What does it take to be a great communicator?

What does it take to be a great communicator?
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Two decades in academia, one of which was spent living abroad. Does that make someone a great communicator?

When I decided to return to Malaysia last year, it was during the pandemic and I was not expecting a quick job offer. Not many academicians want to come back home after years of being abroad. But I knew exactly what I wanted. So, after applying to only four universities, Sunway University’s offer apparently came first. I started to research and fell in love with its educational goals for students, among which are to help them:

  •     become independent, lifelong learners who actively pursue knowledge and appreciate its global application to economic, political, social and cultural development; and
  •     develop strong leadership qualities and communication skills.

As someone who values communication and culture, I consider those goals as important as looking up to the sciences or whatever other “fancy” fields. Coming from a strong communication background, I can be very sensitive about this. All three of my degrees are in communication by choice, not because I was unable to gain admission to the school of engineering or faculty of bioscience. That, I believe, is a huge factor in determining what you want or could be.

As for the perks of studying communication for more than 10 years, I have read almost all the books I need to, mastered all the tricks, bypassed all the steps and escaped all the nonsense, until there is almost nothing else for me to grasp in this discipline. But there is one parallel portion apart from passing all my knowledge to students, the cultural experiences I brought back. Cross-cultural communication highlights the processes that underlie all communication (Tannen, 1984).

Let’s connect that, and be super realistic as to how cross-cultural experiences can change or shape a person. I am living proof of this. Having lived in several countries, I have become more than just a plain communication academician. It has transformed me into a totally different person. My communication skills and confidence escalated as I put myself out there, talking to different types of people. It was a challenge, and I won’t claim it was easy. From being bilingual to trilingual, I learnt to communicate across cultures more than language itself. In addition to Bahasa Melayu and English, I now speak fluent Portuguese (which I picked up when I lived in São Paulo, Brazil) and Indonesian (which I practised when I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia). Some Arabic words came back to me when I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as I had studied the language for three years in high school.

How did all these help me to be a great communicator? I faced the fear. I befriended the locals. I spoke their language. I learnt about their culture. I did not associate myself only with people from my tribe. That wouldn’t have helped me to improve anything related to cross-cultural communication skills. I knew that I not only needed this, I adored this. I also knew that as an academician, international exposure would be an advantage to me and my students.

I shared stories with them. The values I have learnt. The experience and cultural exposure that have changed me. Some lessons could help the students imagine what to expect in the future. How different it is when you live or work abroad.

Sometimes, it helps them to imagine their future career and life. And the most important thing, I think, is the way I communicate with them, which is not the same as I would have years ago. I have accumulated the cultural differences I have learnt and adapted to, and combined them with who we are here in Malaysia, the most multicultural society in the world.

I stood in awe of the various nationalities on campus when I first came to Sunway University. Our president is Greek, pro-vice-chancellor is British, my dean is Kiwi, my associate dean is American and, of course, my colleagues in the Department of Communication are exceptionally culturally diverse. This is one of the main reasons I declined the offer from the University of Malaya this year: the cross-cultural circle. This will help anyone to refine the cultural adaptation as it plays a great role in communication efficiency. Being exposed to different cultures should not limit one’s communication proficiency, but should instead polish and take it to the next level.

Not to mince words, but my academic background merging with my experience of having lived in four countries could be the best contribution to being a good communicator. I quote my own PhD thesis (2018) which noted, “Further effort needs to be executed in order to search for explicit cross-cultural communication”. I guess my adventure at Sunway University has only just begun.