Cross-cultural Understanding

Cross-cultural Understanding

“People of different religions and cultures live side-by-side in almost every part of the world, and most of us have overlapping identities which unite us in very different groups. We can love what we are, without hating what- and who we are not. We can thrive in our own tradition, even as we learn from others, and come to respect their teachings.” 

- Kofi Annan

Just recently I have encountered a very stressful but indeed educational situation in my language class. I tried to teach the words ‘tidy’ and ‘untidy’ to my students. I’ve chosen two pictures that seemed perfect to my perception of these two words. Little did I know about where the trouble would come from: in an impeccably clean and organized room, they saw a pair of sneakers that I had not even noticed when choosing the picture. As I tried to elicit the word ‘tidy’ from my students to each of my leading questions they responded that the room was dirty and the person was unclean so I had to stop and ask whether they were mocking on me. I got a raging outcry about how their mothers would not even let them enter the house and how they would get into trouble for having shoes in their room. I tried to reason them by giving examples from American culture where it is fine to wear shoes in the house and Thai culture where students take their shoes off at the school gate. Nothing could calm them down and they refused to learn the word ‘tidy’ through this picture.  

So, these days one thought preoccupies my mind: when I enter the classroom as a language teacher, do I bring only language learning experience to my students and teaching to myself? Does my Russian background affect my teaching and the perceptions of my Turkish and Jordanian students? How do I treat my students? Do they feel respected and valued in my lessons? When I work with my Turkish, American and Iranian colleagues, do we all function only as language teachers or do we bring our cultural perceptions into the way we collaborate and produce work? Do my colleagues feel that their personalities and work are appreciated and respected? Should we even bother to think about where we are coming from if we have our university degrees in language teaching and our students know why they are learning the language? How should we all behave? Whose ethical norms should we follow? I will try to think of answers to at least some of these questions by discussing the ideas of intercultural communication that can affect our language classroom interactions. 

There’s no doubt that language is part of a culture and also it is its reflection. For years, educators have been discussing that teaching a language means teaching its culture. However, with the globalization of education, the shift is happening from the command of language and knowledge of general culture to the constant awareness of the culture that students and teachers are coming from. According to Collin’s Dictionary, someone's cultural awareness is their understanding of the differences between themselves and people from other countries or other backgrounds, especially, differences in attitudes and values. Having international classrooms and teaching staff, we can’t ignore the need to focus on cultural awareness. 

Here I will ask you to think about the following questions: how should we build our classroom communication if, together with the teacher, the classroom has participants from 3, 4 or more cultural backgrounds? What is the best way of interacting with our students from various language and, therefore, cultural backgrounds? What is the approach to collaboration with teachers from various countries? Should we stick to our own way of doing things? Should we completely assimilate to the culture that the majority of the participants are coming from? Should each side meet halfway through? These questions require thoughtful answers, especially, if we want to serve the IB mission of developing “young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” 

According to the IB standards, cultural awareness is presented as international-mindedness. They claim that an IB education fosters international-mindedness by helping students reflect on their own perspective, culture and identities, and then on those of others. By learning to appreciate different beliefs, values and experiences, and to think and collaborate across cultures and disciplines, IB learners gain the understanding necessary to make progress toward a more peaceful and sustainable world. Who is helping students with that? Are teachers that come from a mix of cultures expected to focus on the same reflection and understanding? Are we, teachers, ready for that? 

For now, I have posed more questions than I have answers, but there are a few aspects of cultural understanding that I am sure can help us build a bridge between students and teachers, between educators from different backgrounds and among the students from various cultural standings. Intercultural awareness is often viewed as the fifth skill in language learning and teaching. Our lesson plans and interaction within an educational institution (and beyond it) should take into consideration the cultural background of the participants of communication in order to build a successful classroom and productive team where everyone respects other participants’ culture without bending their own values and beliefs. Consequently, as teachers, while conducting our classroom activities, interacting with our colleagues or arranging activities with international students, we should create our work around the cultural values that our students bring into the classroom. I will mention a few of those. 

Let’s start with the first one. In her article The Pragmatics of Cross-Cultural Communication, Deborah Tannen introduces two major styles of communication: the high-involvement style and high-considerateness style. The high-involvement style is valued as a means of expressing group membership demonstrating a faster rate of speech and allowing faster turn-taking, interruptions, and collaborative floors (a collaborative floor is when a speaker completes the turn begun by another speaker). In other words, it is a direct culture. However, all those qualities will be considered rude by people from high-considerateness culture as the high-considerateness style shows longer pauses and therefore expects slower turn-taking. People with this communication style also tend to have a slower rate of speech and avoid the simultaneous talk. Here is a good point to reflect upon: what style is prevailing in your culture? What about your students and colleagues?

In addition to communication, the preferred or assumed human relationships should be considered. What is the face-system of your culture? Of your students' culture? Of your colleagues'? The way you communicate with people around might require checking whether people are from high-context or low-context culture. In high-context cultures, it is important not to threaten the face or social esteem of others. Therefore, the message will usually be implied by a physical setting, non-verbal communication, and expectation that an interlocutor understands the nonverbal message. The reactions will be reserved. Low-context cultures express their ideas precisely and specifically in words or reactions, nothing is left to interpretation. Next time you offer and activity or just talk to your student, address your teacher, your friend or your colleague, stop for a moment and think whether you allow them to keep their face. If another person threatens your self-esteem, how can you deal with the situation respectfully and professionally to help a person understand that they should reconsider their approach without diminishing their cultural values? 

When you assign group-work, do you often think about how people will react to it? Well, you might need to give thought to it. Cultures differ regarding how individual autonomy is viewed. In individualistic societies, an individual is the primary source of motivation and, therefore, independence, privacy, self and all-important ‘I’ build the main pattern of behavior. Decisions are based on what is good for an individual. Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, require loyalty to the group, see dependence of an individual on the organizations and institutions, have “we”-consciousness; the group is expected to look out for and take care of an individual. As a result, students from individualistic cultures may ask more questions of the teacher and use confrontational techniques when dealing with interpersonal issues. Collectivism-oriented societies will have fewer questions for the teacher and use avoidance or third-party intermediary and other face-saving techniques when dealing with problems. Look at it language-wise: in English, ‘I’ is capitalized; in Russian, it’s ‘Вы’ (you as Turkish ‘siz’- addressing a person who is older or higher in position).  How would you define the people around you? Are they more individualistic or collectivistic?

Time-orientation is another problem we always have to deal with as teachers assigning deadlines. But do people around us have personal problems with time or is it a tribute to their culture? In high-context (collectivistic, indirect) cultures, time is viewed as more open and less structured. People's needs are seen as a priority and time can be accommodated accordingly. In low-context (individualistic, direct) societies, time is highly organized and valued. How can you approach the importance of deadlines and punctuality without making people around you think that you are a cold person who doesn't care about them? 

There are many other cultural aspects that require attention and careful thought in the interconnected world and in a classroom setting where attachments are built through everyday work towards the same purposes. You can find some of those aspects compared for different cultures at the following link:,russia,turkey,the-usa/.

On the final note, do remember that cultural patterns are understandable as a unique whole and not in isolation. I encourage you to first think how your own culture fits into the cultural patterns, then decide how you, as an individual, fit into those patterns. You don’t have to be a typical representative of your culture as well as the person you are interacting with can be different from other members of his cultural group. Working on your intercultural competence or cultural awareness or international-mindedness can help you find where you fit into this intercultural paradigm. And finding your place in this paradigm will help you be aware of what activities to use in your classroom, how to interact with your students and colleagues and what to expect in return. And as you introduce a second culture with a second language, keep in mind Sharon Kay Penman's words that “It is not easy to be stranded between two worlds, the sad truth is that we can never be completely comfortable in either world.”  

  1. W. Lustig, J. Koester. Intercultural Competence. 5th edition, Pearson, 2006.

What is an IB education? Retrieved from

  1. Tannen. The Pragmatics of Cross-Cultural Communication. Applied Linguistics, Volume 5, Issue 3, Autumn 1984, pages 189-195.

Natalia Kozyakova

NUN High School English Teacher