Let the Miscommunication Begin! 

 September 4, 2014

By  Mark Trexler

The 2014-2015 exchange students have now mostly arrived in the U.S. Most are past the jet lag phase. School has just started for some, while others have been in school for several weeks now. On the one hand, we’re still mostly in the “honeymoon phase” of the exchange year. On the other hand, we’re in a perilous period when it comes to student – host family communications.

Let’s face it — most of us aren’t great communicators, and most people of any age try to avoid conflict. To say that goes for teens arriving in a new country and into a new family is probably an understatement. So what do we tend to see each year? The answer, in a nutshell, is miscommunication.

I’m not saying this happens all the time, or even in most cases – there are many, many host families who are happy with their students from the very beginning, and many, many students who settle into their host families’ lives and adjust with little difficulty. But there are also those host families and students who don’t adjust to each other, or whose expectations are not realistic.

The source is usually multiple miscommunications

In some cases, this leads to the outright failure of a student’s exchange year; in other cases, it leads to simmering problems that will explode in the coming weeks or months. These problems, once they boil over, lead to high levels of frustration, stress, and worry. At the extreme, they can result in students being removed from their host families. In too many cases, these miscommunications leave behind lingering resentment from host families or students (or both) with feelings that no one cared and no one listened. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Here’s how it often progresses:

1. Exchange student engages in conversation and makes a point assuming they’ve been clear and understood. Sometimes it’s because they believe their English is great when it’s not; sometimes it’s just predictable teenage “half-statements” (there is something universal about teens in that they think if they say X you will know they mean X plus Y…..). It could be on almost any subject, from their life back home, their current situation, to warrows 175030805 hat they like and don’t like to do, etc. The list is endless.
2. Host parent or host sibling doesn’t understand or misunderstands student’s point, and either ignores the comment (because it’s just a small thing after all), or takes offense but just files it away for future reference (because why get into an argument or discussion about such a small thing?).
3. Neither exchange student nor host family seeks clarification: “Was I clear in saying . . . . ?” “Did I understand you correctly to say . . . . ?”
4. A small wedge is created between exchange student and host family — not a big wedge or a big problem to start. But it quickly expands with subsequent conversations and misunderstanding.

Our brains seek confirmation

Here’s the issue: once our brains think they’ve figured something out, they’ll look for more evidence to support that conclusion. This is not rocket science, nor is it something that is limited to one culture or age group. It’s human nature. Our brains are always looking for evidence that our first impression was correct, no matter how obvious it might be in retrospect that the first impression was based on a misunderstanding. Host family members might talk among each other, commiserating and reinforcing their individual perceptions about why their student is acting a certain way or saying (or not saying) the “right” things. Exchange students might log onto Facebook or other social media where each country’s exchange students often maintain gossip pages or chat groups in their native language which seem to be for the sole purpose of commiserating and spreading negative experiences and stories. And everyone’s initial impression is reinforced. Eventually, the small wedge becomes a chasm; either the student or the host family pulls in their local program coordinator, who has the role of sorting out the conflicting stories and misunderstandings that often are now solidly and perhaps permanently in place.

What’s remarkable is how many “placement problems” each year could be avoided if exchange student and host family would simply ask a few questions: “Was I clear in saying . . . . ?”, “Did I understand you correctly to say . . . . ?,” and the hardest of all for ordinary humans of all ages to admit – “I don’t understand.” We tell students and host families every year to call us — that there is no question too small, no issue too insignificant when you are dealing with people from different world views, different cultures, and different generations. And many do remember this, and do call us. But some do not.

These are our challenges. Sometimes we’re able to help sort it out successfully. Sometimes it’s too late for students or host families to change direction. The student may be labelled as a behavior problem and moved to another home, leaving a host family with a sour taste in their mouth about the entire exchange experience and a teenager who often doesn’t quite understand what went wrong. So much misunderstanding, pain, and lost opportunities could be avoided if problems are nipped in the bud. After all, it’s two very simple questions:

* Was I clear in saying . . . . ?

* Did I understand you correctly to say . . . ?

Good communication is a challenge, and can be difficult and uncomfortable. Many thousands of host families and exchange students can confirm that. Most will admit it may not be an easy process, but the end result is worth it.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com.
*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.*
  • This is so right on! Especially that small things easily can go from a little wedge to a wide chasm. I’ve seen this happen so many times and your strategy of asking a couple key questions is a great one. It’s so easy to assume negative intentions on both sides, when often it’s a miscommunication, a misunderstanding of an invisible and deeply held cultural value, a difference in communication or conflict styles, and the fact that you’re dealing with teenagers!

    I think sometimes host families and exchange students think they’re doing something wrong when there are difficult miscommunications and conflicts but, in most cases, that’s the typical stuff of intercultural exchange. It’s not all sunshine and unicorns! 🙂 These conflicts and misunderstandings teach us so much about our cultural perspectives, and that’s so valuable.

    Once again, great blog post!

    Thanks for participating in the September #MyGlobalLife Link-Up!

  • As both a former ESL teacher and someone married to someone with a non-English speaking background, I can only say, YES!! If only people were able to say “I don’t understand” or “I’m not sure I understand” more often – but it’s so difficult. Great post.

  • We are brand new host parents. Our student is saying no more than yes or no. She seems to have good understanding, but doesn’t seem to want to even try to spend any time with us. We have dinner and car rides to and from school to try and engage her. Mostly, I end up feeling like an interrogator. So far, we have decided to just try and be patient and try to win her over.

    • Hi Kelly,
      Your observation is a common one at the beginning; a few of the host parents I’m working with this year made the same comment just yesterday at our welcome orientation. I think your approach is a good one. Your student may still be unsure of her English skills, or perhaps she is worried she doesn’t understand everything you are saying and isn’t sure if she can just admit that. One of the things we suggest is giving the student a topic to talk about at the dinner table — even just a few sentences about each class she went to that day, or ask her to talk about her city/home town. Long conversations may actually be mentally exhausting; she may still be translating each sentence in her head and not yet thinking in English.

      Good luck and be patient, it will get easier!

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