USU Addresses Diversity Through Cross-Cultural Communication

Students talking and communicating in USU courtyard. (Photo credit: USU photo)

By Vivian Mason

Culture is complicated, and comprehending any culture is a difficult task, especially traditions and customs different from our own. The Uniformed Services University (USU), as with many academic institutions throughout the world, is made up of people of different racial and cultural backgrounds, making cross-cultural communication an important priority.

Army Col. (Dr.) Jessica Bunin, associate dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and professor of Medicine at USU, defines cross-cultural communication as “[seeking] to understand how people from different cultural backgrounds communicate among themselves and across cultures.” 

“Within diversity,” Bunin adds, “cross-cultural communication helps people communicate and learn from others of different races, ethnic origins, beliefs, and social groups. It helps us to respect other people and not just our own types of people. It encourages people to have a broader mindset and adjust within society.”

The importance of cross-cultural communication is recognized at USU, and DEI curricula for students and faculty (including workshops in cross-cultural mentorship) are keeping pace. 

Last year, Bunin created a DEI crash course that was delivered across the university. The course included definitions for diversity-related terms and offered skills for conducting inclusive conversations and dealing with microaggressions. “We developed a common language for how we can approach people when they’ve said something that has offended or hurt us,” notes Bunin. “The course was first delivered to USU medical students, and then to graduate students, nursing students, and the graduate school faculty.” The course was well received and requests for delivery continue to roll in.

Col. Jessica Bunin lighting a candle for Diwali (the Indian Festival of Lights) celebration. (Photo courtesy of Col. Jessica Bunin, USU)
Col. Jessica Bunin lighting a candle for Diwali (the Indian Festival of Lights) celebration. (Photo courtesy of Col. Jessica Bunin, USU)

“There has to be a lot more humility, a lot more cultural curiosity, and a lot more willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations. People must look beyond appearances and their own comfort zones,” maintains Bunin.

Cross-cultural communication requires learning to value other cultures and respect the views of others. According to Bunin, different doesn’t mean wrong. Cross-cultural communication allows individuals to avoid miscommunication and misinterpretation, and open up to meaningful relationships. Effective cross-cultural understanding improves communication between people and fosters greater trust; however, it all starts with awareness. Knowing how to converse across cultures is useful both personally and professionally, but cross-cultural communication takes finesse and hard work. 

“In order to become aware of what culture actually is,” stresses Bunin, “you have to develop a critical eye to look at your own perceptions and surroundings. It includes not only noticing ways of speaking and acting, but also noting thoughts and beliefs that you may not even be aware of.” Communication encompasses a wide array of verbal and nonverbal interactions that take place as people engage with one another.

“I recommend practicing responses,” explains Bunin. “For example, if someone says something that doesn’t sound right to me or it hurts my feelings, I take a deep breath, think about the situation, and then determine the right way to approach and respond to that individual. I think this approach has really improved my personal and professional relationships.” 

Bunin continues, saying that it’s not necessarily about saying things all that differently. “For example,” she offers, “if someone says something that offends you, don’t just tell them. Take the time to explain why it feels wrong to you and why it matters to you that they do it differently next time.  I believe having that conversation is huge. It’s not an easy one; but, if we all keep practicing, it’ll become easier.”

Developing cross-cultural humility and improving communication entails overcoming these language differences, understanding multicultural nonverbal cues, and working together to understand how to best communicate ideas across cultural divides. 

“We have to understand how other cultures operate, why other cultures have the priorities that they do, and why they function in a certain way,” Bunin explains. “We need to have genuinely curious conversations, with curious questions. We have to really care about each other enough to talk and share. Having conversations and practicing having the necessary words are very important. You can’t learn to be a better communicator without practicing the words or finding words that are authentic to you. They go hand in hand.”

Three individuals in military camo talking in a courtyard
Graduates of USU will require cross-cultural communication skills as they deploy and serve populations worldwide. (USU photo)

Bunin believes that role-playing scenarios can be hugely beneficial to learning better communication. “Practicing the words you plan on saying and having those words ready if something that was said was inappropriate are essential. Then, those words are already prepared for you to use when you need them.” 

Ultimately, cross-cultural communication opens up the possibility for effective relationships across cultural barriers. It enables the free exchange of information among people that empowers everyone to profit from the communication. 

Health care professionals encounter patients of diverse racial, ethnic, socio-economic, linguistic, religious and other backgrounds at an increasing rate that makes effective cross-cultural communication skills essential. As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, cross-cultural communication training becomes more significant. Graduates of USU will require these skills as they deploy and serve populations worldwide, so it’s important that, as students, they practice while enrolled at USU. 

“We have to learn how to have communication that points out when people are doing things wrong. It’s not about calling them out, embarrassing them, or shaming them,” says Bunin. “I’ve seen problems with it historically and that’s a big goal of mine this year. I want to get people thinking about if someone says something hurtful, how can you point that out to them in a helpful way that allows you to keep talking and moving the relationship forward in a good manner? Then, we can make a lot more progress.”

Bunin adds that, at USU, “we try to raise awareness, impart knowledge, and teach cross-cultural communication and understanding skills throughout our academic and professional programs.” And if cross-cultural communication is to evolve, she concludes, “everyone must believe it is important.”