Cross Cultural Awareness

December 2011


Teaching English as a foreign language invariably means interacting daily with people from different cultures and it seems to me that it serves us in a globalised world to be cultural relativists rather than judges. That means understanding that there are no superior or inferior cultures. People get irate when they live in a foreign country and that’s a natural part of being an expatriate but that doesn’t make it rational. So with this in mind, I’ve adapted and condensed these Rules of Thumb by Elmar Holenstein as useful guidelines to live by.

1. If something seems illogical assume that you have misunderstood. — Fools assume they are prima facie correct and seek to cast aspersions, wise people assume they may be mistaken and seek to understand.

2. Don’t just think about what is said, think about how it is said. — Think about pragmatic meanings, not just about the literal syntax of what people say. Think about the wider context of what people from other cultures say to you — what are they implying? Implied meanings are so important but so overlooked. Western thinking is especially geared to take things on face value so I think it’s good practice to consciously use your intuition to read between the lines.

3. If someone does something very strange but they seem fine with it, understand that you have missed a reason for them doing it. — It’s too easy to generalise whole populations as stupid or primitive and ‘not like us’. The more rigorous and sensitive person prefers not to judge but to dig deeper and try to understand on a person by person basis.

An idiot abroad

4. If you find something strange or bad in another culture, you can usually find something similar or worse present somewhere in your culture too. — This is the ‘take the plank out of your own eye’ principle. ‘Projection’ is a term coined by Sigmund Freud and used to describe the all too common characteristic of magnifying our own failings on to those of others.

The reality is that cultures have far more in common with each other than they do that separates them and we all tend to behave the same way under similar conditions. If you think other cultures are cruel, have a look at the cruelty that western culture has dished out in modern history.


5. Acceptable behaviour is more common than not in other cultures. — Treating people with fairness and respect is a cultural universal. Just because the West has a well codified legal systems defining this doesn’t mean observance of human rights is missing from other cultures. Good behaviour towards others is venerated in every cultural heritage and represents shared human values.

6. Never treat members of another culture as objects of research but as research partners of equal right. — People from different cultures are not guinea pigs or strange beings to be studied. They are people, just like us. You make friends with people from other cultures the same way you make friends with people form your own culture — by being genuine.

7. Don’t take yourself and others at face value. — For reasons of politeness, people don’t always act genuinely. This can really skew your view of people. Don’t be quick to judge on small samples of idiosyncratic behaviour.

8. Don’t believe the books. — Books and authoritative guides and commonly held beliefs about another culture are often the exact inversion of what occurs in reality. This may be because these guides describe the way things ought to be which is inevitably removed for the ways things are.

9. Classifying and polarising things can be a lazy way to think. — Broad blanket statements, pigeon-holing, and stereotyping are not rigorous or rational and can inevitably be proved incorrect on closer scrutiny.


10. Sometimes we can question other cultures too much, when really there is no reason for the way it is. — Some things just don’t make sense and it doesn’t serve to question why something is as it is, but instead to agnostically acknowledge that something simply does or does not exist.