Intercultural Communication In A Global World: A UOSM2017 portfolio

Welcome to my portfolio!

Over the following ~4,000 words, I have worked to interpret the assignment brief through the lenses of music and education, the two pillars which I have found to be perpetually integral in crafting both my cultural identity and perceptions of the communities and people around me.

Firstly, to analyse culture in the media I blog in detail about to 2005 television series Rock School, which was my first exposure to the co-educational independent school Christ’s Hospital, where I later went on to board between the ages of 11 and 18. In this section, I explore how the show’s producers represent the school and its pupils for the primetime Channel 4 and VH1 audiences, the ways in which they seek to both establish and mitigate the cultural clash at the core of the show between students and Kiss frontman Gene Simmons. I combine this with a conclusion referring to key intercultural moments in my time at the school that similarly re-shaped my understandings, albeit not quite in six weeks with a blood-spitting chauvinist rockstar.

To conclude, I merge the concepts of a reflective diary and the intercultural encounter autobiography by breaking down interviews I conducted with two very similar bands in the same location but three years apart. This includes audio recordings of the interviews themselves and accounts of my expectations, fears, and methods of preparation in order to illustrate how enhanced levels of intercultural competence have enabled more meaningful and engaging conversations in these contexts.

Thank you for reading!

Word count: 250

Christ’s Hospital in Channel 4’s Rock School

Title sequence from Gene Simmons’ Rock School, the VH1 edition for US audiences
Video copyright RDF Media, 2005

Shortly after the critical and commercial successes of Richard Linklater’s 2003 film School of Rock, which starred Jack Black as a musician fraudulently finding a career as a teacher and subsequently forming a rock band from his new students, a Channel 4 series from Wife Swap producers RDF posed a similar challenge in an unconventional documentary format. Both series of Rock School featured Kiss frontman Gene Simmons taking on a unique pedagogical role in a British school building and training, with the first six-episode run filmed in the autumn of 2004 at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, West Sussex. Narrated by broadcaster Christian O’Connell, the series sees Simmons – who references early on his brief time as a teacher in Harlem, New York (Lewis, 1978) – assume the reins of a Year 9 music class of 10 boarding school students for six weeks ahead of their eventual band The Class playing a support slot at a sold-out Motörhead concert at London’s Hammersmith Apollo.

Each episode opens by emphasising the entrenched juxtaposition of cultures between Simmons (captioned “An arrogant American rockstar”) and his students (“Ten unusual school children [who] love classical music and hate rock music”) whilst relaying the premise of the series over footage of Simmons’ band and the Victorian-era school campus. Rather than explicitly characterising the school as a “private” institution for those of privileged financial backgrounds (Mooers, 1977, pp.253), O’Connell’s opening narration is sympathetic to the philanthropic foundation of promoting social mobility on which the school prides itself (Christ’s Hospital, 2018), quickly highlighting that “80% of [students] come from low-income families” – a number far greater than the typical requirement for such a school to attain charitable status (Palfreyman, 2007). The importance of tradition is clearly noted too, as O’Connell begins by describing the school as “home to 830 well-disciplined boys and girls; it holds dear to its 450-year-old history”, and Deputy Head Mary Ireland is shown immediately remarking on the distinctive visuals of the Tudor-era uniform (Howard, 2001) and daily marches into lunch.

Simmons’ introduction is characteristically gaudy, entering the campus flanked by two anonymous young women in a black limousine, before cutting to file footage of his ‘The Demon’ stage persona. The narration here features the first of several references throughout the series to Simmons’ fire-breathing, blood-spitting, and claims to have “bedded over 4,000 women”, with the latter becoming a particular point of moral contention between Simmons and some of the school’s students and staff. Episode 2, featuring his participation in a public debate on the motion “This house believes that rock music has no place in our school”, shows members of the audience objecting to Simmons’ “inextricably [linking] the two concepts of music and sex” and mocking the supposed tally of his sexual partners, while Episode 5 features student Josh – who performs as the lead vocalist in the band under the moniker Emperor, and today is an ordained clergyman (All Saints King’s Lynn) – questioning Simmons more directly during a coach journey due to his personal unease regarding sex before marriage. Another area in which Simmons’ culture and motivations are shown to contrast with the students’ ethos is regarding the value of money, as Simmons is not reticent to illustrate the magnitude of his multi-million dollar fortune during the aforementioned debate with veteran broadcaster Nicholas Parsons, whereas several students and Ireland are shown responding with their own diminished personal valuations of the pursuit of wealth.

Gene Simmons (aka The Demon) performing with Kiss
Image copyright (CC BY 2.0) Alberto Cabello, 2010

A third key facet of cultural clash is around Simmons’ overt flaunting of arrogant and narcissistic tendencies. Whether through either talking head segments or glances or remarks to camera that break the fourth wall in more typical fly-on-the-wall scenes, Simmons seizes frequent opportunities to praise himself, his work, and/or his commercial successes. This is starkly displayed during an Episode 4 visit to his $15 million California home starkly displays this, in which Ireland discovers the walls of his personal office-cum-museum are lined with gold sales plaques and Kiss-branded merchandise, from coffins to “Kondoms”. Later, an Episode 5 confrontation following the band’s inaugural radio interview sees student Rodney – earlier appointed the band’s manager – losing his otherwise calm demeanour and questioning Simmons’ harshly critical comments, to which Simmons responds that he has “only…30 years experience and 43 gold records, but other than that [knows] nothing” in an irked retort he later describes as “stooping to the lowest level”. Later reflection on this incident confirms that Simmons’ frustration is balanced by pride stemming from Rodney’s newfound ability to subvert the classroom power dynamic to stand up for his band.

Fostering a haughty, carefree attitude is not without reason, as Simmons’ rock music curriculum is based upon core foundations of conviction, arrogance, and individuality. All students bar Josh are shown early to be proficient classical instrumentalists, however Simmons argues rock’s most successful figures have in many cases done so regardless of any standout musical ability. For this reason, it is Josh he selects to front the band, praising his raw, uninhibited vocal execution. This conflict between a broader ideal of performing presence and more quantifiable assessment-based achievement that is more familiar to the students creates a certain rancour between them, culminating in a physical and verbal altercation between Josh and Rodney on the eve of the Motörhead concert in Episode 6. Throughout the series, Josh is depicted as an outcast both by the producers and the students themselves, with Simmons commenting ahead of the concert that such perceptions from peers are not uncommon for prominent figures in his industry: “He’s got that conviction because he is not only 13 and being ostracised by society for being 13, he’s not even being accepted by other 13-year-olds because he’s too weird… Isn’t that the great rockstar story? … Weren’t we all losers?”

Though Simmons’ entrance is framed around cultural distinctions – his limousine pulls up to the centre of campus before he wanders in amongst the marching band; some students appear intimidated during his first class – the series goes on to demonstrate accustomisation to cultural behaviours and traditions in both directions. Beyond the eventual successes of the band, Simmons is shown to be respectfully performing within or leading the school’s weekly chapel service, community concert, Debating Society meeting, and marching band between episodes 2 and 4, though O’Connell’s narration lapses towards a rare condescending sneer by describing the latter situation as “[adapting] to the school’s archaic traditions”. Following the Motörhead show and a homecoming concert for fellow students, Simmons is shown signing autographs and thanking his “magni-fucking-incent [sic]” class for the humility they had taught him.

Wearing Christ’s Hospital’s uniform for the first time
Image copyright Marie Etherington/Marlou Schellevis, 2008

Though my seven years at the school did not feature quite the same bombast as a music teacher with a side job selling hundreds of millions of records – mine instead plays bassoon and raves about Derby County Football Club to anybody willing to listen – I feel the experience of re-watching the series with an inside perspective has allowed me to reflect more thoroughly on the transformational cultural experiences the environment afforded to me. The school today does not quite fit what Mooers (1977) might label the “snobbish” idea that nobody there is listening to anything but the latest Handel concerto – acclaimed contemporary musicians including Taio Cruz, Al Shux, and members of Palma Violets are counted amongst recent alumni, and anecdotal evidence regarding Rock School suggests that producers were keen to avoid including students who were already keen performers of rock music – but the highly enchanting result is far more sensitively balanced between the polar opposite cultures of its protagonists: quaint, prim, and talented schoolchildren, and a blood-spitting hedonist rocker.

I recall the module opening with the following quote from Holliday et al. (2010): “To communicate with anyone who belongs to a group with whom we are unfamiliar, we have to understand the complexity of who they are”. This, I feel, is precisely what Rock School achieves, despite its limited runtime and relatively microscopic scope, allowing the identities of students to naturally shine through despite the bizarre context and respectfully observing school traditions. This even in ways that are too subtle for most viewers – a personal highlight was O’Connell’s initial narrations being set over a soundtrack not named but identified as the school’s ‘Foundation Hymn‘ (Upcott & Wilkinson, 1902). With a wealth of students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, telling the cultural stories of my Christ’s Hospital experience could be 4,000 words in itself, but in a feature-length six part series I find the producers have well reflected the surprising and wonderful community I knew.

Word count: 1,433

Unpicking band interviews, three years apart

Discounting pre-teen attempts at family newsletters, my first foray into any form of journalism came in 2011 by way of occasional blog posts on the topic of consumer technology, written in an irreverent style to mimic Engadget and Gizmodo, outlets I read religiously during a time of what seemed to be rapid, thrilling advances for the industry and the society it was transforming. Over time, that particular passion would wane, however the media bug proved impossible to shake off as I have remained enthused by and dedicated to the idea of pursuing a career in the industry, continuing to further both my skills and confidence in these areas via a string of other blogs, experiments with podcasts, and two years as the student editor of a monthly school magazine.

When starting at the University of Southampton in September 2015, I had a clear plan to pursue the Web Science degree programme whilst continuing to build and enhance media skills through extracurricular endeavours, and in my first week I was fortunate to discover The Edge and Surge, two student-run media groups that became critical pillars of my experience over the past four years. Membership of and eventual committee responsibility with these societies has aided my personal, social, and professional development in numerous ways. Therefore, for this combined diary of intercultural encounters I would like to unpick two particular interviews to explore shifts and growth in my understandings of conversation, interaction, and identity that have been integral to this evolution, contrasting my responses, methods, and perceptions within.

Both interviews took place ahead of concerts at Southampton’s O2 Guildhall around three years apart – in January 2016 with the band Bloc Party, and in February 2019 with the band Novacub – and choosing these two particular conversations for contrast and analysis is for several reasons. Firstly, the two bands share a core, with Russell Lissack a founding member of both, and Louise Bartle having joined Bloc Party as their drummer a few months prior to our initial meeting before forming and fronting the Novacub project between tours in 2018 alongside Lissack, bassist Iona Thomas, and drummer Tony Alda. (Bloc Party’s lineup also includes Kele Okereke and Justin Harris, however neither participated in the initial interview.) These similarities in personnel and location alone would make for the strongest comparison and contrast between any two interviews I have conducted, however at the time of writing they also serve as both my earliest and most recent interviews, bookending a series of 30-plus conversations with bands or artists across a variety of outlets, locations, and distribution formats. On this note, the Bloc Party interview was arranged on my behalf by Surge’s Head of Music for broadcast on the station’s flagship music show, whereas the Novacub interview was one I personally arranged with the band’s press agency for a written online profile.

With a complete lack of interviewing experience, I headed to the Bloc Party interview with excitement and curiosity heavily tempered by anxiety and trepidation. As a first interview, I could not have asked for any more wonderful opportunity, as the band has been one of my favourites for a number of years, and the interview itself was taking place just one day after they released their first album after a three-year hiatus and partial lineup change. Therefore, I believed preparing for the interview was not so much a case of familiarising myself with the subjects, their music, and the context surrounding it – as I imagined a good, in-depth interview of this nature to require – but rather trying to channel my pre-existing knowledge of the band into a series of questions I believed fans like myself would be interested in hearing answers to.

However, this familiarity and reverence ultimately increased my worry about the meeting, as I expected myself to feel starstruck and that my shy, introverted nature would not fit well with my assumptions of bombastic rockstar personalities, or my concerns about messing the interaction up through some faux pas such as forgetting questions, causing offence, asking the wrong things, or some lack of understanding of interview etiquette would inevitably ensure shame and/or embarrassment on my behalf, and long-term repercussions both to myself and the station I was representing.

Ahead of the interview process itself, I had been equipped only with a dictaphone, a management contact to call on reaching the venue at the time agreed, and a request for the interview to be no more than 10-15 minutes in length both for broadcast purposes and to fit alongside other promotional commitments. It had not been confirmed which members of the band I would be speaking to, however this did not significantly affect my preparations or expectations as I assumed similarity between all members of the band in both personality and familiarity with interview scenarios of this nature. Additionally, my questions – prepared rigidly on my phone in such a way that I could simply run through a sequence of topics rather than relying on organic thought and response – were tailored in a generic way such that they were focused to the band as a whole rather than any individual members.

On meeting the band and commencing the interview, I was immediately taken aback by a lack of brazen rockstar anarchy in the dressing room – although I appreciated my stereotype of such characters throwing televisions around as a pastime was likely wide of the mark in all practical senses, both Lissack and Bartle exhibited a certain shyness that caught me further off guard (0:10). With Lissack having formed the band with Okereke in 1999 and being 13 years new member Bartle’s senior, it was unexpected that he displayed more apparent trepidation in conversation than she did, with a humorous quips and more evident enthusiasm in her body language and voice early on (1:50, 2:44, 9:07).

Despite my rigid preparation for the encounter, the peculiar proximity in which we carried out the interview – on a narrow, low-slung side room sofa, opposite a row of mirrors, with me clutching a broadcast microphone and feebly attempting to transfer visual attention between Bartle to my left and Lissack to my right – caused an additional sense of unease as I was unable to refer to plans I had been relying upon. Moreover, Babad (2001) uses analysis of television interviews to assess Israeli broadcasters’ ability to provide impartial treatment to interview subjects, purely judged via nonverbal behaviour. Though this scenario is more tangential to the study, it falls naturally to conclude that addressing each participant in turn in equal measure is to be encouraged.

Terse, wavering responses to initial questions (0:10, 0:41) did not allay this, and soon I found myself having to pause for what felt like an eternity to re-compose myself and gather thoughts (3:11-3:22). On reflection, I am satisfied with how I recovered from this stumble, soon posing a question that appeared to encourage Lissack’s tone to become more fluent, perhaps through formulating a spontaneous response rather than it being a familiar or uninteresting question (4:56-6:20). I later took note of how, despite being an official member of the band for at least three months at this stage, Bartle often refers to the band as “they” rather than “we”, inferring a feeling of separation and lack of integration between her and her bandmates, likely either due to the comparatively short time spent together or her joining the band following the completion of the new record (6:40). The interview was twice interrupted: Okereke entered the room with a blank expression to retrieve a drink without acknowledging any of us (around 3:28) and a member of their team entered to instruct us to wrap up for the promotion conveyor to continue (8:28).

Despite the presence of Lissack and Bartle in both bands, before agreeing to the interview Novacub’s press representative requested I “keep away from Bloc Party questions entirely” as they are distinct outfits with their own musical and commercial identities. Rather than headlining the venue as before, their set came as an opening act for an established modern heritage band (Kaiser Chiefs) on the band’s inaugural tour, having played standalone shows until releasing their debut single two weeks prior to our meeting. As previously, preparation would rely on my interpreting an as-extensive-as-possible knowledge of the band, however I had only found evidence of the band having given two interviews prior, therefore I sought to expand on the little information that was publicly available to build a clearer understanding of the band in a written profile, intending to focus on learning their story, aims, and motivations.

My uncertainties around the assumed formalities and routines of such encounters were significantly eased on this occasion thanks to accumulated experience and the time (albeit nine minutes) previously spent in conversation with Bartle and Lissack giving me far clearer sense of their identities and traits. I would not, of course, expect the latter principle to apply in the same way to them – given the volume of media appearances they will have made in the intervening years, it is only fair that a bumbling student may be less memorable than a household name publication. This theory is reinforced by the work of Procter and Padfield (1998), who interviewed a sample of young women for research purposes before later interviewing them about the initial interviews, with 43 per cent recalling “very little” about conversations even without regularly participating in such dialogue. However, with Novacub at the earliest days of their journey, each individual press opportunity is likely to hold more gravity in terms of how the band can be exposed to potential new fans. Combined with the relative lack of stature and celebrity compared to the previous example, I would expect a band of this nature to either be keen and enthusiastic to share and interact or to potentially display an aloof attitude, not recognising the power held by the interviewer in such contexts.

Fortunately, in this instance the latter case was far from reality, with fluency, enthusiasm, and a chatty informality running throughout the 36 minutes of core interview – only brought to a close as the band’s soundcheck time arrived, rather than any other commitments or lack of conversational fluency – and later follow-up after the band invited me to continue the discussion after they played. Now conscious of the benefits of asking perhaps lighter, more indirect questions to open the interview (Miltiades, 2008), establishing engaging dialogue and a level and expectation of trust, I began by inviting the band to recount their genesis as a four-piece, understand their previous experiences. This alone allowed me to learn that Alda, born in Venezuela, came to the UK on a music scholarship; Thomas, from Wales, has extensive touring harp and vocal experience with Neneh Cherry and Laura Mvula; and that it was the reserved Lissack who worked to encourage Bartle out of her musical shell and make the transition from the drumkit to the front of the stage. This early fluency soon escalated into naturally bigger questions, like why their songs worked best in this capacity rather than with pre-existing bands, how drumming for 10,000 compares to singing through a toy megaphone for 10, and, in a question Bartle turned back on me, a frank discussion (that continued off tape) as to what constitutes success for an indie band in 2019.

Although I rarely feel at all comfortable in conversational or social situations, I have found conducting interviews of any magnitude to be consistently fascinating interaction scenarios. Almost by definition there is an imbalance in power and knowledge, which Winter (1991) illustrates is “often taken for granted by interviewers” as it evidently had been in my initial scenario. It is the job of the interviewer to know their subject and guide the often one-directional conversation to achieve objectives established through consideration of the topics at hand and the intended audience, with Aggarwal (2006) concluding that between 70 and 80 per cent of any given interview is typically the source speaking. Carpenter et al. (2017) surveyed 20 journalists who unanimously agreed on “listening” and “interaction management” being core to the interviewer’s skillset. Furthermore, the subjects are aware of the promotional opportunity presented in these situations; as I seek a compelling story to tell to my audience, interaction is not idle, but rather these are instances of conversation with clear unspoken purpose for all parties (Winter, 1991).

Therefore, it is primarily through this transformed understanding of power dynamics at play in the interaction – namely, dispelling stereotypes of inevitable celebrity arrogance in favour of simply approaching the subjects as regular humans with whom I share a passion for the topic at hand – that I feel has made the most significant contribution to the improvement between interviews. My acclimatisation to (versus fear of) the unwritten rules and etiquette of such a contrived scenario allowed me to approach and experience the conversation as exactly that, rather than focusing my attention on the interviewees’ perceived judging of my conduct. On this, Willink and Shukri (2018, pp.204) evoke Hawes (2006): “What interviewers can hope to accomplish…is to visualize the interview as an undetermined relational movement so that they then allow themselves to become-with and dance-with the interview unfolding… It allows an interviewer to attend to other dimensions of this relational encounter – to become “other-wise””.

Word count: 2,171

References & Links

  • Aggarwal, V. B. (2006): ‘Art of interviewing’ in Essentials of Practical Journalism, ed. Aggarwal, V. B., pp:126-150. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.
  • All Saints King’s Lynn: ‘Who’s who
  • Babad, E. (2001): ‘Preferential treatment in television interviewing: Evidence from nonverbal behavior’, Political Communication 16:3, pp.337-358. DOI: 10.1080/105846099198668
  • Carpenter, S., Cepak, A. & Peng, Z. (2017): ‘An exploration of the complexity of journalistic interviewing competencies’, Journalism Studies 19:15, pp.2283-2303. DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2017.1338155
  • Christ’s Hospital (2018): ‘Impact report 2018
  • Hawes, L. (2006): ‘Becoming otherwise: Conversational performance and the politics of experience’ in Opening Acts, Performance In/as Communication and Cultural Studies, ed. Hamera, J., pp.23-48. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Holliday, A., Kullman, J. & Hyde, M. (2010): Intercultural Communication. London: Routledge.
  • Howard, R. (2001). ‘The uniform of the boys of Christ’s Hospital’, Costume 35:1, pp.82-91. DOI: 10.1179/cos.2001.35.1.82
  • Lewis, B. (1978): ‘Gene Simmons was sixth grade teacher‘ in Lakeland Ledger, June 4, pp.7E.
  • Miltiades, H. B. (2006): ‘Interview as a social event: Cultural influences experienced while interviewing older adults in India’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 11:4, pp.277-291. DOI: 10.1080/13645570701605921
  • Mooers, J. D. (1977): ‘Independent school attendance and social class status’, Educational Studies 8:3, pp.253-258. DOI: 10.1207/s15326993es0803_4
  • Palfreyman, D. (2007): ‘Independent schools: Charitable status, public benefit and UDI’, Education and the Law 19:3-4, pp.167-175. DOI: 10.1080/09539960701751485
  • Procter, I. & Padfield, M. (1998): ‘The effect of the interview on the interviewee’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 1:2, pp.123-136. DOI: 10.1080/13645579.1998.10846868
  • Rock School, Series 1, RDF Media (2005)
  • Upcott, A. W. & Wilkinson, R. (1902): ‘The Foundation Hymn of Christ’s Hospital
  • Willink, K. G. & Shukri, S. T. (2018): ‘Performative interviewing: Affective attunement and reflective affective analysis in interviewing’, Text and Performance Quarterly 38:4, pp.187-207. DOI: 10.1080/10462937.2018.1526409
  • Winter, R. (1991): ‘Interviewers, interviewees and the exercise of power’, British Educational Research Journal 17:3, pp.251-262. DOI: 10.1080/0141192910170305