Teun De Rycker
The Impact of
International Business Games on Improving Cultural Awareness and
Writing Proficiency: An Evaluation of the “Course in International
Business Writing” (1994-2004)
This article gives a
critical evaluation of the advantages of adopting a cross-cultural
approach to teaching language for specific purposes (i.e., business
English) by reporting on ten years of experience with the “Course in
International Business Writing,” a course that was taught
simultaneously at institutions in Belgium, Germany, Finland and the
United States between 1994 and 2004. After a brief description of the
three course components, i.e., instruction, simulation and case study
analysis, this study examines the impact of this teaching and research
project on participants’ cultural awareness and writing proficiency.
The main findings are that international projects need to contain
sufficient product and process authenticity in order to increase
student motivation and output and to improve cultural awareness but
also that these beneficial effects can only be made visible if they
adopt a sufficiently rigourous and formal research methodology.
Key words: Language for
Specific Purposes (LSP), foreign language teaching methodology,
cross-cultural business communication, cultural awareness, business
writing in English.
Scripta Manent. Slovensko društvo učiteljev tujega strokovnega jezika.
The need for competence in cross-cultural business
communication is not in dispute. The two main drivers behind this are
growing domestic cultural diversity (also referred to as
multiculturalism), and secondly, globalization and the worldwide
expansion of firms and other organizations (see, among many others,
Victor 1992: 7-9; Varner and Beamer 1995: xi-xv). Success at
communicating with unfamiliar or exotic cultures, even within one and
the same country, is by no means guaranteed, however. Whenever
strangers meet, there are opportunities for cultural gaffes and
misinterpretations at all levels. Examples of this can be found in the
case studies in Marx (2001) or the critical incidents in Gibson (2002).
So, it is argued that businesspeople and managers – both current and
prospective – not only need foreign language and business communication
classes but also special cross-cultural training, instruction or advice.
Not surprisingly, the market is flooded with “how to” books catering to
that critical need. These publications can be roughly divided into
general cultural primers (e.g., Lewis 2005) and those that deal with
one specific culture only (e.g., Stewart-Allen and Denslow 2002). These
days also business communication books will include one or more units
on cross-cultural issues and will more often than not provide their
readers with advice and practical activities (see, e.g., Rosenberg
2001: 190-199). Most of these titles draw rather heavily – and often
uncritically – on leading names in intercultural research like Kaplan
(1966), Hall (1976), Hofstede (1991), Schwartz (1992), Trompenaars and
Hampden-Turner (1997), and more recently, Neuliep (2003) or Yunxia
(2005) – for a recent overview, see Dahl (2004).
Of course, none of the above is controversial. The real question is
whether descriptive knowledge
of theoretical models and participation in classroom awareness-raising
activities enhance procedural
knowledge, i.e., improved cross-cultural communication skills. And if
they do not, whether there are alternatives. Interestingly, we also
need to discover whether foreign-language writing and intercultural
communication should be trained in tandem or whether it is better to
deal with them separately, and if so, in what order.
In this article I would like to address these methodological questions
by reporting on an international project, the so-called “Course in
International Business Writing” (CIBW for short). The CIBW ran from
1994 to 2004 as part of business English and business writing courses
conducted in Belgium, Finland, Germany and the United States. I will
investigate whether those ten years of CIBW experience plus the
research it has generated allow us to conclude anything about the
usefulness of intercultural or multicultural approaches to teaching
languages for specific purposes (LSP). After giving a brief description
of the CIBW project, I will summarize our findings and impressions with
respect to the impact of this international course in international
business writing on cultural awareness and competence in
foreign-language writing. Though this article will rely on previous
publications, its added value lies in the fact that for the first time
all of these observations, quantitative results and more tentative
findings will be brought together under one roof. Moreover, where
relevant, I will update some of the older articles as well as include
the preliminary results from more recent and unpublished research into
Flemish and US students’ rejection letters in English.
The “Course in International Business Writing”
The “Course in International Business Writing” was designed to give
business communication students in higher education experience in
actual written communication across cultural and linguistic boundaries.
At first, the CIBW had three components:
instruction in international
business writing based on a combination of lectures, discussions,
classroom activities, etc., using Victor (1992) and Varner and Beamer
(1995) as supplementary texts;
a simulation in which teams of
students – acting as either publishing, recruiting or training
companies – exchanged a wide range of different letters and documents
internationally by following a carefully structured four-phase business
studies in which individual students interviewed local
businesspeople who communicate internationally in writing, interviews
that resulted in a classroom presentation of their findings.
For a more detailed description including the simulation instructions,
see Connor et al. (1997) and Verckens et al. (1998: 249-254). We could
not always complete, however, all three CIBW components every year, and
this because of timetable clashes among the institutions, staff
changes, partners dropping out and curriculum reforms. So, to salvage
the international project as a whole, students were sometimes allowed
to sign up for the cross-cultural business game – the second component
– without having had any prior instruction. From a research point of
view, this is important because it means that some of our papers (see
below) have to be looked upon as “effect-of-no-instruction” studies.
The CIBW grew out of a smaller-scale instructional project (1990-1994)
aimed at improving Flemish and US students’ job application skills. As
reported elsewhere (Davis et al. 1994; De Rycker 1996; Connor et al.
1997), both the CIBW simulation component and its earlier version had
designed into them higher-than-usual levels of product and process authenticity – a feature
that uniquely differentiated them from the business correspondence
exercises then available in the ELT/ESP literature. It is not enough
for students to write an error-free and pragmatically appropriate
request for information, they should also be able to write such a
request as part of a longer exchange of initiating and response moves.
Part of the authenticity of the CIBW experience resides in the fact
that “instructors keep a low profile [merely acting as sorting
offices], students need to take business decisions [e.g., whether to
accept a business proposal or hire an outside consultant] and to
observe time limits [meaning that teams missing a deadline may find
themselves out of the business game]” (De Rycker 1996: 26). Similarly,
it is not enough for student teams to interact with each other within
the same educational and cultural setting, they should also be exposed
to the business communication styles and patterns of complete strangers
in other cultures.
Of course, both product and process authenticity have to be viewed as
gradients along which business writing activities can be arranged from
the “real thing” in which, for example, mature students respond to real
job vacancies that they are interested in, over simulations of varying
degrees of “real-world” authenticity (like the CIBW) to the more
artificial and imaginary role-based activities of students writing a
weekly business letter for the instructor’s eyes only. For more
details, see Davis et al. (1994: 239-249).
However, increased authenticity – also known as bridging the gap
between “writing at college” and “writing at work” (Tebeaux 1990) – as
well as the international dimension were not the only striking features
of our business writing simulation. The “mystique of communicating with
real people in another country” produced higher-than-expected levels of
motivation than more traditional one-off, one-school and one-country
writing assignments (Davis et al. 1994: 255). Note that this finding
was based on the analysis of the project appraisal forms submitted at
the end of each run of the earlier, more limited simulation. For
practical reasons, we no longer could continue these appraisals when
the original project was expanded. Yet, there is every reason to assume
that this “mystique” and its effect on motivation were also experienced
by the CIBW participants.
There is no denying the critical importance of motivation in most
fields of learning including foreign language learning (see, e.g.,
Harmer 2001: 51-54). Yet, does the high degree of motivation associated
with the simulation component also influence a student’s cross-cultural
awareness and the quality of his or her business writing? After all,
there would be little justification for elaborate international project
work if the learning outcomes were less favourable than those obtained
in non-international circumstances. But this brings us to the second
part of this article.
The impact on cultural awareness
The concept “cultural awareness” comes in many different guises but
for the sake of simplicity it can be defined, following Tomalin and
Stempleski (1993: 5), as someone’s “sensitivity to the impact of
culturally-induced behaviour on language use and communication.” Among
the goals of cultural instruction that both authors identify, one is to
help students develop the ability to evaluate and refine
generalizations about the target culture. Put in another way, it is
important for students to move beyond the level of cultural
stereotyping and to arrive at a better understanding of how cultures
can be both different and alike. Tomalin and Stempleski’s (1993)
awareness-raising activities are essentially forms of
monolinguistic/monocultural groupwork focused on cognitive tasks (like
recognizing, examining or exploring values, symbols, behaviours,
communication patterns, etc.). In contrast, the CIBW business game
offers a genuine cross-cultural experience. Participants learn about
each other not through speculation and detached observation but through
active and affective involvement. The four CIBW phases come with real
deadlines and delays, create real uncertainty about getting one’s
message across or understanding the letters sent by others and cause
real emotional satisfaction at having a proposal or job offer accepted.
Only one research article, however, was published on the effect of the
CIBW project on cultural awareness (Verckens et al. 1998). In 1998 the
first class meeting in Belgium and Finland included a series of
cross-cultural warm-ups in which students, among other things, had to
choose from a list of adjectives those that they thought would
characterize the other participants best (e.g., friendly, open-minded, impolite and
ambitious). After the
eight-week exchange of business letters and documents, the Flemish and
Finnish students were given the same task so that we could then gauge
the project’s effect on perceptions of self and other. The main
findings were that
the post-CIBW generalizations
about the target cultures were different from the pre-CIBW ones;
the post-CIBW descriptions were
either more or less “positive” or “negative” than the pre-CIBW ones;
it is difficult to ascertain
whether the post-CIBW evaluations were more refined and less
stereotypical (cf. Tomalin and Stempleski’s (1993) fifth instructional
though the impact of other
factors cannot be ruled out, changes in student evaluations reflect
their personal assessment of the various CIBW interactions.
To illustrate these research results, the Finns viewed the US students
as friendlier and more sociable and less superficial, patriotic or
self-confident than before the CIBW. On the other hand, largely due to
delays in meeting deadlines, they viewed the Flemish participants as
being impolite, even rude – adjectives that they had not used in the
pre-CIBW evaluation. This ties in nicely with Victor’s (1992: 234)
characterization of most Western and Northern European countries as
“monochronic business cultures,” in which “appointment time is rigid”
and deadlines have to be met. Because the Flemish letters were more
business-like and less informal than theirs, the Finns also attributed
to the Flemish properties like formal
and well-educated. This
finding seems to support the difference in Hofstede’s (1994: 26) power
distance index (PDI) values between Belgium (PDI score = 65) and
Finland (PDI score = 33), which corresponds to the difference between
more hierarchical and more egalitarian cultures.
Note that value-based intercultural theories like Hofstede’s suffer
from serious methodological deficiencies and have attracted a fair
amount of criticism. As a matter of fact, as Dahl (2004: 19) concludes
after reviewing the literature,
despite all efforts there is no commonly acknowledged ‘correct’ concept
of culture or cultural dimensions as yet. There is also a considerable
debate about the validity of the data from which these concepts were
For an excellent critique of Hofstede, see also McSweeney (2002). For
present purposes, the main conclusion is that intercultural business
communication does affect people’s views of one another, views which
may or may not influence business decisions.
The impact on writing proficiency
The CIBW has always been thought of as an instructional project,
i.e., a pedagogically motivated sequence of learning activities for
improving students’ business writing skills. However, some of the
linguistic data that we have collected in this way have also yielded
interesting insights into cross-cultural or other differences in
Business writing in general
Though we have so far conducted only two empirical studies using CIBW
data (see below), no attempt was made to measure the overall effect of
CIBW participation on business writing quality in general. Subjectively
speaking, however, we can report at least the following two benefits.
First, the international and intercultural dimensions help to make
sender-receiver differences more prominent and visible, alerting
students to the need for audience analysis (Davis et al. 1994: 255).
Secondly, the CIBW project creates an in-classroom environment within
which much informal learning occurs: group writing, pre-drafting and
revision, on-the-spot grammar tuition, close reading of foreign
students’ documents and analysis of sample letters. All of these are
elements that writing research has identified as being positively and
strongly correlated with text quality (see De Rycker 1996).
Interestingly, in those years that explicit instruction did take place
students seemed to adjust their writing towards the norms of the target
cultures. This resulted in letters that were relatively homogeneous in
length and even content. In other words, participants naturally
gravitated towards an “international style” of business correspondence,
which contained fewer culture-specific features and could be received
well globally (Connor et al. 1997: 68-69).
The written CIBW documents consist of sales letters, letters of
enquiry, requests for business proposals, job advertisements, job
applications, various types of cover letters and acceptance/rejection
letters (Connor et al 1997: 71-73). So far only two text types have
been subjected to further quantitative and qualitative analysis.
Letters of application
Connor et al. (1995) looked for similarities and differences in a
corpus of 74 US and Flemish letters of job application. These letters –
all written in English – were analyzed for correctness and clarity, two
textual message properties that strongly correlate with communicative
success in getting invited for a job interview. “Correctness” refers to
the absence of mistakes in spelling and punctuation, word choice,
sentence-level syntax and paragraph structure, while “clarity” was used
as an umbrella term for those message features that demonstrate a
writer’s overall sense of the writing situation (writer, reader,
subject and purpose), the content (i.e., rhetorical moves or meaning
components) and the organization of those moves or components.
The results show that a typical US applicant writes more than a Flemish
applicant (an average letter length of 196.6 versus 104.9 words) and
makes fewer mistakes (only 1.9 mistakes per 100 words of written
discourse versus 7.1). For both native and non-native speakers of
English nearly 50% of all product mistakes were punctuation and/or
spelling mistakes, with the Flemish participants being considerably
better at spelling (or perhaps at proofreading). They also made a
slightly lower percentage of syntactic errors but the Americans showed
a far firmer grasp of semantic precision at the word level.
These differences in error types and frequencies reflect, of course,
the native/non-native speaker contrast. The findings for content and
length of information, however, do point in the direction of cultural
differences. The data reveal that the US students not only provide more
– but also more personal – supportive arguments for the job
application. The US letters highlight qualifications and achievements
and also describe the likely benefits for the prospective employer. The
difference in mean lengths (130.8 versus 58.8 words) was found to be
statistically significant (t = -7.80, p < 0.05). The US applicants
were also more direct than their Flemish counterparts in applying for
the vacant position (18.7 versus 9.15 words; t = -5.18, p < 0.05)
and included closing expressions of pleasantries and/or appreciation
(9.0 versus 1.3 words; t = -3.32, p < 0.05).
In this respect, the Flemish applicants resembled South Asian and
French letter-writers, putting more emphasis on the CV (or resume),
their degrees, past achievements and references (the people they know)
instead of using CV and accompanying cover letter as powerful sales
instruments. The US preference for low-context, direct and even
assertive communication has, of course, been extensively evidenced. But
as Varner and Beamer (1995: 250) observe, written job applications are
also influenced by laws. In the US, for example, personal information
on CVs is discouraged or even prohibited so that the “division of
labour” between CV and cover letter is different from that in other
De Rycker and Verckens (2006) examined 21 rejection letters written by
Flemish and US students in response to the business-to-business
proposal phase of the CIBW simulation. For lack of time, no explicit
writing or other instruction had been provided. Using WordSmith 4.0,
WordClassifier 2.0, Web VP 2.5 and the statistical SPSS package, we
analyzed the letters by looking at the following variables: a range of
textual variables (i.e., text size, lexical variation/density and
vocabulary profile), correctness (cf. Connor et al. 1995), content and
organizational structure, and finally, metadiscursivity (logical
connectives, frame markers, explanatory markers, hedges, emphatics and
attitude and relational markers). For the latter two dependent
variables, coding schemes were based on the available literature (e.g.,
Locker 1999; Louhiala-Salminen 1999).
Though the data analysis has not been finished yet, the following
preliminary results can be reported. For all variables that have been
checked so far Flemish and US rejection letters show a nearly perfect
positive relationship (r = 0.996, p < 0.01). Flemish writers make
more language errors (punctuation, spelling, lexis, syntax and
paragraph coherence and structure) but the differences are not
significant except for the variable “lexis” (t = 2.966, df = 19, p <
0.05). Flemish and US writers are comparable with respect to overall
text size; word, sentence and paragraph length; and lexical variation
and density. Also, near-perfect and statistically significant
correlations were found for the WordSmith and WordClassifier vocabulary
The same observations hold true for the five meaning components that
characterize rejection letters as a potentially face-threatening
discourse genre: a buffer paragraph to make the negative message more
palatable, a rejection and/or a reason for the rejection (both of which
can be direct or indirect), procedural information about how the
negative decision was arrived at and an upbeat ending (r = 0.926, p
< 0.01). As a final point, Flemish and US writers do not differ
either with respect to metadiscursivity like the use of discourse
makers (r = 0.933, p < 0.01).
In fact, the Flemish and US rejections both use an indirect approach
(with a buffer, positive ending and procedural information) though not
exclusively. The Flemish CIBW participants show a marked tendency for
combining both the indirect approach and the direct approach while
their US counterparts almost invariably follow the much criticized
indirect organizational pattern. They open with a buffer followed by an
implied rejection rather than adopting the upfront approach advocated
in the literature (e.g., Locker 1999).
These findings are unexpected in light of perceived cross-cultural
variations in directness between Belgium (and more generally Europe)
and the US, with the latter being regarded as a “specific culture”
rather than a “diffuse” one. If so, the “specific” Americans would have
to be more direct, to the point, purposeful, precise, blunt, definitive
and transparent than the Flemings – at least, following Trompenaars and
Hampden-Turner (1997: 100). The absence of large and statistically
significant differences in rejection letter-writing led us to ask the
following pertinent questions:
How linguistically and
culturally dissimilar are advanced non-native Flemish and
native-speaker US college/university student writers?
To what extent is European
business writing influenced by US standards and how does that affect
the likely transfer of L1 writing strategies?
- What is the role of instructive
writing interventions given that no explicit instruction took place?
More on all this in later publications.
Clearly, the international “Course in International Business Writing”
alone cannot give a definitive answer regarding the usefulness of
intercultural or multicultural approaches to teaching languages for
specific purposes. So many variables are at play that it would be
foolish to generalize from our own experience. Still, we hope that our
discussion has shown that such a cross-cultural approach needs to
secure high levels of both product and process authenticity. The reason
is that these high levels positively influence students’ involvement
and motivation, which in their turn can be safely hypothesized to lead
to improved foreign-language writing.
The problem, however, is that projects like the CIBW – having been
primarily designed as pedagogical alternatives to ordinary classroom
writing activities – do not always allow one to formally measure that
beneficial effect on writing quality (or cross-cultural sensitivity,
for that matter). In order to produce robust evidence and valid
conclusions, a stronger theoretical and methodological research
orientation has to be designed into the project from the very start.
So, though we can subjectively report a number of similarities and
differences between the various groups of students, more reliable
conclusions can be only obtained by using a smaller number of
independent variables, more clearly-defined experimental and control
groups, larger corpora, tighter conditions for collecting the data,
pre-tests and post-tests, etc.
The research reported in Connor et al. (1995) and De Rycker and
Verckens (2006) is valuable enough but both are actually forms of
empirical classroom and action research (see, e.g., Edwards
2005: 6-7). And despite Verckens et al. (1998), the same also holds
true for examining the CIBW’s impact on cultural awareness. In
addition, there is also a problem of extrapolation. The CIBW remains a
simulation, and though we argued differently in Connor et al. (1995:
473), today I would refrain from making any explicit claims about
business writing across cultures in real life. Finally, as the
work-in-progress on rejection letters has shown, the “experience of
foreignness” (Marx 2001) may not always be as big as one hopes. So,
anyone interested in setting up an intercultural learning project would
do well to try and maximize that “foreignness,” at least, if the idea
is to foreground certain critical aspects of LSP learning.
The second question raised in this paper was how best to combine
business writing and cultural awareness training. Curiously, our
general impression is that writing instruction should not be overdone,
especially not when working with advanced university or college
students. For most years of the simulation, both US and non-US students
were left to their own devices. While working on their writing
assignments, they could only fall back on what they already knew (or
thought they knew) and/or search the library shelves or the Internet
for relevant background information and useful sample letters. Again,
we cannot really decide this second question on the basis of our own
cross-cultural writing project. All along the CIBW was intended as a
collaborative teaching project rather than a formal and
methodologically sound research project. By the way, I fully agree with
the language instructors interviewed by Edwards and Willis (2005: 260,
266) who say that
should be careful that our research goals and classroom goals do not
conflict. […] Research need not be something that is done ‘to’ or
‘about’ the students, but something done ‘with’ them."
This caveat against unethical practices raises the issue of how much we
should tell the subjects in a combined teaching and research project.
And it also means that we should seek and obtain permission to record
and analyze students’ written work in advance.
Rounding off, any future CIBW-like project that seeks to adopt an
intercultural and/or international perspective on teaching English or
any other language for specific purposes will have to address the
concerns raised above. In addition, attention will also have to be
given to the following five points:
Looking for reliable and
interesting foreign partners is a time-consuming business, involving
lots of email communication and frequent meetings to define common
ground and to establish and maintain trust.
It is not always easy to
interest mother-tongue speakers or their instructors to conjure up much
enthusiasm for communicating with non-native speakers. The
language-learning benefits to be gained are small compared with those
that accrue to the non-native participants. Highlighting the
cross-cultural dimension may partly remedy this imbalance but other
avenues can be explored, too, such as opting for a more explicit
Though nearly all colleges and
universities have international offices these days, personal networks
and contacts are often more effective and will produce results more
quickly than lengthy institutional negotiations.
The drawback of the third point
may well be that the project itself has to be self-financing. The costs
involved in the CIBW were very low thanks to the fact that all
documents were emailed as attachments, using the partner institutions’
email addresses. This does not hold true, of course, for travel
expenses and the extra time needed to get the whole business game up
and running and to manage it.
- A final element to take on board
is that without commitment and support from departmental heads and
deans it may prove difficult to find a big enough “window” within which
students in the different countries can collaborate.
Note that this last paragraph is an updated version of De Rycker (1996:
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Author 2006. Published by SDUTSJ. All rights reserved.
Scripta Manent 2/2
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The Impact of International Business Games on Improving Cultural
Awareness and Writing Proficiency: An Evaluation of the “Course in
International Business Writing” (1994-2004)
» M. Brkan
The New Penguin Dictionary of
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