In her educational March workshop “A hitchhikerʼs guide to bringing the ‘interculturalʼ into the classroom“ at the Berlin School of English, Mandy discussed the topic of cross-cultural communication and intercultural competence in ELT. For those who missed out, don’t worry – here is your summary of the main points and activities.
What role does cultural difference play in cross-cultural communication?
The first group task consisted of an introductory round in which the participants introduced themselves to as many people as possible within 4 minutes. As a follow-up question, Mandy wanted to know whether the interactions varied in terms of length and level of comfort. It turned out that people with similar backgrounds found it easier to connect with one another. This was especially true for people from anglophone cultures. They reported finding it easier to start a conversation with other native speakers, even if all parties spoke English.
The group discussion revealed that our cultural background influences the way we act in cross-cultural communication. The exercise had helped raising awareness for this, as one participant pointed out:
Once you understand your own cultural conditioning, it becomes easier to understand another personʼs.
We also discussed that the way people relate to one another varies due to different backgrounds (e.g. educational / professional). Previous experience with an individual person plays a role as well. Thus, there are a number of factors which influence our interaction with other people, both consciously and subconsciously.
Interculturality: the elephant in the room
2) Place yourself: rarely – sometimes – often
The next exercise was about the amount of attention teachers give to intercultural communication in class. We gathered in groups that reflected the frequency of our bringing up intercultural topics or issues. These varied from rarely to sometimes to as much as I can. All types were represented, with a large number of people in the sometimes group. After that, there was a group discussion in which
we found out that :
- Interculturality is an inherent factor in language teaching, because different cultures and experiences naturally get together and mingle in a languange-learning setting.
- Even if all parties involved in communication are native speakers, there will still be cross-cultural differences (e.g. Brits vs. Americans, Australians vs. Canadians, Liverpudlians vs. Somersetarians etc.).
- A group itself is a culture of its own (i.e. a group of engineers will differ from a group of flower arrangers, regardless of nationality). Besides, individual groups tend to establish their own specific cultures over time, meaning no two groups of learners are alike.
As Mandy pointed out, the ‘intercultural’ is present in any setting that involves more than one person, because
You communicate interculturally as soon as you walk into the room.Mandy Welfare
With interculturality being intrinsically present in language teaching, it’s the teacher’s job to choose how much attention to give to it (e.g. learning from each other and dealing with conflict as a form of cross-cultural training). Thus, students can develop their communication skills and awareness in class.
The role of national culture, cliches and the individual
We then went on discussing the impact of national culture in cross-cultural understanding. Is it a help or more of a hindrance?
In the case of British culture, the answer was controversial. On the one hand, it is one of the most widely known cultures in the world – a little smalltalk about fish and chips, Earl Grey tea or Shakespeare can go a long way towards easing social interaction, especially for business people. On the other hand, the cliche of British politeness also involves vague language, ambiguity and reading between the lines. As a consequence, underlying implications that need decoding can make cross-cultural understanding harder than it has to be.
Also, there can be a sense of inequality between a native speaker and a non-native speaker of English. Thus, two non-native speakers who do not know each other’s cultures very well may actually be at an advantage when using English as a lingua franca.
Finally, if you add factors such as personality, gender, age or time spent abroad to our cross-cultural differences, national culture is just one of many factors to consider. Mandy brought our attention to a definition of intercultural competence as
[…] perceiving the interlocutor as an individual whose qualities are to be discovered, rather than as a representative of an externally ascribed identity.Byram et al. (2002)
As a conclusion, while national culture does have a certain influence on intercultural communication, everybody is more complex than their nationality and it is always individuals engaging with one another in intercultural settings.
Cross-cultural communication: talking to friends, strangers and those in between
3) Task: My intercultural star
Next, we drew a star-shaped diagram pointing at the different groups of people we interact with and the ways we communicate with them.
We clarified that the way we connect depends both on the people we relate to as well as the context. Our interaction with family and friends at home usually differs from how we talk to work colleagues or strangers, and this is where our intercultural competence shows. We may use different types of language(s), avoid or prefer certain expressions and address people differently.
One common issue for native speakers of English in Germany that was brought up was the ‘Sie-du-problem’. While there is a tendency in anglophone cultures to break down formal barriers where possible, for Germans this is a gradual process with different degrees of formality. So someone with English as their L1 might struggle to find the right way to address people in various settings. Choosing between ‘Sie + Herr/Frau + last name’ (very formal), ‘Sie + first name’ (semi-formal) and ‘Du + first name’ (informal) may cause insecurity.
On the flipside, the lack of distinct markers of formality in English can be a source of confusion for Germans as well. Being on a first-name basis with your boss may easily be interpreted as a sign of being on friendly terms with them, which is mostly not the case – something that native speakers of English are perfectly aware of.
Another issue for Germans is the famous “How are you” question. While used by native speakers of English as a formal means to start a conversation, Germans tend to take the question at face value. As a consequence, they may reveal too much personal information when a simple “I’m good, how are you?” is all that may be expected.
Scales of formality in intercultural communication
For practical purposes, Mandy suggested using a scale of formality. Cultures tend to fall closer to one or the other side of the spectrum, ranging from very informal to highly formal. She gave Russian as an example for a very formal culture and Finnish as a very informal one, based on her own experience at the workplace.
High context vs. low context cultures
As a practical example of different expectations in intercultural communication, Mandy presented an encounter between an Englishwoman named Sylvia and her Chinese friend Min (see Chia Suan Chong’s example in Successful International Communication). Sylvia approached Min with the words,”You won’t believe what happened to me!”, to which Min did not react, but waited. Sylvia was offended by that, seeing that he obviously wasn’t interested and stopped talking to him. Min was puzzled because he did not understand what he had done wrong.
This illustrates how the British stereotype of underlying messages and vagueness may play out, but it is also an example of a clash between a high-context and a low-context culture. While Sylvia was not only interested in the factual aspect of what had happened to her, but also in the emotional dimension (expecting Min to be curious and excited on her behalf), Min just waited to hear what had actually happened (the facts). He wasn’t interested in the context of the information, his conversation with Sylvia, but waited for her to get straight to the point. Min obviously comes from a low-context-culture, whereas Sylvia comes from a high-context-culture.
The art of misunderstandings: What you hear may be different from what’s being said
Speaking of linguistic undercurrents that need decoding, and much more so in an intercultural context, Mandy talked about Schulz von Thun’s “4 sides of communication” model. The basic premise is that there are 4 aspects to every message, and that what the speaker says and means may differ from what the listener actually understands. Apart from the factual aspect (the neutral information), any message has a purpose that relates to something that the speaker wants from the listener (appeal), says something about how the speaker and listener get along (relationship) and provides insight about the speaker (self-revelation). Misunderstandings often arise when people refer to different sides of a message without being aware of this. One common example is the statement, “There’s something orange in my soup!” over dinner at a friend’s house. The message could imply that:
- there is something orange in the speaker’s soup (factual)
- she wants the listener to say or do something about the orange stuff (appeal)
- the speaker is angry because the listener should have known that she doesn’t like orange things in her soup (relationship)
- the speaker is disgusted by the orange stuff in her soup (self-revelation)
Depending on the listener’s interpretation, he or she may respond to any of the four sides and thus misunderstand the speaker’s intention.
Listening as part of cross-cultural competence
4) Listening exercise
Finally, we listened to an audio track in which an Italian speaker talked about his experience at his bicultural office (to be found in English for Business Listening by Ian Badger). He described a Japanese and an Italian section, using Dante’s heaven and hell trope.
For him, the Japanese section represented the heavenly aspect (peaceful, harmonious and organised). In contrast to that, the Italian part resembled the chaotic, noisy and cluttered hellish part. Of course, there was an ironic undertone to this. He pointed out that the hell section was as productive as its heavenly counterpart, but approached things differently.
The speaker talked with a thick Italian accent which required close listening. It was also clear that his cultural identity was linked to what he described as the hell part of the office. The hell metaphor represented his cultural identity as an Italian to a certain degree.
Therefore, to communicate successfully here, a non-Italian person would need to tune in to the strong accent and acknowledge the speaker’s sense of Italianness.
A suggestion on how to approach intercultural communication
Mandy presented the “adapt model” (Chia Suan Chong, 2018) for improving one’s intercultural competence:
This model promotes an outlook of pragmatic awareness and trial-and-error in lieu of prejudice or received wisdom. You can find out more about it in Chong’s book on successful international communication (see reading list below).
The workshop brought us new insights on the subject of intercultural competence. The most fundamental one was that cross-cultural communication happens naturally in any group of learners, in subtle and explicit ways. This was also related to acknowledging the inclusive nature of interculturality which comprises aspects far beyond culture and nationality (e.g. profession, gender). The art of communicating interculturally can be seen as the ability to strike a balance between dealing with obvious cultural differences as well as adjusting to the individual and the specific situation.
Given its importance in today’s globalised world, cross-cultural understanding definitely is a skill worth cultivating in the classroom. It’s up to teachers to decide to what extent they want to include aspects of cross-cultural training in their lessons.
- Badger, I. (2011) English for Business Listening. Collins.
- Byram, M., Gribkova, B. & Starkey, H. (2002) Developing the intercultural dimension in language teaching. Council of Europe.
- Camerer, R. Mader, J (2012) Professional Business English Trainers: Intercultural Competence in Business English. Cornelsen.
- Chong, C. (2018) Successful International Communication. Pavillion Publishing.
- Chong, C. https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/how-prepare-studentsinternational-communication
- Vague language: The truth about British politeness
- Case studies: Where the truth lies across cultures by Carol Kinsey Goman
…and the tastiest bit saved up for last:
Galina kept an old promise and baked Mandy-Welfare-cookies (pardon, biscuits) specially for the occasion! How cute is that?
Want to know more about Mandy? Check out her ELTABB profile.