Cultivating lifelong mentor-mentee relationships through successful cross-cultural mentorship
Professional Development Article by Yoko Mori, University of Otago, New Zealand
As someone studying professional identity formation and growth of faculty developers (i.e., teacher educators) in higher education, I often ponder on what the ideal qualities of academics would be, especially in the context of mentoring. Pursuing such ideal qualities for academics is a de facto educational agenda for universities to achieve inclusion and equality in higher education (Zou, 2021). It is essential for academics to have profound knowledge in their respective fields. Additionally, in this era of globalization, being able to implement effective cross-cultural mentoring seems to be a quality many stakeholders in higher education agree is increasingly important. So, what exactly is “effective cross-cultural mentoring”? I believe it is the act of developing mentorship (mentoring+relationship) with openness to different cultures including racial and ethnic identifications, gender, religion, socio-political background, and nationality. Without openness to accept each other’s culture, establishing a trusting relationship between a mentor and a mentee is difficult. Being open to each other’s culture may sound commonsensical. However, past studies (e.g., Freeman & Kochan, 2019; Zou, 2021) reveal that this is not always the case. In this article, I would like to focus on three points which I have found helpful to nurture “openness to different cultures” from my own experiences as an international student: 1) sharing a clear common vision and understanding of the project process; 2) upholding dignity for each other; and 3) sharpening intuition for mutual understanding.
Sharing a Clear Common Vision
Sharing a clear common vision and understanding of the project process helps to overcome cultural differences and strengthens teamwork. In the process of discussing a common vision and the various expectations from both sides, cultural differences may surface. However, the eventual agreement on, for example, the project process, will create a metaphorical boat on which both the mentor and mentee ride together toward a common goal. In many institutions, a mentor-mentee agreement form is often signed after matching expectations. This clarifies the goal and project process of what the team hopes to achieve. The consolidation of expectations supports the mentor and mentee’s commitment to start a journey on the same boat, setting them to look in the same direction despite cultural differences they may have. As long as these two points have been openly discussed and agreed on, I believe the focus would be kept on common elements rather than differences.
Upholding Dignity for Each Other
Upholding dignity for each other is vital in any human relationship and closely connects to an individual’s approach to professionalism. This is true for the mentor, as a professional academic, and for the mentee, as an apprentice working toward such professionalism. According to the Cambridge Dictionary (2021), “dignity” is defined as “the importance and value that a person has, that makes other people respect them or makes them respect themselves.” The awareness to respect and appreciate each other is even more important between individuals of different cultural backgrounds because it is easy to take things for granted based on one’s own culture and forget that one’s common sense may not necessarily be common to the other.
One activity I have found helpful in a cross-cultural mentorship is having straightforward talks. In a high context culture like Japan, where people basically speak the same language and act according to shared beliefs and customs (Meyer, 2016), they can communicate relatively well without being explicit. However, in a low context culture like the US, where many people have different native-languages and act according to diverse beliefs and customs (ibid.), this tends to be rather difficult. Expecting others to read “between the lines” in low context cultures is often not an ideal means of communication. If mutual respect exists as a foundation in a mentor-mentee relationship, I believe straightforwardness will not be interpreted as impoliteness. Instead, in many cases, it may even be a good strategy to prevent miscommunication.
Sharpening Intuition for Mutual Understanding
Sharpening intuition for mutual understanding is essential for a healthy mentor-mentee relationship and strongly connects with the second point, upholding dignity for each other. If mutual respect exists, I feel that it is natural for both sides to try to sharpen intuition for the sake of optimal mutual understanding. “Intuition” in an academic context may sound lacking in scientific evidence, and in general, seems less valued than “intellect.” Furthermore, these knowledge components (“intuition” and “intellect”) are often positioned as opposites in dictionaries. However, I believe intuition is a very important component of knowledge and should be valued as much as intellectual knowledge, if not more.
Intuition strongly connects with one’s capacity to imagine, and imagination connects to empathy and compassion—another knowledge component that is crucial for peaceful human relationships. Without imagination, one would not be able to understand the other’s feelings or be creative enough to communicate well. I think we have all experienced situations where we used gestures and anything we could possibly think of, at times so desperately, to get a message through to a person with a different cultural background. I remember those moments very well, even as a child. In fortunate instances, people would rephrase my sentence and kindly turn the conversation around so that I could simply answer, “Ah, yes! That is what I meant!” What a relief those moments were, and how grateful I was for their sharp intuition to receive my message correctly! Intuition is, indeed, a primal yet higher order construct—an indispensable component of knowledge which helps us overcome cultural differences. I believe making conscious effort to sharpen such knowledge is vital for a sustainable mentor-mentee relationship.
Reflecting on my past and present mentorship experiences, I am thankful that they have developed to become lifelong mentorships. I understand that these relationships are not always easy to nurture, so even more for this reason, I cherish them. I would like to end my column with Goethe’s (1749-1832) insightful words, which brings the three points together: “By nothing do men show their character more than by the things they laugh at” (von Goethe & Saunders, 1908, p. 122). Laughter is a nonlinguistic mode of communication that, at most times, occurs instinctively (Ward, 2017) and “relates to and reflects our capacity to feel for others, and articulates the play of the imagination” (ibid., p. 729). I hope cross-cultural mentorships will create many happy moments of shared laughter despite potential challenges stemming from cultural differences. This could enable both mentors and mentees to deepen mutual understanding and cultivate lifelong relationships.
Cambridge Dictionary (2021). https://dictionary.cambridge.org/ja/dictionary/english/dignity
Freeman, S., Jr., & Kochan, F. (2019). Exploring mentoring across gender, race, and generation in higher education: An ethnographic study. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 8(1), 2-18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-05-2018-0027
Meyer, E. (2016). The culture map. PublicAffairs.
von Goethe, J. W., & Saunders, T. B. (1908). The maxims and reflections of Goethe. Macmillan and Co.
Ward, M. (2017). Laughter, ridicule, and sympathetic humor in the early nineteenth century. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 57(4), 725-749. https://doi.org/10.1353/sel.2017.0032
Zou, L. (2021). Cross-cultural mentoring: Cultural awareness & identity empowerment. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5070/D417150292