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Navigating supervision across cultures

Understanding your cultural differences with international students is the key to fostering a productive and rewarding supervisory relationship


The supervision of graduate students is a challenging exercise in effective interpersonal communication even when the faculty member and student share the same cultural background. Differing expectations about workload, progress and a considerable power gap often create the perfect conditions for misunderstanding in this curiously symbiotic relationship. Throw a few cultural differences in communication styles and ways of resolving disagreement into the mix, and we certainly face a communication conundrum. The challenges, however, can be overcome and cross-cultural supervisory relationships can be productive and rewarding, if both the faculty member and the student learn about each others’ assumptions, expectations and communication strategies.

The most frequently occurring challenges in supervising graduate students across cultures revolve around five themes:

  • Assumptions about the nature of research and knowledge production
  • Cultural differences in power and status
  • Differing needs for saving face
  • Cultural differences in communication styles
  • Expectations about rule following

Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Assumptions about the nature of research and knowledge production

Many of the assumptions of conducting research in North American academic settings are unspoken and not necessarily shared by scholars from overseas. Nick Knight, a professor of Asian studies at Griffith University in Australia, has shown through his research that the expectation to be original in one’s research and be able to critique others’ work is contrary to prevailing norms in some cultures in South and East Asia. These cultures emphasize maintaining harmony in the community, which creates expectations for scholars to reiterate widely accepted truths rather than challenge existing knowledge.

As a result, graduate students from Confucian educational cultures arrive at Canadian universities without any experience in designing original research or pointing out the shortcomings of the existing literature. In an article on supervising students from Confucian educational cultures,Douglas C. Smith, Graduate Centre coordinator and professor emeritus at West Virginia University, explains that in these cultures “the role of reading was to (re)discover what the sage was saying, while the role of writing was to reveal the truth held in the text for a larger audience, rather than to argue with it.” When asked to critique a particular account of history, a student cited in the study responded: “How can I challenge history? History happened.”

Similarly, students from East and South Asia may not realize that they are expected to take initiative in designing their own research paths and frequently wait for their supervisor to assign the question they will research. Studies on the adaptation of international doctoral students find, however, that most students are able to and willing to adapt to the expectation to take initiative in research once this expectation is made explicit for them.

Power and status

The power imbalance between a supervisor and an international student in their home country is often much greater than between Canadian faculty and Canadian students. Dutch scholar Geert Hofstede’s research on cultural differences in workplace values, conducted using data collected by IBM in over 70 countries, suggests that in the high power-distance cultures of Africa, South America or East Asia, where the difference between the social status of the student and the professor is much greater than in Canada, deference to authority prevents students from openly disagreeing with the professor. In these cultures, it is considered disrespectful for students to say “no” to a request from the supervisor, even if the request is unrealistic (overtime work, deadlines they cannot meet.) One strategy to avoid student compliance with unrealistic deadlines is to ask open ended rather than yes/no questions. “When do you think you could complete the next chapter?” is much more likely to elicit a realistic answer than “So, can you finish the chapter by next week?”

Heightened need for saving face

Complicating the supervisor’s ability to address the challenges posed by higher power-distance is students’ heightened need for saving face. Japanese or Korean graduate students have a much higher need to save face than Canadians, and are extremely careful to also save face for others, so they may go to great lengths to avoid situations that may cause their supervisor to lose face. For example, they may not ask clarification questions during meetings because doing so may indicate that the professor did not explain the issues thoroughly. They would rather try to figure out the answer on their own or ask a third party for help before asking for clarification from the supervisor. A Chinese faculty member working with Russian students at a Canadian university would face the opposite challenge, as in this case his need for saving face would be frequently challenged by students’ direct questions.

Communication styles: directness and indirectness

In a number of Asian and Eastern European cultures the responsibility to understand the intended meaning of a verbal message rests on the listener as opposed to the speaker (whereas the opposite is more common in Northern Europe and North America). Graduate students from these cultures may be quite indirect, because they depend on previous knowledge about the situation when speaking and assume that the listener shares all of this knowledge with them, and is therefore able to figure out part of what they want to convey.

For example, a Japanese student may speak to a faculty member about applying for jobs and hint at, but never actually say, that she actually came to ask for a letter of recommendation. She assumes that if the faculty member is able to write one, he or she will offer to do so, and by not asking directly she does not put the professor in the uncomfortable position of having to say no. Canadian and Northern European faculty find indirectness frustrating, because in their cultures speakers are expected to spell out exactly what they mean. When faced with this situation, one of the strategies supervisors have found useful is to offer support in general terms but ask the student for clarification. Asking “So how could I support you in the job application process?” would meet the needs of the student for indirectness and the needs of the supervisor for clarity.

Rule following

Completing a graduate degree involves deciphering a myriad of rules and regulations. The prevailing assumption in Canadian culture is that rules are reasonable and should be followed. By contrast, students from post-communist societies and countries with totalitarian regimes will rarely take program regulations at face value. They are more likely to challenge rules because they came from an environment where unreasonable rules controlled every aspect of life and they could only survive by breaking the rules at least some of the time. These students are likely to regard rules as guidelines to be followed when necessary, but ignored when possible.

Similarly, in Middle Eastern cultures the rules are often negotiable, and exceptions to rules are frequently made based on consideration of individual cases. So declaring that “the class is full” basically opens the door for students to negotiate getting into the class, because in their culture “no” is rarely absolute and there is often room for bargaining.

Supporting the transition of international graduate students to Canadian academia

In addition to learning about the culture of their discipline, international students are learning about appropriate ways of communicating in Canadian culture in general. Being able to communicate in ways that are appropriate in the academic/professional context is a crucial factor in their success, and faculty supervisors play a very important role in supporting their learning.

In their role as mentors, supervisors can clarify expectations, explain the norms of the discipline and give feedback on students’ behaviour during everyday interaction. Many international students wish that more colleagues around them would help them understand Canadian cultural norms and expectations. “I used to interrupt people all the time. In my culture it is a sign of being interested. I kept making the same mistake, because people were too polite to correct me,” explained an engineering student from Egypt. At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge students’ prior educational and professional experience by encouraging them to share the different approaches to scholarship and communication they bring with them from their home cultures.

Learning a new culture takes time. Graduate students born and raised in Canada take at least six months to adapt to the context of a new graduate program. Research on cross-cultural adaptation suggests that given the multiple challenges faced by international graduate students, their transition may take up to two years.

Professional development programs that include components on cross-cultural communication competence and that clarify Canadian academic norms speed up the process of culture learning significantly. The University of Western Ontario, for example, offers a non-credit course on Communication in the Canadian Classroom, and is creating a guide for faculty who supervise across cultures. Similar courses are offered for teaching assistants at Queen’s University, as well as at a number of American universities, including Cornell University and the University of Minnesota.

Here are some additional resources that faculty may find useful as they seek create the best possible working relationship with their international graduate students.

Nanda Dimitrov is associate director at the Teaching Support Centre at University of Western Ontario.

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