Evan Frendo investigates intercultural communication.

Photo to illustrate the concept of 'intercultural communication', e.g.: people (they have to adults, as this article is aimed at teachers and their professional development) from different countries speaking to each other. If too hard, photo of people (ad

Source: monkeybusinessimages, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.

I was watching a new teacher at a staff meeting a couple of months ago; it was an interesting experience. She had only recently moved into TEFL, having spent over 20 years working as an accountant, and was hoping to use her experience and skills to teach business English. The school, which had recently broken into the business English field, thought this was marvellous. Yet it was clear that there was friction right from the start, and the meeting didn’t go particularly well. It wasn’t just that she was dressed a little differently, or that she was the oldest person in the room. Nor was it the way she was prepared to give her opinion. I spoke to some of the participants afterwards:

‘She may be very knowledgeable about the business world, but she doesn’t understand how we do things here.’
‘Why couldn’t they make a simple decision, instead of going round and round in circles? These people are supposed to be trained professionals, but they don’t seem to know anything about the real world of business. Haven’t they ever been in a company?’
‘What is a balanced scorecard, anyway?’

It seemed to me that the main problem was one of intercultural communication. The new teacher came from a different culture from the others: she from a corporate accounting culture, they from a teaching culture. Both parties were finding this hard to deal with.

The business of culture

Before we look at some activities, it is worth discussing what we actually mean by culture. There are countless definitions in ELT literature, depending on the perspective being taken, and many teachers find it useful to discuss some of these in the classroom. Here is one well known definition from Hofstede, which is often used in management training:

‘... the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.’

From this definition it is clear that culture is not only about nations or countries, but about people as members of a particular group. Intercultural communication training is just as much about helping our learners to cope with people from other companies (corporate cultures), professions or discourse communities as it is with people from other countries. It is about learning how to work with other people. It also has its own terminology, some of which is explained in the box below.

The culture of business

Let’s now think about our business English learners. Every time one of them uses English in the workplace, he or she does so with someone from another culture. Not only is there the problem of different cultures to deal with, but there is also the problem of language. Add to this the pressures of the business situation, be it the need to win a negotiation, persuade a workforce to do something a particular way or simply explain a process to the native speaker boss, and we begin to see how difficult the whole area can be, and why companies all over the world are prepared to invest such considerable sums of money in training their employees. The ideal situation is to have employees who can not only deal with diversity, but who can manage that diversity to create something even stronger and better than the sum of its individual parts.

Categorising activities

So how can we improve our learners’ intercultural communication skills? There are many ways to do this, and some are more effective than others. Many teachers divide their activities into two main types.

Cognitive (or didactic) activities are designed to help learners think about the issues involved, and include things like lectures, articles and films. Building awareness, and acquiring facts and information are key themes.

Affective (or experiential) activities are designed to let the learners experience some of the issues for themselves; typical activities here are role-plays and simulations.

Some activities, such as discussion and feedback, can fall somewhere in the middle.

Another way to divide activities is to talk about culture-general activities, which help learners deal with people from different backgrounds, and culture-specific activities, which focus on a particular culture.

Most teachers will also be aware of the need to create activities which focus on the specific language learning needs of their learners, so often intercultural communication skills training is combined with language skills training.

As ever, there are advantages and disadvantages to all types of activities, and what actually happens in the classroom will depend as much on the teacher’s own experience and preferences, and what is available to him or her, as on the learners’ learning styles and target needs.

Integrating activities

Discussing the nature of culture with our learners is clearly a cognitive activity, but as we can see, there are other ways to approach intercultural communication training. Certainly it can be useful to have a range of approaches and activities to dip into as the need arises.

Oh yes. What happened to the new teacher? Well, it’s too early to know for sure, but it does seem that she is learning to adapt her ways to suit the new culture she is now part of. And the other teachers in the school are using her as a sounding board for their ideas about how to teach business English. Both sides are trying hard to accept that there are different ways of doing things, and the result seems to be a more competent group of teachers, better able to meet their clients’ needs. There’s even talk of her being a future DOS!

Terminology often used in intercultural training

Cultural relativism: a concept that recognizes the difficulties of assessing a different culture from the subjective stance provided by one’s own culture.

Cultural dimensions: measures that can be used to compare specific aspects of different cultures. So, for example, we can compare the ways in which people deal with time, or how they handle ambiguity and uncertainty.

Culture shock: the sense of anxiety that we may feel when we are in contact with a different culture and we realize that people are playing by a set of rules which are different from our own, and what’s more, we are not sure what those rules are.

Critical incidents: short descriptions of situations where some sort of intercultural misunderstanding or conflict takes place, and which are designed to be analyzed by the learner in order to improve awareness and understanding.

Cross-cultural training: training which tends to focus on particular behaviours or attributes of specific cultures, often resulting in some sort of comparison, as opposed to intercultural training, which tends to focus on the social interaction between people from different cultures. Note, however, that this distinction is often blurred in practice.


Hofstede, G, Cultures and Organizations, McGraw-Hill (1991)