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Professor: One must understand to communicate

Charles McAliley

As a lad in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Charles McAliley liked to hunt, fish and explore. He would spend hours on the forest trails, roving between his favorite haunts, listening to the wilderness sounds and imagining what young boys imagine. 

About the same time he read  Arabian Sands by travel writer Wilfred Thesiger, which described the author's journeys across the Arabian Empty Quarter and the lives of the Bedu people. The book, of course, colored young Charles's imagination,
and he thought that someday he would surely travel to the Arabian Peninsula.

Decades later, having earned an undergraduate degree at Concord University, a master's at WVU and a Ph.D at University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Charles Koermer (he took his wife's name when he married Janice) read an intriguing advertisement in  The  Chronicle of Higher Education

The Sultan Qaboos University in Oman was seeking a business communications professor.  Naturally, he applied. He was there from 2010-11 and recalls that it was a "life-altering experience and one of the best things I've ever done."

"I made the decision to go the day I saw the ad," recollected Koermer, who is a teaching associate professor in the College's Department of Marketing. "I knew it was a rare opportunity."

On the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Oman is a nation of about four million where at least 12 different dialects are native among Omani citizens. Communication, one might conceive, could be difficult.  Not so, said Dr. Koermer. 

First, the dialects are very similar. Second, he had acquired some basic skill in the language, and third, the Omani people were extremely hospitable toward him, removing, through their friendliness, much of the language barrier.

"I immersed myself in the culture," Koermer said. "I found that the people are so generous. I took two-to-three-mile walks almost every day, and everywhere was greeted by the people, although I was a complete stranger."

Wilfred Thesiger, author of  Arabian Sands, with a ceremonial khanjar like the one offered to Dr. Koermer in Oman.
Wilfred Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands, with a ceremonial khanjar like the one offered to Dr. Koermer in Oman.

In fact, he was taken aback by their generosity.  One day he remarked to a person who was dressed in traditional garb that the ceremonial knife, a khanjar, he wore was beautiful. The man's response was to immediately take is off and offer it as a gift to Koermer. "Being in Oman, among these generous and friendly people, was like flying to another planet," he said. That man's gesture was not unique in the Omani culture. In fact, it is the norm.  This is explained as an element of Bedu honor, something called  as-sime, which isgiving up something so that a weaker person will benefit. According to Countries and Their Culture, "children are trained in the code of honor and tradition of hospitality from a very early age. By the time they are seven or eight years old, boys and girls know well what is expected of them and can behave with adult dignity when called upon."

Koermer likes to reference the noted German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, author of  Theory of Communicative Action, who suggested that in order for individuals to effectively communicate, they must do so from a position of mutual understanding. For Koermer, that's an important distinction and could explain why communication is so often difficult and done rather poorly.

That's some of what he attempts to convey to his students.  "Communication is a 'soft skill' but hard to do," he said. "It's not easy, and the fact is, most people are poor communicators. Children are the best communicators, in my opinion. But our students, in the classroom, they hear, but they do not listen."

Because communication is so important in business situations, the College of Business of Economics instituted BCOR 299, Business Communication, in 2013.  This required course focuses on building the skills students will need to be effective communicators.  

One important communication technique he likes to help his freshmen and sophomores students understand is the use of paraphrase. "It's not just students. People generally think they are good at communications fundamentals, but they aren't. I train people to paraphrase, and this makes them better listeners," he said. Whether there will be mutual understanding, as Habermas urged, is debatable. Still, if a student can paraphrase what he or she just heard, that student is a step closer toward effective communication.

Characterizing his teaching style as "high application," Koermer likes to relate what students will encounter in their professional lives to the classroom instruction he gives.  "I want them to be prepared at the level they should be when they enter their jobs after graduation," he said.

Although he prefers teaching oral communication, he mixes it with written in an 80/20 mix, written being the largest segment. 

Koermer, who, not surprisingly is faculty advisor to the University's Omani Student Organization, lists among his interest "meeting people and chatting."  He loves fly fishing, is a deacon in the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, Rock Hill, S.C.; walks "religiously" and believes people should "get out of their comfort bubbles."

"We have been taught to get into comfort bubbles," he said, referring to the Patch the Pony program, which has been in schools since the 1960s to teach children to avoid strangers.  "But to communicate effectively, we need mutual understanding, which can't be had in a comfort bubble. In there we just get a lot of faulty perceptions."

Perceptions of Arabic people, he said, are way off base. Last fall he was the guest speaker for a meeting of the WVU Office of Multicultural Programs and The Office of International Student Affairs and Global Services, where he talked about a paper he wrote titled  Public and Private Self Differences between American and Omani Cultures. In it he concluded, "Clearly there is a worldwide need for individuals to better understand, effectively interact with, and adapt to those of other cultures."

Koermer and Janice have three sons: Brett, 22, who is in a doctoral program at Duke University; Garrick, 19, a freshman at Tiffin University; and Trey, 18, who will be a freshman at WVU next year.