John King, a freelance trainer based in York, introduces some key concepts to integrate intercultural training into your best practice.


‘The goal of cross-cultural training is to build bridges between different world views by helping our trainees achieve the knowledge, openness and behavioural skills needed to function effectively in a culturally foreign environment. We as language teachers have built those bridges for ourselves and we continually help our students and trainees lay the linguistic foundations for such bridges of their own. Through well directed professional development we can extend our own pedagogical competence from linguistic to para- and extra-linguistic cultural expertise.'

James R Chamberlain, IATEFL Newsletter Spring 2003

Why do your students come to you? Here are some real examples from my own experience:

  • A French railway engineer is going to work in China. The working language will be English. She will need to be effective in meetings, presentations, project management and socialising with stakeholders.
  • A Swedish diplomat is about to be posted to Bangladesh. He will need to be diplomatic, in English. 
  • A Spanish trade unionist attends the works council meetings of her Swedish telecoms company in Brussels. She will need to negotiate reward packages in English and socialise with comrades.

To train students successfully on these courses you are already an intercultural trainer, even if you don’t call yourself that – yet.

To compete in a global business environment, businesses need more than just language proficiency – already a skill area that is in deficit. They need a large talent pool with intercultural skills: awareness of cultural differences and nuances and effective strategies to communicate, build relationships, and develop trust in a globalised workplace. Businesses are increasingly aware of this.


Personnel Today, 2018

In this article we will introduce some key concepts integrating intercultural training into your best practice.

What is ‘culture’?

There are many ways of defining the word 'culture'. Of course, it is often used in the sense of literature, music and art. In this context it can be defined as ‘a shared system of attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviour’ (Gibson 2002). Hofstede (1991) refers to ‘collective mental programming’ or ‘software of the mind’. Informally, culture has been described as ‘the way we do things around here’.

It is important to note at the outset that country-specific culture may only be one factor in working effectively internationally, and it might not even be the most important factor. Of course, stereotypes persist regarding culture at a national/country level; examples include: the polite indirect Brit (‘I wonder if you would mind opening the window’); the flexible approach to time of people from some southern European Mediterranean countries; Estonians, who view so-called ‘small talk’ before a negotiation as a waste of time, even a weakness. By plotting a diagram of a cultural matrix we can see that other parameters may be more important than national (or regional) culture.

'X-FACTORS': age, gender, educational background PROFESSIONAL AREA


By placing variable factors in this schema we may find, for example, that two young graduate male telecoms engineers, one from the north of Norway, the other from the south of Italy, have more in common and communicate more effectively than a female advertising executive in a small private company in London and a male civil servant also in London.

This matrix may also be illustrated as a cultural ‘onion’, with each ring of the onion (starting with country on the outside and the individual personality at the centre) being peeled away to reveal the importance of the different factors.

Analyzing critical incidents

A practical way for trainers to open up intercultural awareness in the classroom is to ask what is happening in contextual ‘critical incidents'.

Here are some useful examples (Gibson):

An international group of business people is listening to a sales presentation. The speaker takes off his jacket, starts with a quick joke and then follows the K.I.S.S. principle ( Keep It Short and Simple), illustrating his words with lively graphics. He invites the audience to interrupt with their questions and, when they don’t, he smiles broadly at them and starts to ask them questions. Like all good presenters – or so he thinks – he tells the audience what he is going to say, then he says it and then tells them what he has said. He keeps exactly to the ten minutes allotted. The reaction of the audience is mixed: some are impressed, others feel unhappy with it.

In the training room, eliciting comments from the students and noting them on a flip chart may lead to discussion of these intercultural aspects of making a presentation:

  • Formality, dress code
  • Humour; appropriacy and content of jokes; personal anecdotes; smiling
  • Interactivity and expectation; expertise; the presenter as leader (asking the audience questions may make the presenter’s own content seem superficial)
  • Logical structure and time: (Too rigid? Just right?)

The following critical incident could be used to consider intercultural factors in a social context:

Andrea Blau is on a business trip to the Northwestern United States. Things seem to be going well, and she may have some time to relax or go sightseeing at the weekend before returning to Austria. She asks her (senior) American colleague, Joe Webb, for some tips on what to do. Joe immediately offers her the use of the family cabin in the mountains as well as the use of his car. Andrea Blau is amazed at the generosity of her colleague who she only met two days before, but says she can’t possibly accept. She hires a car and books into a hotel. Joe can’t understand, and Andrea Blau is surprised.

Discussion of this incident may elicit some of the following topics:

  • Hierarchy
  • Gender
  • Reciprocity: will accepting generosity from someone mean you are indebted to them?
  • Public/private spheres
  • Friendship: how quickly can this develop, what does it mean, what is its place in business?
  • Trust

Students may then want to contribute their own stories of intercultural critical incidents, whether real or imaginary, previously experienced or anticipated.

Using this method allows a range of cultural factors to be raised which may be universally applied rather than working on a briefing model where knowledge of the culture is needed.

Using briefings

Having raised awareness of intercultural dimensions in this way, the trainees can move to country briefings based on the principle that the best way to be aware of a target culture is to reflect on your own.

Imagine a colleague from your company is coming to work in your office in your country. What would you tell them? What would they require to be able to work and socialise effectively in your environment?

This exercise could be called ‘Don’t put your foot in it’ and may include a spectrum of considerations including: time, proximity, dress, titles and names, decision-making, conflict and stress, rules, status, teams and individuals, manners, saving or losing face, taboos, humour, greetings, active listening, and silence.

The approaches outlined above – analyzing critical incidents; preparing questions and answers for briefings – provide a practical and immediate way into intercultural competence, building up awareness that can be applied to any situation even without expert knowledge of the target culture.

Of course, a substantial body of literature exists on this subject, and it is equally possible to approach the field by considering the different models for analyzing culture first, then applying them to specific on-the-ground needs. Three of the main models are:

Hofstede (1991), who uses five dimensions to describe company cultures:

  • Power Distance Index (distribution of power)
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index (needing to know rules and structures)
  • Individualism / collectivism (teams and individuals)
  • Masculinity / femininity
  • Long-term orientation

Trompenaars (1997), who uses seven dimensions to describe different corporate cultures:

  • Universalism / particularism (general rules or individual cases)
  • Individualism / communitarianism (in teams)
  • Specific / diffuse (facts, data or using general feelings)
  • Neutrality / affectivity (i.e. showing emotions, becoming involved)
  • Inner-directed / outer-directed (control)
  • Achieved status / ascribed status (does your position alone give you status)
  • Sequential time / synchronic time (doing things step by step or all at the same time)

The Mole (1990) Model
Using a graph to plot two variables: (1) Leadership style: individual-based / group-based against; (2) Company structure: organic / systematic.

Whoever your students are, wherever they work in terms of geography, sector or professional area, the above techniques provide practical and theoretical ways of developing the vital skill of inter-cultural competence, working both with what you can see on the surface and with what is below in the cultural iceberg.


Chamberlain, J: Getting started in Intercultural Training, IATEFL Newsletter Spring 2003

Comfort, J: Coaching Across Cultures, (2005)

Gibson, R: Intercultural Business Communication, Oxford University Press 2002

Handy, C: Inside Organisations, London: BBC 1990

Heble, A: Cultural Interaction in the Classroom in the 21st Century, IATEFL Voices May–June 2006

Hofstede, G: Cultures and Organisations, London: McGraw Hill 1991

King, J F T: Surfing the Waves of Culture, BESIG Issues 3/2003

Mole, J: Mind your Manners, London: The Industrial Society 1990

Trompenaars, F and C. Hampden-Turner: Riding the Waves of Culture, London: Nicholas Brealey 1997

Utley, D: The Culture Pack, York: York Associates 2000