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Cultural Bridges

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Cultural Bridges

Developing friendship with your learners can be one of the most significant influences in their adaptation to a new culture. However, ways of thinking or cultural values that vary from your own can be a source of tension, misunderstanding, or even mistrust. An open mind and a basic understanding of some common cultural differences can save you from many potential problems as well as deepen your relationships with your learners.

In her book Foreign to Familiar, Sarah Lanier describes categorical differences she has observed between cultures she labels "cold-climate," such as Europe and most of the United States, and "hot-climate" cultures such as South America, Africa, and most of Asia. She has also observed that in any country, urban areas tend toward cold-climate traits, and rural areas toward hot-climate traits. The following table summarizes many of these differences. Keep in mind that these are general observations and individual students and/or countries may not fit these tendencies. Most will probably represent a mix of these values weighted toward one side or the other.

"Cold-Climate" / Urban "Hot-Climate" / Rural Classroom Application
Task and logic oriented, communication gives accurate information, respecting efficiency and time shows respect for people Relationship and feeling oriented, communication seeks a feel-good atmosphere over accuracy, people are more important than efficiency and time Start on time and keep the lesson moving along, but allow for brief departures from the lesson to build relationships and let students express themselves even if it seems off-topic
Direct communication, 'yes' and 'no' are taken literally, and honest, polite words are usually not taken personally Indirect communication, 'yes' and 'no' are not always literal, direct questions or statements may be rude or embarrassing Avoid direct yes/no questions except on objective topics; avoid correcting a hot-climate student in front of others
Individualistic, value own identity, individuals speak for themselves, taking initiative in a group is encouraged, one person's behavior does not necessarily represent the group Group oriented, value group identity (belonging), taking initiative in a group is largely determined by roles, one member's behavior reflects on the whole group Provide roles for group work; when asking a class to vote, realize that one hot climate student's vote may stand for all of his same-culture classmates but a cold-climate student's vote is only his own
Private, value personal time and space, ask permission to borrow things or interrupt conversations, respect personal possessions, acceptable not to include everyone in invitations or plans Inclusive, being left alone is undesirable, individuals welcome to join conversations or group activities without asking, possessions freely shared, rude not to include everyone in conversations or activities Balance individual and group work; teach students when and how to ask permission to speak, borrow things, or join an activity (such as playing sports or joining a group at a table)
Hospitality is planned, host usually requires advance notice and makes special preparations, guests pay for many of their own expenses such as transportation Hospitality is spontaneous, invitations are not required and preparation is not expected, host takes care of all needs and expenses of the guest, host may expect a gift Students may appreciate your help beyond the classroom; if you are given a gift, the student probably does not expect a gift in return
Time oriented, make plans and schedules, value saving time, expect events such as meals or meetings to begin at the time announced, chat before or after events Event oriented, relatively unstructured, value experiencing the moment over saving time, less emphasis on the clock, flexible, chatting is part of an event When planning special events, allow time for hot-climate students to arrive later than cold-climate students, and plan something to do while waiting.

Remember that although none of these cultural values can be called "right" or "wrong," your learners will need to adapt to the cultural expectations of the communities they live in. The southern United States exhibits many hot-climate attitudes while the rest of the country generally holds cold-climate values. So what should your learners expect when they visit an American home? Can they express individual opinions? Should they make small talk at a store? How important is it to be on time for different types of events? It is certainly appropriate to clarify to your learners the cultural values you and your community hold, which they may interact with daily.

Culture Shock

Culture shock often occurs within a few weeks or months after arrival and may happen more than once, recurring months or years later. Signs to watch for include irritability, lack of concentration, withdrawal, anger, crying easily, lethargy, and negative attitudes toward the United States. These symptoms usually pass in time. Encouraging a sense of purpose and worth can help combat these feelings. Learners who once longed to come to the United States may be disappointed that their life here doesn't measure up to the expectations they had dreamed of. Those who have family members remaining in their native country or who did not wish to come to the United States in the first place may find themselves constantly longing to return "home" and unable to embrace a new culture and lifestyle. Typically these learners will not learn English very quickly as there is an underlying rejection of their whole United States experience.