Voices in Education

First-Generation College Students and Communication Mismatches
Recently I was surprised when a college professor told me that he was disturbed with what he had overheard from a couple of his students talking after class.  He heard these young women say that when he paused to look up at the class during his presentations, he always glanced at the window where “all the Anglos were sitting.”  And they said he never focused on them, and they’re sure he thinks they aren’t smart enough to get what he’s teaching.
The professor was stunned to hear these students’ comments.  I asked him why this surprised him.  He explained that he was trying to be sensitive to the diversity of his students. Somebody had told him that young Latina women were uncomfortable when a guy looked them in the eye, so he was deliberately trying not to focus on them when he looked out at his class.  He added that it’s natural to look over at the students by the window because they are always looking intently at him and trying to contribute. When I asked him what he planned to do next, he said he had no idea. 
Though I have studied theoretical intercultural communications and done practical interview research with college students, this well-liked professor’s story mystified me.  It’s a quintessential example of the challenges facing college faculty and staff as we try to bridge the differences in meaning that individuals from different backgrounds give to the same communication event, like direct eye contact.  
It’s an example of the phenomenon of communication mismatch, also called meaning mismatch. In summary, it’s an unintentional misunderstanding. Experiences from growing up embed in your brain specific meanings to speech patterns and inflections, individual words, nonverbal accompaniments to speech, and other ways we communicate.  When this early, and mostly unconscious, learning of communications’ meanings is different for two individuals because they grew up in different settings, a communication mismatch is likely, as neither side expects or recognizes that it’s happening.  

Although I’ve identified many communication mismatches on campuses with first-generation-to-college students, this recent incident makes me see a new level of complexity in understanding meaning mismatches. It appears this professor is witnessing a transition in progress for these Latina students. They’re moving from their early home-instilled meanings for eye-contact communications to new meanings they’re observing to be the norm in the culture of academia: that eye contact is, for their Anglo fellow students and for the professor (i.e., for those they see as successful participants in the culture of academia), a sign of engagement and encouragement to participate in dialogue.  As these Latina students are adapting to academia, they are experiencing a new communication mismatch when the professor avoids eye contact.  The conversation the professor just overheard tells him that his effort to be sensitive is being perceived as a “put down” or negative judgment about them. What a big surprise for a well-meaning professor!

During my subsequent conversation with this faculty member, I realized that he was gaining a new insight: that communication meanings are shifting for students as they gradually become more acclimated to academic culture.  This exchange reinforced for me the importance of being sensitive to all stages of possible communication mismatches. Professors can enhance this sensitivity by engaging in informal dialogue and casual conversations with students. This rekindles students’ confidence and determination, even when a communication mismatch in the classroom has created unintended feelings of alienation.

If you’re interested in more information on communication mismatches with first-generation students, you can check out some three-minute videos here

About the Author: Sister Kathleen Ross, Ph.D., is the emerita founding president of Heritage University in the Yakima agricultural valley of Washington state and the author of Breakthrough Strategies: Classroom-Based Practices to Support New Majority College Students (Harvard Education Press, 2016). You can reach her directly at ross_k@heritage.edu