February 25, 2011

Bafa Bafa Game Immerses Marketing Students in Strange New World

Dr. James Gentry has taken a decidedly different approach to help students understand an aspect of international marketing that they could not get from reading a textbook. The approach involves creating two unique classroom cultures that force students to rethink the way they might deal with people who grow up with different cultural norms. The role playing game is called Bafa Bafa and Gentry has been using it in his classes for over ten years.

“The class is divided into two very distinct cultures with half of the class moving to a second classroom,” said Gentry. “Each group learns their culture and practices it at the beginning of the class period. Observers of the other culture visit but do not participate, after which they return to their own culture to share their observations.”

The experience of observing a foreign culture and trying to communicate that culture back to their own, as well as participating within the guidelines of the foreign culture’s rules can be quite eye opening to students.

“The purpose is to really have distinct cultures and then have the students -- many of whom have not had the experience of crossing borders -- find a different pace of life, experience a strange language, and other things that really violate their scripts of right and wrong.”

One of the two groups known as the alpha group focuses on personal space and male vs. female relationship dynamics. The beta group is focused on participation in a game which is based on counting, colors, and definite rules.

“The beta group provides an arena where students walk in and they can’t understand what is being said or what is being done or some strange gestures. Language is very low context in the group which means it’s all about the game. The other culture is touchy feely and women are looked at almost as property but they are also very protected.”

Although sometimes students may take offense to some of the rules in the game Gentry believes that it is important in order for students to begin to think globally regarding business relationships.

“One aspect they learn is that personal space in our culture is a reality and if I get too close to you, you start getting uncomfortable. In many cultures people are right up to each other touching -- getting the kids to touch or put their arm around the other students is really hard. It puts those kids at a discomfort but then they realize that there are billions of people around the world doing that.”

The fact that females often take what to them is a subservient role in the game is also part of the role playing.

“I think some are offended but then hopefully that’s part of a good learning experience to realize the values and that what is seen as right and wrong by us is pretty limited. This world has different definitions. It may break our laws if we were to do certain things but in some countries you can’t do business unless you do. Bribes are a part of doing business internationally especially in the developing world. If you can’t get out of a country without putting some money in your passport then you better learn to put some money in your passport.”

Gentry also sees the significance of recent political uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East tied to what students are learning in his international marketing class.

“A lot of what is happening right now is women wanting change who have been denied that for so long. I think that is kind of a reflection of what we’re doing. It’s a good time to be teaching international marketing because you talk about culture and then you see these things happening and people are beginning to implement change.”

Gentry, who joined the UNL College of Business Administration in 1987, is the current Graduate Chair for the department of Marketing and is endowed with the Maurice J. and Alice Hoffman College Professorship in Marketing. He was assisted in teaching the international marketing class this semester by PhD marketing student Justine Rapp.

Dr. James Gentry

Dr. James Gentry