Given the global aspect of the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, the University’s International Center seems an ideal resource—in the form of the 3,000 individuals who make up the U’s “international community” of professionals and scholars—to assist with these long-awaited events.

The International Center helped set the scene for the Games by pinpointing bilingual volunteers and native speakers of various languages for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. These 15 to 17 volunteers will work directly with the delegations of the various countries represented at the Games.

The center is also collaborating with the Salt Lake Tribune in establishing a corps of foreign correspondents, composed of former Utes, who will provide input for a column, “A View from Abroad.” Correspondents will read local newspapers and relay what is being reported in their respective regions during the Games. In this way, various interpretations of each day’s sporting events and related activities will ultimately make their way around the world and back to Utah.

Additionally, the International Center organized a cross-cultural awareness training session for about 500 National Olympic Committee (NOC) volunteers, who will provide language and other services for international visitors.

“Anyone who has volunteered will probably already have some sensitivity to diverse cultures,” notes International Center Director Bill Barnhart MS’71, so the training was designed to build on that knowledge.

Trainees heard first from former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson BS’64, director of the Hinckley Institute for Politics, who tongue-in-cheeked his way through a presentation on “Those Strange Utah Ways” that included jabs at some of the local traits and traditions. Wilson took aim at targets such as regional colloquialisms (“fer igner’nt,” meaning rude, rather than uninformed), and the shenanigans in the local political scene.

Moving from the local to the international scene, Mike Allcott, associate director of the International Center, talked about “How Americans Are Perceived by Others,” using the “culture of ice” as a theme. The idea of iced tea in many cultures is an oxymoron, he said, and Americans are often identified by the amount of ice in their drinks. This is just one example of innumerable differences in culture—habits, traditions, norms, values, and language—that is at the bottom of the question, Do Americans have a culture?

“It’s difficult,” Allcott observed, “to have your culture examined; it’s easy to become defensive.” He broadly characterized American culture as the belief in individualism and privacy; free-market capitalism; equality and the rule of law; informality (built on assumptions of equality) and friendliness; being direct and assertive, genuine and honest (“the John Wayne syndrome”); the notion of “staying cool,” or remaining unflappable in difficult situations; and being factual, not emotional. Generally, he said, Americans tend to be optimistic and forward-looking.

“Hopefully,” Allcott concluded, “we’ll have many of those breakthrough moments when we feel the texture of cultural difference not as a hindrance or a stress, but as a pleasure or a beauty that lets us rediscover something as simple and extraordinary as ice.”

Valerie Green, international advisor for Student Outreach and Programming, discussed “Cross-cultural Adaptation,” using her and others’ experiences living and working in foreign countries as an example of how easily assumptions—which often lead to stereotypes—are made about cultures different than one’s own. “People who stay in a place for two weeks,” she noted, “might come home and write a book about it; those who stay two months return and write an article; and those who remain in another country for two or more years don’t write anything because they realize that they have only scratched its surface.”

The training session addressed language issues as well. David L. Rowe MS’91, dean of students at Salt Lake Seminary, took on “Communication Challenges,” specifically the use of idiomatic expressions in language. Rowe presented a thought-provoking dialogue with an “international guest,” using such American English expressions as “tickled pink”—which the guest interpreted as “developing a rash”—“butterflies in the stomach,” “glued to one’s seat,” and “raining cats and dogs,” among many others. The message was clear: opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication are limited only by the number of idiomatic phrases contained in one’s language.

In contrast, Steven Sternfeld, associate professor of linguistics, dealt with “The Silent Language: The Unspoken Word,” or how people communicate without speaking. Sternfeld’s primary message: “You don’t have to worry about the language…because the silent language is the culture.” People communicate on many levels, he said, and language is just one of them.

Bringing the training session to a close, Nancy Lyon BA’73 MS’74, assistant vice president for governmental affairs, urged volunteers to “have a great time…All human beings respond to kindness, generosity, and good will,” she said. “You are all Utahns, no matter how long you have been here, [and] the important thing is to establish connections.”

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.