TEFL and Intercultural Communication

Yes, just might mean NO!

This blog post comes from an eBook I wrote about achieving success abroad.  (part of a package of free TEFL eBooks at: TEFL Boot Camp)

You will find that various cultures respond and behave in their own way, a way that is usually different from what you are familiar with and these characteristics and ways of reacting might be the total opposite from what you expect.

Western-style assertiveness is not common in other cultures, nor is it helpful or useful.

To show a little bit more about cultural differences I will share a personal story: In summer of 1993 I was on paid vacation teaching a summer program at another university to save up some extra cash.

It was a hot and sweaty day and we were melting down from the heat due to the lack of air conditioning in the classrooms.

A Coffee Shop

My students made the suggestion to have our class in the air-conditioned coffee shop across the street.  I loved the idea and there were only about eight students so we could easily fit into a corner booth.

I asked for a ‘go ahead’ from the professor in charge of the program and he said, ‘Yes’. A few minutes later he said, “So you are not having class today?” I replied “Of course we are.  We are going to meet in the coffee shop, as the students requested. That’s okay, isn’t it?” Again, he said, “Yes”.

After a few minutes he asked, again, “So you are not having class today?”

After doing this question-answer-thing several times, I got a bit upset and told the supervisor, “If you don’t want us to meet at the coffee shop, just say ‘no’!”

I should have picked up the supervisor’s message the first time when he asked if I was not having the class (or at least the second time!). Everyone got upset and things could have been easier.

Many cultures are not as direct as our own

You need to listen intensively for underlying content and pay attention all the time!

Being confrontational might make things awkward and you will make your new coworkers and supervisors very uncomfortable if you put them in the position to confront you. It can spoil your relationships and work situation.

Listen and interpret carefully

If you get lost in a situation and don’t understand, ask your supervisor about it in the context of a culture question.

You can say, “I am a bit confused here, in my culture my boss would say ‘(Fill in the blank)’ – are you wanting me to ‘(do or not do something)?’ Please help me understand.”

If you approach a matter with this kind of attitude and statement it will help avoid a difficult situation, everyone will be at ease and you might even have a good laugh about the misunderstanding later.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Cross-cultural communication might be difficult to understand at first. But, if you handle it with finesse, life abroad will go much more smoothly! It’s is all part of learning how to be a skilled expatriate.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Be patient, don’t be over-assertive and don’t lose your cool.  Wait for things to settle down a bit when you are not sure what is happening.  Wait and listen a bit before you act.

You will often hear other foreigners bragging about how they “told off” someone at work, but you can be sure that they paid the price for that in the long run.  Such breaches of courtesy and culture are not usually easily forgiven.  These very same people will be complaining later about how a contract for next year was not offered (how you get fired in these types of jobs).  Usually they won’t have even a clue as to why.  But we know why, don’t we?


Teaching Internships in China





Author: Ted

Semi-retired EFL teacher/teacher-trainer working and living abroad since 1989 in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.