Cultural Differences: Teaching English Abroad

How to Survive and Thrive Working Overseas


Cultural differences:
When Yes = No
How you can get very confused!

Your new country isn’t your old country. How people behave and respond can be quite different.

When “Yes” is better than “No”

Western-style assertiveness is not so common in the rest of the world. A story to illustrate: In the summer of 1993, I was teaching at a university’s summer program (socking away a little extra cash while I was on paid vacation from my college!). The weather was very hot and sweaty – and the classrooms had no air conditioning. And I mean HOT and SWEATY – we were soaking with sweat.

A Coffee Shop

The students suggested that we have our class across the street in an air-conditioned coffee shop – a great idea! Only about eight students in the class, so we would easily fit in a big corner booth. I asked the supervisor if it was okay – 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?” He said, “Yes.”

A few minutes later he – again – said, “So you are not having class today?”

Well . . . we went through this cycle several times before I got a bit upset and told the supervisor, “If you don’t want us to meet at the coffee shop – just SAY ‘NO’!” Needless to say, everyone was upset. But, it didn’t need to be that way – I really should have picked up on it the first time – or at least the second time the supervisor asked if I was not having class.

Get it?

Many cultures are not as direct as our own. You’ll need to pay attention and listen for underlying content – all the time! You can make your coworkers and supervisor very uncomfortable if you make them confront you, or if you become confrontational. It can really stress your relationships and sour your work situation. Be careful, listen, interpret.

If you really don’t understand

Ask your supervisor 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.” This kind of a statement takes the heat off the situation – and saves “face” for everyone involved. You can even have a good laugh about it – instead of everyone being upset.

Develop a little finesse

in dealing with cross cultural communications – and your life will go much smoother overseas! It’s all part of learning to be a skilled expatriate.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Pick up some intercultural skills and be proud of them.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Don’t let cultural arrogance lead your career to ruin. Other cultures often have even better ways to solve problems. And if you are operating in that culture, be flexible and open to learning those new methods.

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