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Top 5 Ways to Take on Cultural Differences

Maureen St. George

As a teacher in foreign country, it’s inevitable you’ll come across something you just can’t quite comprehend, whether it’s verbal or nonverbal. More likely sooner than later, you’ll find that yes means no, refusing a fourth helping is an insult, or that restrooms will just never be like the ones back home.

But that’s okay! Being a teacher comes with the benefit of having staff, students and other teachers near who can help explain and demystify. To successfully take on cultural differences, it’s necessary to use all routes available to adjust more quickly and hopefully avoid – or at least put off – any embarrassing situations.

Everyone goes through an embarrassing episode or two when trying to figure out a new culture.

Use the Classroom as a Resource.
If teaching an older or more advanced group, talking about cultural norms is an excellent lesson with tons of potential. In addition to teaching new vocabulary and sentence structure, however, teachers can also have students describe what’s fine and what’s not in regards to posture, personal space and facial expressions at the dinner table, on a date, with the family, on the train, and so on. They probably have a million stories and they always enjoy hearing horrifying and/or hilarious stories from the teacher’s personal experience.

Gestures and Body Language
Discussing gestures is also a great way to open the floor to a classroom discussion and to also introduce gestures from around the world. It has the potential to become a little crude, so this might require a little planning ahead. It doesn’t all have to be insulting gestures though; for example, in China, the signal for the number 6 is also the ASL sign for the letter Y, which I never would’ve learned without the help of my students. Talking about regional gestures also dovetails nicely with a lesson about nonverbal communication. Another thing I learned from my students was that keeping my hands in my pockets was bad form, and so I had to learn to break that habit.


Instead of using the students as a crutch, research cultural norms beforehand and then run them by locals and students to see if these are things that are still held in high esteem or are changing rapidly. Chances are, in big cities, certain no-nos are not quite as scandalous in smaller towns and rural areas, but it’s impossible to know for sure until talking to those in the know. Knowing the basics of what’s appropriate should be considered a common courtesy, but it’s definitely necessary if going to a country where the concept of “losing face” holds great value.

Just like in all other aspects of life, be prepared to be flexible. Hate talking about money? You might have to get used to it, at least to a point. People from the US are particularly notorious for keeping quiet about money, specifically about the cost of rent or one’s salary. Don’t like to stand too close to others? Unless you’re prepared to be physically flexible, this may be inevitable. But of course, that’s not to say it’s time to renege on your non-negotiables. Which leads me to…

Don’t be afraid to say no. Or better yet, be aware of how to decline or shift to a different subject in various settings. I’m not a fan of personal questions, but that seems to be a luxury rather than a right in some situations. There might need to be some sort of compromise or better yet, a joke and a smile will do before heading the conversation in a different direction. If something makes you uncomfortable, you can politely decline or say no, but it’s also necessary to practice your poker face so you don’t look like a clueless tourist.


In addition to being flexible, it’s time to loosen up and laugh at yourself! Obviously, everyone goes through an embarrassing episode or two when trying to figure out a new culture. Having the ability to laugh at oneself may diffuse a situation that has potential to go really haywire, or it just lets everyone get a good laugh at the foreigner, which is also totally okay.

How do you take on cultural differences before or after arriving in a new country?

About the author

Maureen is a US-born, Hong Kong-based freelance editor and writer who has taught ESL all over the world. Traveling is her main hobby, and there's nothing she enjoys more than having a carefully planned trip go completely awry.