Cross-Cultural Communication : Part One

I was once working on a summer course for teachers in Britain where the group was a mixture of two nationalities – half were Japanese and the other half were from Spain. The morning session started at 9am, and I would get there at about 8.30 to set up. At about 8.45 the first of the Japanese teachers would arrive, and by 8.55 all of the Japanese were in their seats and ready to start – which we did, at exactly nine o’clock. At about 9.15, the first of the Spanish group would arrive, followed gradually by the others. The group was generally complete by about 9.45, but inevitably I spent the first hour backtracking and adapting activities so that latecomers knew what they were doing.

After several days, an irate delegation from the Japanese group came to talk to me. They felt that the Spanish were showing disrespect both to me and to them by their constant lateness. They also complained that the Spanish teachers never listened – they continually interrupted me to express their own ideas and to argue. In short, they felt that they were ruining the course, and they couldn’t understand why I was accepting it.

I decided that the best way to deal with the situation was to bring it up in class and have a session on cross-cultural values. In both cases it was the first time either group had come in contact with the other nationality, and neither group understood that the values and typical behaviour of the other was liable to be different, or had any idea how it might be different. When we discussed the issue in class, the Spanish were as surprised at the Japanese group’s reaction as the Japanese had been at their behaviour.

Culturally determined values and behaviour may differ widely from one nationality, or ethnic group to another. Here are a few of the flashpoints :
  • Time : Some cultures are “linear-active” (1) for example the Germans, Swedes and British. They like to work on one-thing at a time which will be systematically planned in advance and have pre-decided deadlines. Punctuality is important to them. “Multi-active” cultures (Italians, Brazilians, Russians) on the other tend will tend to start a project with only a general outline for a plan, and make decisions as a project develops. They may work on several things at the same time, and are happy to be interrupted. An Italian student recently told me how his group had been having problems with their German and Swedish partners on an EU project. When the initial project meeting was held in Italy, the other partners couldn’t understand why my student had not prepared an agenda for the meeting, and hadn’t decided in advance how long it was going to take – let alone how much time should be dedicated to discussing each topic. In the next meeting, held in Germany, the Germans had already costed out the whole project, down to the exact number of working hours it would take them. The Italians had simply prepared an overall estimated figure, to be used or adapted as necessary.
  • Status : how important status is and what creates it will differ from culture to culture. In some cultures it may be age, while in others it may be professional competence or hierarchical position - in a company, for example. In some cultures (eg German) the use of professional title and a formal form of address will be the norm even among people working closely together. In other cultures (eg American) relationships are far more informal.
  • Space : the amount of personal space which people need around them is culturally determined. Invade someone’s personal space and they will feel uncomfortable, stay too far from them and they will feel equally uncomfortable. I once danced around the school office with an Arab student who was trying to talk to me about a problem : I felt he was standing too close and so stepped back. But every time I stepped back, he stepped forward …and I stepped back again. In the end he had me literally pinned into a corner – and no, it wasn’t for the reason you might be thinking.
  • Communication Style: What people say, and how open and direct they are will differ from culture to culture. “Reactive” cultures, for example the Japanese, will listen to and try to understand other people’s position, will rarely interrupt, will not display their own feelings, and place great importance on the concept of “face”. Any potentially "unharmonious" communication will be done in private. "Multi-active" cultures on the other hand, like the Spanish, tend to be loquacious, willing to express emotion, and will interrupt frequently.
Cross-cultural knowledge is essential for the EFL/ESL teacher for a number of reasons. Firstly, if you are living abroad you will need to understand the cultural values and behaviour of your host country in order to live there comfortably and teach most effectively. If, on the other hand, you are teaching overseas students in your own country you will need to be able to help your students understand both your own culture and that of the other students in the class. And even if you’re not a native speaker of English and are teaching students of your own nationality in your own country, you’ll still need to prepare them for the cultural differences they will encounter when they travel abroad.

In my own situations, I focus mostly on cross-cultural differences with students on English for Business courses. If someone is to do business successfully abroad, whether they are negotiating a sales contract with overseas suppliers, working in one of their companies overseas branches, or working on a joint project in an EU context, they need a high awareness of cross cultural differences.
One of the techniques I use to introduce the topic, stimulate discussion and allow me the chance to feed in information is a cross-cultural quiz – which I’ll publish and discuss tomorrow.

(1) The terms Linear-active, Multi-active and Reactive are taken from a model of cultural behaviour developed by Richard Lewis. Click
here for a brief introduction to the model.

Photo Provided under Creative Commons licence by Matthew Weston via flickr

No comments: