norizzati Azudin, Senior Lecturer, Department of Communication, School of Arts, Sunway University

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