Diversity is Not Inclusion
Acceptance of cultural diversity doesn’t extend to close friendships, suggesting cultural boundaries can persist within a multicultural nation
A set of literature review extracts from one of my favorite articles, Robinson et al. (2020). Assume everything is a direct quote.
Respondents = international students
— Multicultural values might be limited in their impact on meaningful intercultural interactions that translate into close friendships.
— International students tried taking advantage of the diverse opportunities to form intercultural friendships with Canadian students, but such friendship interest wasn’t reciprocated.
— International students blame Canadians’ unwillingness to embrace deeper intergroup relations.
— The cost of being misunderstood is perceived to outweigh the benefits of diverse friendships, which contributes to the social distance & the level of isolation that international students might feel on campus.
— The social boundaries between groups were not as permeable as international students had imagined.
— Canadians’ resistance to international students’ friendships block the possibility for meaningful intercultural interaction.
— The findings help shed light on social adjustment patterns in a multicultural society.
Table of Contents
Cultural Boundaries in a Multicultural Nation
Why are international students, who have contact with host-nationals, have a desire to form meaningful friendships, and reside in conducive multicultural environments, not forming close friendships with host-nationals?
Canada’s multicultural values support tolerance and friendly interactions, but do not foster meaningful friendships, suggesting cultural boundaries can persist within a multicultural nation.
Respondents found that other international students’ cultural similarities made it easier for them to establish close relationships with them as they felt various levels of social exclusion when interacting with host-nationals.
Based on this process of perceived exclusion & cost–benefit assessments, international students are forming diverse friendships but limiting their close friendships to co-nationals & other international students.
Social segregation of international students threatens the availability of diverse ideas, knowledge, and resources (Smith et al., 2016).
As such, it’s necessary to understand the meaning and manifestations of cultural boundaries in a multicultural nation.
International Student Comments
“I think international students are more open to being friends with you. Like you are in the same boat, but maybe some Canadian people are really open but some just like to have their own connections. They understand each other better … Yes, you can easily interact with them, but some just want to be in their own groups.” [Ana, Iranian]
This quote implies that preferences for co-ethnic friendships are not one-sided: both international and host-national students find it easier to interact with people in similar situations or, to quote Ana, the “same boat.”
However, international students appeared dissatisfied with these cultural boundaries, which they blame on the unwillingness of Canadians to embrace deeper intergroup relations.
It therefore appears that international students develop co-ethnic friendships out of necessity and circumstances. They viewed Canadians as having rigid national and cultural boundaries, as Ana stated above, “some just want to be in their own groups,” which makes the establishment of close friendships difficult.
Sara, an Iranian student, discussed similar experiences: “Sometimes I try to be close [to Canadians]. Sometimes I offer them: “let’s go to a movie, let’s have a dinner together”. Every time I saw that they are having some excuses.”
Sara’s insight reveals that Canadians’ resistance to international students’ friendships block the possibility for meaningful intercultural interaction.
“Like I would say it’s easy to make acquaintance with Canadians, but it’s very hard to get in their lives … I was living with Canadians for four months [and] those experiences definitely helped me to understand Canadian culture but not integrate … it’s just the cultural differences like especially when you are trying to get familiar with someone they try to keep distance with you like I stopped trying after I experienced that several times.”
Wang’s experiences of not being able to get close, or “familiar” with Canadians made him feel socially excluded. This not only stopped Wang from trying to build close friendships, but propelled him to eventually move out and live alone.
Our findings indicate that cultural differences cannot be ignored when explaining international students’ rankings of friendships with host-nationals.
Some respondents find initiating contact with host-nationals intimidating due to cultural differences.
Vinay’s narrative captures this apprehension: “I don’t know like you feel hesitant to go and meet and talk to someone because of the cultural difference. Here I think it’s considered like … to invade into somebody’s privacy sometimes. People may interpret it. But in India, it’s not like that. It’s a common thing.” [Vinay, Indian]
These findings indicate that cultural differences can rob international students of confidence and initiative to form friendships with host-national students in Western societies.
Michelle, a 33 year-old Jamaican graduate student, describes intercultural relations: “I call it the salad bowl that never mixes. Tomatoes stay in one corner, lettuce in the other, cucumber over here, carrot in the middle. Wonderful! [sarcastically].”
The narratives point to a self-sustaining system of segregation of friendship groups at university as ethnic and cultural boundaries are negotiated.
Wang’s desire for interethnic friendships is insufficient to propel him to continue pursuing these friendships. Sharing Wang’s reluctance, other participants indicated they had concerns over the ways host-national students receive them, which prevented them from initiating friendships. Cliques with co-nationals (ethnic enclaves) reduce the perceived costs of initiating friendships; in fact, there appears to be little fear of rejection within the co-ethnic group. In the case of Wang, interactions with Canadians provide risks of rejection that appear to outweigh the benefits.
Samuel, a Nigerian student explained that the cultural boundaries that are erected due to his accent (Nigerian… I mean, are we sure it was his vocal accent & not his skin tone accent) make him fearful of rejection; as a result, Samuel abstains from developing meaningful relationships with Canadians.
“Ok, like have sometimes that I want to say something and I think: “Oh, if I say that thing, no one is going to understand” so I just keep quiet so I feel this … I don’t really get along with a lot of people because of that … my accent. So sometimes I feel like: “What is this one going to say” and things like that.” [Samuel, Nigerian]
This demonstrates that international students’ cultural characteristics, such as their accent, can be a source of reticence towards establishing intercultural relations, as the cost of being misunderstood is perceived to outweigh the benefits of diverse friendships, which contributes to the social distance & the level of isolation that students might feel on campus.
What is striking is that although international students do not necessarily embrace this status quo, they do not challenge it, highlighting that
the social boundaries between groups are not as porous as we would like to imagine.
Students’ narratives reveal an important contradiction:
— On one hand, there is a seemingly enabling multicultural university environment,
and on the other hand,
— There are shallow intercultural relations.
Being Invited ≠ Feeling Welcome
Friendships between international and host-national students appear to be characterized by:
— Infrequent and unplanned contact
— They are casual in nature
— Devoid of strong emotional bonds
— Yet consist of respect, politeness, and courtesy.
If international students’ experiences are to be measured by their relationships with hostnationals,
such transient interaction would do little to foster overall satisfaction, reduce anxiety, & foster cultural exchange.
The contact situation may need deeper “friendship potential” (Pettigrew, 1998, p. 76); otherwise it may not lead to the emotional or instrumental support that is traditionally expected from friendships (Eve, 2002). Indeed,
many respondents desired deeper relationships with host-nationals, but were constrained by the lack of reciprocity, cultural distance, & the costs required to cross the barriers.
Social Exchange Theory
Many international students perceive that the costs (potential rejection from host-nationals, surrendering of cultural values, etc.) outweigh the benefits (acculturation, improved language competency, etc.), which deters them from seizing friendship opportunities.
This supports social exchange theory (Homans, 1958), which suggests that individuals assess the expected costs or benefits associated with intercultural contact with the aim of maximizing benefits and minimizing costs.
Findings suggest that intl’ students are being cautionary and risk-adverse;
they are limiting their attempts at developing meaningful relationships when faced with interpersonal constraints.
Building on analyses by Alba (2005, p. 22), who argues that ethnicity is “best conceived as a boundary,” this study suggests that internationality can also be conceived as a boundary, as it becomes an indicator of cultural difference.
These cultural boundaries are not as porous as they would appear; contact is not sufficient to weaken them.
In other words, international students need more than just contact opportunities with host-national classmates in order to overcome the cultural differences that limit meaningful interactions.
Diversity ≠ Inclusion
International students tried taking advantage of the diverse opportunities to form intercultural friendships with Canadian students, but such friendship interest wasn’t reciprocated.
Cultural boundaries create powerful exclusions that limit the options available & contribute to social relations with host-nationals being perceived as more costly to international students. [It’s a vicious, self-sustaining cycle] as the resulting co-national and multi-national friendships further reinforce the cultural boundaries [that led to their formation in the first place.]
Canada’s multicultural values support tolerance and friendly interactions, but may be limited in their impact on interactions that foster inclusion.
In short, increased acceptance of cultural diversity doesn’t extend to meaningful intercultural friendships, suggesting cultural boundaries can persist within a multicultural nation.
Robinson, O., Somerville, K., & Walsworth, S. (2020). Understanding friendship formation between international and host-national students in a Canadian university. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 13(1), 49–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/17513057.2019.1609067