Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Americans But Were Afraid to Ask

12/11/13Follow @XconomyDET

Last month, we told you about the Global Talent Retention Initiative’s report that Michigan is poised to become a hot spot for global talent because of its popularity with international students, particularly those studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

With that in mind, a group of Michigan State University journalism students published a book last week called “100 Questions and Answers About Americans” that they hope will help students and workers from other countries understand American people and culture a bit better. Not only do they want to make the book available to international students, but also to companies who are planning to hire an international workforce. So far, the MSU students have given away 100 copies of the book.

“There are more than 7,000 international students at MSU and more than 819,000 nationwide, and that number is rising every year,” says Joe Grimm, the visiting professor who oversaw the project. “International students want to make friends, but [Americans] make it hard. We act friendly, but we don’t follow up.”

The 10-week project, for which the students got school credit as part of a class called Bias Busters, came about thanks to funding from MSU’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. Students spent the semester interviewing 50 international students. The majority of MSU’s international students are from China, but Grimm says his class also talked to people from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

“Their questions were all different,” Grimm points out. “There was a Saudi woman who asked why Americans work so hard, but then we had Chinese students who asked why Americans don’t work harder. So we realized the questions was, how much do Americans work?”

Grimm says in order to remove as much subjectivity as possible, the students tried to answer questions using statistics. For example, for the question of how much Americans work, the answer explains that, according to CNNMoney, America is the seventh-hardest working country in the world. Other topics covered in the book include education, social behavior, race, religion, health, food, family, culture, and language. There’s also a great slang glossary that includes terms like “beat a dead horse” and “hooking up.”

“The meaning of ‘how’s it going’ gave [international students] lots of trouble, and so did whether or not to call it pop, soda, or Coke,” Grimm says. “We started by respecting the questions. We never said, ‘That’s racist.’ We just tried to give answers that were journalistic.”

The students also used an analysis tool to study keywords and determine the number of Google searches for any given term. Grimm says they were looking for terms that were often searched, but didn’t have a lot of accompanying answers or information online. “We’re not trying to beat Wikipedia, we’re just trying to attract people’s attention through Google and get them to end up on one of our landing pages,” Grimm says.

After the international students had been surveyed, the keywords analyzed, and the questions and answers vetted, the publisher used a proprietary version of XML tagging, which Grimm describes as the project’s “secret sauce.” The average sentence is under 20 words to keep it as accessible and understandable as possible. Grimm knows a few things about how to communicate to a broad audience, as he spent many years as the recruiting and development editor at the Detroit Free Press.

The book is available on Amazon, and Grimm encourages business owners who want to place an order for multiple copies to contact him at jgrimm@msu.edu. “We print on demand, which allows us to make custom editions,” he adds.

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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