Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

Why this Learning Center?

Why this Learning Center?

American schools may be the envy of many nations, but a large portion of our students are not learning what they need to learn. There are many reasons for this, including curriculum that does not relate to their personal or ethnic histories and stereotyping that damages students' self confidence and lowers teachers' expectations of them.

But one reason that is common to both immigrant and Native American students can be fixed: difficulties that arise because the students are thrust into a cross-cultural situation. Learning the content that is expected of children is challenge enough -- but when you heap on top of that the requirement that students do so in a way that is uncomfortable or foreign to them, and add to that the fact that students are expected to figure out the communication system on their own without the guidance of adults -- you have a recipe for failure.

This can be fixed. First, teachers can learn to understand their own communication styles, then learn some tools for recognizing when students or other adults are used to different styles. What cultural groups do you encounter in your classroom? A check with your school guidance counselor can provide some inside information on both the groups and their preferred communication styles.

The last step is for the teachers to learn ways to bridge the gap between their own styles and those of their students. We designed this Learning Center to offer some helpful tools.

The ECHO partners (click here to learn about the partnership) are dedicated to discovering, modeling, and communicating best practices in cross-cultural communication. This quest comes naturally to us: we are six diverse organizations from four states, embodying dozens of different cultural heritages. Each meeting of our group is a challenge in cross-cultural communication.

As educational institutions, we are especially interested in helping children from diverse backgrounds stay engaged in school as they learn what it means to be contributing adults. Working with children can be challenging if the teachers' backgrounds are different from that of their students, because every day brings new opportunities for cross-cultural communication and -- invariably -- cross-cultural MIS-communication.

Over the ten years of the ECHO partnership, we have learned some valuable skills about interacting in respectful and meaningful ways across cultures in educational, institutional, personal, and social situations. This Learning Center, created by one of the partners (the North Slope Borough) with assistance from the other five, is dedicated to students and teachers everywhere who seek authentic ways to learn about the world through others' perceptual lenses.

Enduring Understandings

  • All humans communicate through language, body movements, and behavior.
  • Humans learn how to communicate by observing and copying those around them; in other words, communication is cultural.
  • Humans can learn more than one communication style.

Essential Questions:

  1. How do people communicate?
  2. How does communication vary in different cultures?
  3. How can I learn to communicate better in various cultural situations?
  4. How will this knowledge improve my teaching?


If you complete this Learning Center and undertake the suggested activities and readings, you will be able to:

  1. Describe your own cultural background and its effects on your personal communication style;
  2. Recognize when communication break-downs are caused by cultural differences;
  3. Explore scholarly and popular literature about cross-cultural communication;
  4. Teach your students how to recognize their own cultural communication styles;
  5. Repair breakdowns in communication caused by cultural misunderstandings;
  6. Illustrate communication styles with examples from a variety of cultures.

In this Learning Center . . .

you will explore your own comfort zone through seven exercises that can broaden that zone, depending on where you are and whom you're communicating with.

To begin: these two women met each other on a street corner in a village in rural France. It took no time at all for them to position themselves directly facing each other no more than elbow-distance away.

Now consider: Is this the way you communicate when you encounter a friend or acquaintance?

What is Your Style?: An Orientation Exercise

What is Your Style?: An Orientation Exercise

If communication styles sometimes get in the way of clear communication, and if teaching and learning are largely communication, then it is necessary for teachers to learn their own styles and compare them with those of their students. This exercise will get you started.

Exercise One Instructions: You’ll need to cooperate with two colleagues or friends to do this exercise. And you'll need to download and print copies of the Communication Style Observation Log.
1.    Choose a topic to talk about – something that’s interesting and engaging to all three of you.
2.    You will discuss the topic in dyads – first your two friends with each other, then you with one of the friends, then you with the other friend. Spend five minutes in each dyad.
3.    As your friends are talking, observe various aspects of their communication styles; use the Observation Log to guide your observations. Write down anything you notice on the chart. Fill in one chart for each person you observe.
4.    When you are engaged in conversation, your friends will observe you and record your behavior.
5.    When the three of you have completed all three observations, share what you’ve learned.
6.    On the other side of your charts, write your reactions: did anything surprise you? Do you think your friends missed something important about your communication style?

Ice Berg Graphic Organizer

You have just observed examples of "deep" or unstated culture and communication. The ways you and your colleagues communicated with each other extended beyond words to expressions, actions, tone of voice, and so on. These are tools that all humans use -- but different cultures use different tools.

To learn more about the various facets of cross-cultural communication, download a document prepared in 1978 by Frank Gonzales here. The document provides more details on the parts of your culture and communication that can be hidden or left unstated, but which are nonetheless an integral part of the way you interact with others.

As you read through the list, think of where you, and your friends and colleagues, fit in the continuum of human communication styles.

Exercise Two: What are your proxemics?

Here's an example of "deep" culture. In 1966, anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the word "proxemics" to designate the distance and stance that are culturally appropriate when people are engaged in conversation. The two French women on the first page of this Learning Center are exhibiting a proxemic style that is very French, but would seem slightly uncomfortable, or at least different, to most Americans.

To measure the conversational distance you find most comfortable, try this experiment. It works best if there are several people involved. All you'll need is a tape measure and paper to record your findings.

  1. Choose a partner. Stand together as if you had just run into each other in a store and are talking about something that is of mutual interest.
  2. When you feel comfortable (i.e., at the "right" distance from that person), measure the distance from your mouth to your partner's mouth. Mark it on a graduated line on your paper.
  3. If your partner feels more comfortable at a different distance, stand in the way that he or she prefers, measure, and again mark the distance.
  4. If a number of people are measuring their comfort zones at the same time, have each mark his or her distance on the line. Consider color-coding the points according to gender or cultural heritage.
  5. Look at the line with its marks, and discuss your findings. Some potential discussion topics: a) How much variability is there in the group's proxemics? b) What factors determine your comfort zone in speaking with another person? c) If your partner liked to stand closer to you than you did to him or her, how did this make you feel? d) if your partner liked to stand farther away from you than you did from him or her, how did this make you feel?
  6. Unless you performed this experiment with thousands of people, your findings are not statistically valid -- but they do indicate an important part of your own cultural communication style that you might not have been aware of.

Now consider: How could different proxemics affect your ability to communicate with someone from a different culture? How might they affect the way you communicate with your students?

You can do this exercise with your students, too. Expand it into a math lesson by having them graph the results. Expand it into a science lesson by discussing the validity and replicability of the experiment.

Examples: The Cultural Basis of Communication

Examples: The Cultural Basis of Communication

We communicate across cultures when we meet someone from a different background, but we also communicate across cultures when we read or hear about other peoples. American schools are full of stories and images, and the values that are imbedded in them. But we don't always notice these unspoken, implicit aspects of culture if we grew up in the culture that produced the works.

What happens if our students are not from the same backgrounds as the books they read? Similarly, what happens if we teachers are confronted with ideas and narratives that come from different cultural backgrounds? How and what can we learn from them? And how can we better understand our students' cross-cultural experiences and help them bridge the cultural gaps they encounter every day in school?

In 2003, Upper Tanana Athabascan elder Shirley Jimerson discussed her experiences learning to communicate in a cross-cultural situation for a video produced by the Anchorage School District. In this video, she adds a twist -- though herself originally from the village, she found that she had adopted an urban communication style that she needed to tweak when she went back to a rural Alaska camp setting.

Shirley mentions her sense of time. Consider the way you adapt to the clock or to natural rhythms in your daily and professional lives. Have you noticed marked differences in your sense of appropriate timing and those of your co-workers or associates?

Communicating through stories

Most people grow up being told certain stories over and over, so it's natural that we consider the stories we were told typical and standard. We tend to evaluate and understand all other stories as if they're just like the ones we know.

Here's an example: The three little pigs. If you grew up hearing this story as a child, think of all the information the image on the left distills:

  1. Wolves are thought of as mean, hungry, scary, and smart.
  2. Pigs are considered stupid and laughable but are harmless and lovable as well.
  3. Since there are three pigs, even if we haven't heard the story, we can guess that they will have three chances to get something right, but only one of them will succeed.
  4. The style of the picture tells us that this is a make-believe story.
  5. Another clue that this is make-believe is the fact that animals are wearing clothes.

Most Americans can tell the entire story of the Three Little Pigs based on this one image. It's imbedded in our consciousness based on years of repetition.

Exercise Three: Add to your story repertoire

Humans have used stories as a primary mode of instruction since our ancestors developed language, but as you'll see below, not all stories are the same.

For lesson plans and ideas on using stories in the classroom, visit this web site, or others like it.

For culture-based storytelling lesson plans, visit the following Learning Centers on


Folk traditions beyond fairy tales

Children from indigenous cultures, both Native American and Hawaiian Native, are attuned to learning from stories. Learning to tell and use stories in an educational context are excellent skills to put in your teacher toolkit.

And while you're practicing your storytelling skills, it's important to remember that not all folk traditions -- including orally told stories -- are fairy tales. In fact, many traditional Alaska Native stories, like the sukdu, or ancient stories, retold in this book by Dena'ina Elder Peter Kalifornsky, tell about animals in a very different way than do the European fairy tales that fill library shelves.

These animals can talk, just as can the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, and they sometimes wear (fur) clothing, but this is not an indication that the stories were made up. In fact, the stories are considered true and essential to a child's education, because they explain why people must behave in respectful and proper fashions. Animals are often the best teachers in these stories.

[Note: To learn more about Dena'ina culture, visit the KNBA web site.]

Storytelling Conventions

Even though every group of people tells stories, the way we tell them varies from culture to culture.

Consider the Yup'ik method that Vernon Chimegalrea describes in the sort video on "Taking What You Learn Into the Classroom" page of this Learning Center. The audience is expected to sit quietly and patiently and not ask questions, and certainly not interrupt!

In this photo, Hawaiian storyteller Tom Cummings demonstrates a dramatic method. You can see him perform in the Maui and the Creation of the Islands Learning Center.

Comparison of Stories That Appear Similar

A comparison of the underlying rules, values, and understandings of the stories from two different cultural backgrounds, Sugpiaq (for information on Sugpiaq/Alutiiq culture visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center web site) and European, shows that what appear similar actually communicate very different understandings about the nature of the world.

Sugpiaq unigkuaq (or ancient story):

  • Time: It takes place "when the earth was thin" and people and animals could enter each others' worlds with ease. This is an actual, though undatable time.
  • Setting: Usually local, for instance referring to a bay or landform close at hand.
  • Characters: Characters might be specific beings like the mythological Raven who created many aspects of the world, or generalized characters such as a brown bear or an orphan boy.
  • Truth: Considered true.
  • Supernatural: What are nowadays considered supernatural or magical events were considered a normal part of life, and still are by many Sugpiaq people today.
  • Hero's goal: The most common goal in an unigkuaq is the establishment of social balance (no one should be too rich or too poor, for instance), or the creation of the current social order. In general, the individual hero is less important to the story than the health and welfare of the group.

European fairy tale (which on the surface seems very much like an unigkuaq):

  • Time: "Once upon a time" -- a make-believe time with no relationships to historic time.
  • Setting: Usually "in a kingdom" or, in the case of the Three Little Pigs, an unidentified location.
  • Characters: Often "everyman" names such as Jack or Sleeping Beauty or the youngest brother.
  • Truth: Considered untrue, make-believe.
  • Supernatural: Characters are able to do "magical" things and are therefore not considered factual.
  • Hero's goal: Individual wealth, safety, or a rich spouse. Although not all fairy tales strive for victory by the individual, individuality is often celebrated.

What's the Harm in Misunderstanding?

Folklore from many cultures is treated with far greater respect than are European fairy tales in America. In many parts of the world, stories are owned and have copyright, just as if they had been published in print. Others are sacred. Still others are meant to entertain and instruct. But in all cases, stories were carefully passed down by master storytellers who spent years learning them correctly.

So, first, folklore from other cultures deserves respect.

Second, if we assume that all oral traditions contain the same values or understandings or messages, we miss out on essential information about the cultures and about the ways we can become better human beings through the stories' examples. When a Dena'ina storyteller describes the experiences of the girl who lived with salmon for a year, then returned to the world of humans, she is giving crucial information about how humans must depend on salmon for survival, and must do so in a way that ensures the continuation of salmon runs. This is a matter of life and death, not simply an entertaining tale.

Exercise Four: How do we learn?

Now back to communicating in a classroom setting. Learning is communication, so it stands to reason that if humans communicate in a variety of different ways, we also learn in different ways. For example, a great deal of research has uncovered some general differences between the ways little boys and little girls learn.

And there are also cultural differences. More about this later -- but to see an example of an Iñupiaq woman learning about making sinew thread, watch the beginning of this video. Look at the woman holding the basket; she is wearing a white tee-shirt and apron. Observe:

  • How much and in what way she moves

  • How much she says

  • What her eyes are doing

What did you notice? How does her behavior compare with yours, should you be in a similar situation?

It's Not All About Words

It's Not All About Words

Bill Watterson's Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes (c) comic strip asks his mom for a snack. She offers carrots and celery. His hand in the cookie jar, he says, "We're both talking in English but we're not speaking the same language."

Cross-cultural communication (as well as cross-generational communication, as in the comic strip) can be like that. Beneath the words are understandings of what those words mean. Tlingit elder Shirley Kendall recalls the snacks she and her brother were given more than 60 years ago when they were at their family fishcamp in Southeast Alaska: one piece of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread (c). For Calvin and uncounted others, a snack is a cookie. In other parts of the world, it might be a mango or stalk of sugar cane. The same word conjures up different images to different people.

And it isn't just vocabulary that can be understood differently in different cultures. When we communicate with each other, we say more than words alone can convey. Watch master storyteller Len Cabral make the point in this videotape that it's not just what you say, but how you say it. The tape was recorded in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

To go even further: As we saw earlier in this Learning Center, it's not just words that convey meaning. We use our faces, bodies, tone of voice, volume, and rate of speech when we talk to each other.

The chart at the left, downloaded from the Indiana Department of Education, illustrates the fact that only a small portion of what we communicate comes through words. The rest is invisible, or implicit rather than explicit, just as 90% of an iceberg is hidden beneath the water's surface.

It's not that we're trying to be secretive about all the parts of our culture and communication that are invisible -- rather, we're often not aware that they're there. They're invisible to others and also, often, to ourselves as well.

This is because we learned how to communicate as infants. We were never instructed outright, for instance, "Be sure to talk quickly and touch the person you're talking to." We learned by observing and being given positive reinforcement for doing what others do.

Remember the exercise where you measured your comfort zone when engaging in a conversation? That's an example of a rule that you learned without ever having direct instruction about it. Yet it is so deeply ingrained in you that if someone violates your sense of space you become not only uncomfortable, but you may actually come to resent the person who unknowingly behaves in a way that you consider inappropriate.

Another example is in how long we wait between asking a question and expecting an answer. If the teacher expects an answer before students are culturally ready to give it, his or she might mistakenly believe that they don't know. In the United States, teachers often engage in two common reactions to silence after asking a question: they either rephrase it (perhaps more slowly or loudly) or they supply the answer themselves, uncomfortable with the silence from their students.

In fact, there are measurable differences in wait times, and these are culturally learned behaviors. The average wait time for non-Native teachers in the US is .5 seconds -- that's half a second. In contrast, Alaska Native children in most parts of the state wait a full three seconds before they answer. This is a sign of respect, indicating that they are taking the question seriously and giving its response careful consideration.

Exercise Five: What Does Your Iceberg Look Like?

Using the iceberg image, fill in blanks about your own cultural communication style. For instance,

  • How do you show respect?
  • How prompt must you be in order to be considered "on time"?
  • What body language do you use to express meaning?
  • What are the customs that surround an everyday dinner at your house?
  • How long must you know someone before telling him or her your life story?
  • How fast do you talk?
  • Etc.

Tlingit elder Shirley Kendall learned to speak English when she attended school in the Alaska village of Hoonah. But, as this video segment (recorded in 2003 for the Anchorage School District) shows, she learned more than words when she learned English.

Dialect differences, like the one Shirley discusses, are interesting to linguists because they can help pinpoint a person's geographic origins. But they are also often fraught with values. Village English, as it is called in Alaska, shares with Ebonics a negative connotation. People who speak "standard English" often mistakenly perceive ignorance, laziness, or stupidity when they hear another dialect or accent.

Consider the various dialects and accents you encounter in your school setting. Do any of them carry a stigma? How does that stigma affect the way students are perceived or achieve?

Exercise Six: Try this . . .

Now it's time to use observational skills to try to figure out what's being communicated in various parts of the world. Look at the photos on this page. For each one (some have titles that will be helpful), see if you can figure out:

  1. What's happening?
  2. What does this picture tell you about the way people express their culture?
  3. What does this picture tell you about proxemics?
  4. What does this picture tell you about the way people in this culture communicate with one another?
  5. What can you tell about the values the people hold dear, based on this picture?
  6. What can you NOT tell from this picture? In other words, what additional pieces of cultural information do you need in order to understand what's being communicated?

Taking What You Learn into the Classroom

Taking What You Learn into the Classroom

In this video made in 2003 for the Anchorage School District, Yup'ik linguist Vernon Chimegalrea explains how he changed his behavior from being a "good Yup'ik" to being a good student in the Western sense.

Vernon's experience is repeated even today in Alaska's many villages, where the culture of the classroom is determined primarily by the teachers, most of whom come from the Lower 48 or from mainstream Western culture.

A challenge for teachers is to meet the students partway -- to alter their own classroom behavior at least as much as they are asking their students to change theirs.

Research About Strategies Appropriate to Alaska Native Students

Researchers have questioned why the Western model of education works so poorly among Native students ever since such schooling was brought to Indian Country.

in 1908, educator George Wharton James reported, "Again and again when I have visited Indian schools the thoughtful youths and maidens have come to me with complaints about the American history they were compelled to study . . . "When we read in the United States history of white men fighting to defend their families, their homes, their corn-fields, their towns, and their hunting grounds, they are always called 'partriots,' and the children are urged to follow the example of these brave, noble, and gallant men. But when Indians -- our ancestors, even our own parents -- have fought to defend us and our homes, corn-fields, and hunting-grounds they are called vindictive and merciless savages, bloody murderers, and everything else that is vile."

In Alaska, beginning in the 1970s ethnographic research (Kleinfeld 1972, Barnhardt 1977 and many following), video studies (Collier 1979), and historical investigation (Ongtooguk 2000) have provided answers.

Kleinfeld found that the most effective teachers were what she called "warm and demanding." They established personal relationships with the students but expected high quality in their work.

Collier filmed two sets of teachers without sound in a rural Athabascan classroom in Alaska. The films showed clearly that the rhythm, flow, and motions of the Athabascan teachers created a sort of smooth dance with the students, whose rhythm, flow, and motions were complementary. The non-Native teachers' actions were quicker and more angular. Instead of a smooth dance with students, the film shows competing styles of nonverbal communication with students moving one way and the teachers another.

Demmert (2005) surveyed all literature dealing with the education of Native American youth. He reported that the following components support effective education for Native students:

1) Cultural Compatibility Theory: the closer human interactions in the school and in the classroom are aligned with those of the community, the greater the likelihood that the goals of the school will be reached;

2) Cognitive Theory: for learning to occur, relevant prior knowledge in a person’s long term memory must be stimulated or utilized;

3) Pedagogical Theory: teaching strategies must be congruent with the traditional culture as well as contemporary ways of knowing and learning;

4) Sociological Theory: traditional cultural characteristics and adult-child interactions are stressed as the starting place for one’s education;

5) Authentic Assessment: Culturally-based methods of assessing student performance are most effective.

Other researchers have noticed some basic and fairly easy-to-incorporate insights into effective practices when working with Native students:

  • Determine your students' preferred communication and learning styles, and identify your own. Decide how to stretch yourself and your students.
  • Work with parents; involve them in the process (this can be challenging if the parents themselves had bad experiences in school and are therefore reluctant to engage in a school setting)
  • Keep in mind that most Native communities allow children to make their own decisions at an early age. Involve the students in setting protocols, determining what they want to learn, posting classroom rules, and determining appropriate classroom practices.
  • Think of the classroom as a community -- ideally, an extension of the community you're in. Learning is a collaboration between teacher and student.

For more information about educational strategies appropriate to Native American students, visit the Culture and Change Learning Center on this web site.

What about non-traditional methods?

In less technical language, Demmert's findings are that the most effective instruction for Native American children closely follows their communication styles, has content that references the students' own experiences, is taught in the way that children are taught at home, involves a team of support for the student beyond a single teacher, and asks the child to demonstrate knowledge or skills in a way that is culturally appropriate.

This does not mean that non-traditional activities such as computer labs can't be used. In fact, in Anchorage a new on-line program for Native students who are short on graduation credits is having success. One key is that, like these children, the students actually meet as a group periodically to establish a learning community. Although their direct interactions are with the computer screen, they constantly chat with and support one another as they work their way through the lessons.

A web search for Cross-Cultural Communication leads to thousands of sites, including a number of entertaining and enlightening videos as well as teaching strategies and activity ideas.

Hands-on Learning: Everyone Responds, Right?

Hands-on learning in a guided practice setting is effective with almost all students. But the way the learning occurs is not necessarily the same in all cultures.


A case in point was a class in basket weaving presented in the city of Anchorage by two Yup'ik master basket makers. The students sat around a table, each with grass in front of them. The two women, one of whom spoke no English, sat at their places and began weaving. No one talked. Soon the students picked up the grass and peered closely at their teachers, trying to imitate them. At that point, the teachers stood up and walked over to the students and helped them begin the coil, one by one. The entire class proceeded in this fashion, with very little talk, lots of observation, expert modeling, and gentle correction.

The teachers' method was deliberate and in keeping with Yup'ik ideas about how people learn. When a student started trying to weave, the teachers knew she was open to instruction, and went over to help her. They did not try to teach until the student exhibited readiness. So, although the teachers were the acknowledged holders of the information, it was the students who signaled what they wanted to learn and when the instruction would occur.

Examples from Alaska

The next three short videos made in Barrow, Alaska, contrast two methods of teaching: a language-centered approach in which the learner reads the instructions and then follows them, and an observation/hands-on approach in which the learner observes the teacher and tries to mimic her behavior.

North Slope Borough School District teachers continue to decipher written instructions. Keep watching!

The workshop participants' attempts are finally rewarded when teacher Jana Harcharek leads the way. Both the skill (cutting up frozen raw maktak, or whale blubber) and the method (little discussion, demonstration and close observation, and supportive mentoring) are traditional Iñupiaq practices.

Learning and Communication Style Typologies

A great deal of research and many web sites are devoted to learning styles. The simplest divides students into visual, auditory, or kinesthetic/tactile learners. Click on the link highlighted here to take a test to learn your own learning style.

A more thorough typology deals with what are called "multiple intelligences." The idea behind it is that IQ tests assess only a small portion of what it takes to be a successful, intelligent human being. Our species could not have survived with the skills that are measured by IQ tests alone, nor can an individual be successful at life and work with only an intellectual understanding of the world. Much research has gone into defining other types of intelligent. The most accepted list includes:

a.    Linguistic
b.    Logical-mathematical
c.    Musical
d.    Spatial
e.    Bodily-kinesthetic
f.     Interpersonal
g.    Intrapersonal
h.    Naturalist

Exercise Seven: Your Learning Style

Go to this web site and take the survey to identify your own style. You'll find that you, like everyone, have multiple strengths, but many people find one or two dominant areas and one or two very weak areas.

Now do an informal survey of your teaching style. Do you, like most people, teach to your strengths? Consider: what happens to those students who have different learning styles? How do you accommodate their needs?

Another widely used typology was developed by Dunn and Dunn to measure student preferences in immediate environment, emotionality, sociological factors, physiological factors, and processing inclinations. This web site link can tell you more about their typology.

The important thing for teachers to know is that you tend to teach to your strengths. In other words, if you're strongly logical-mathematical, you will design lessons and strategies that call on those faculties in your students. Once you have identified your own profile, you can use that information to stretch yourself so you can deal more effectively with your students.

Studies of Native American students have not shown them to have strong dominance in one area or another. Instead, as a group their styles seem to be diverse, with some degree of strength in each of the eight realms.

Exercise Seven Continued: Where Do You Fit In?

Look at the photographs on this page, each showing a different teaching and learning situation. Imagine yourself teaching and learning in these settings. Which seem most natural? Which reflect the way your classroom operates most often? What can you imagine doing differently to engage students who might have different communication or learning styles from yours?

Specifically, when you look at the picture on the right, what can you learn about the proxemics, or spatial positioning, of the people? What culture's practices seem to be dominant here?

Practice makes -- well -- better!

Practice makes -- well -- better!

Following are some tips that can ease the discomfort inherent in many cross-cultural situations. Practice these and you'll notice the difference almost immediately.

Here is a caviat: there is plenty of diversity in the way urban and suburban Americans communicate, so if some of the following suggestions assume that your style is different from the way it really is, either ignore the advice or adapt it so it works for you.

  1. "You talk too much." This is a generalization, of course, but in general, Americans raised in urban or suburban parts of the country are often perceived as being extremely talkative -- so much so that less talkative people have trouble getting a word in edgewise. They might even perceive the talkers as uninterested in what others have to say, or as trying too hard to be liked. Those who like to talk, on the other hand, often see themselves as friendly. And they might see their quieter acquaintances as overly reserved or even stuck up. The suggestion is, LISTEN BEFORE YOU TALK.
  2. "You talk too fast." This is another charge that is common. There are regional differences, of course. New York City is known as the home of fast-talkers, while those on the West Coast tend to speak more slowly -- but even these "slow" talkers of the west are too quick for the comfort of English language learners or certain ethnicities -- such as Alaska Natives -- who are more comfortable with a slower, more relaxed pace. The suggestion, to SLOW DOWN -- is not without its funny side. A common joke among Alaska Natives involves a white person visiting a village and s-p-e-a-k-i-n-g v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. The Native hosts whisper to each other, "She must have been in a cross-cultural communication workshop!"
  3. "You seem to feel a need to determine the topic of conversation." This is a matter of status: usually the person with higher status in a relationship gets to set the topic. Think of a meeting with your boss; who starts the discussion and sets the agenda? Even in a situation where people are of equal status, though, it sometimes seems as though the urban/suburban person takes charge from the beginning. That individual might not intend to take over, but rather is just trying to get the ball rolling in the absence of conversation by the other person. The suggestion is to BE PATIENT, to see if the other person has something important he or she wants to talk about.
  4. "You never give me a chance to get a word in edgewise!" Like talking too fast, this charge has to do with "pausing too fast." What that means is that in every conversation people take turns. We learn when it's our turn to talk by subtle cues, such as a nod of the head or, most often, a pause. The problem is that pauses in mainstream American culture tend to be very short (about half a second), while those in other cultures might be up to six times as long. Imagine what happens when a person is waiting for a nice comfortable pause to talk and none pops up? On the other hand, the person with the short pause time waits for what seems like an eon for his or her partner to talk, and when nothing is said, might blurt out something in desperation just to fill the airspace. The suggestion: AFTER YOU ASK A QUESTION OR MAKE A COMMENT, WAIT FOR A RESPONSE FOR AS LONG AS IT TAKES.
  5. "You're always filling the air with talk." Have you observed that in American culture we don't like silence? If you want to test this, just ask a question in front of a group of high school students. If no one answers immediately, what do you do? It feels very uncomfortable -- like no one is listening or cares about your topic -- when you don't get immediate feedback. In contrast, most Native cultures value silence. It communicates the fact that your conversation partner is listening, valuing, and contemplating what's been said. It's also a sign of respect. And it gives the listener time to incorporate the new information into his or her own database. The suggestion: DON'T BE AFRAID OF SILENCE.
  6. "You stare at me and make me feel uncomfortable." In some cultures it's a sign of respect to look someone straight in the eye. In others it's an act of defiance. In still others it's an invasion of privacy. The suggestion: LEARN THE LOCAL CUSTOM ABOUT EYE CONTACT AND OTHER GESTURES AND NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION.
  7. "You're too close -- or too far away -- for comfort." Remember the exercise where you measured your proxemics -- your comfort zone -- when talking to a friend? If you feel uncomfortable, or if you notice that your conversation partner is either backing away from you or seems to be crowding you, then it's most likely a case of different proxemics. The suggestion: BE ATTUNED TO YOUR OWN AND OTHERS' PROXEMICS. You might have to suffer a bit of discomfort to conform to local norms, but it's worth it.
  8. "You jump into business mode without giving me a chance to get comfortable with you." In many societies around the world, a person would never discuss business immediately after walking into a room or meeting someone. It's important to first establish a relationship, determine the status of the various parties, and feel a degree of trust. Americans, as a rule, tend to leap into the main topic without protocol or fanfare. They consider it respectful of a gathering not to "waste time" with social matters, but rather get right down to business, while those from other cultures in the same meeting might perceive this practice as showing a lack of respect. The suggestion: ATTEND TO LOCAL PROTOCOL. You might have to do some research ahead of time, or simply observe others in the room before you leap ahead with your agenda.

Oops! How Can You Repair a Goof?

Oops! How Can You Repair a Goof?

The Native peoples of North America have engaged in cross-cultural situations since time immemorial. A look at the cultural mosaic of Alaska alone shows that long before Vitus Bering's ships plowed the waters, there were 20 separate languages spoken -- and people regularly traded and interacted with their "foreign" neighbors.

But with the dawning of the colonial era the nature of cross-cultural communication changed. Status, power, and wealth became the overriding factors, and cultural differences became not just differences, but matters of shame or pride, depending on the individual's ethnicity.

North America's Native people are still dealing with the legacy of the colonial days; now they find themselves in the minority, their parents and grandparents having been forced to learn how to communicate in English, and in the manner of mainstream America.

The task for the teacher is to perceive when cultural differences are interfering with learning, and try to accommodate the styles of the students.

But what if, despite a person's strongest effort, there are still problems and hurt feelings?

There is no easy nor sure-fire method for repairing mistakes, because our very beings are intertwined with our cultural selves to such an extent that what is inappropriate culturally feels personally insulting. Remember how you felt when someone stepped away from you when you were talking, a move prompted when you inadvertently stepped into his or her personal space? You felt as if the other person thought there was something wrong or unpleasant about you and didn't want to talk to you. In that situation, you supplied the MOTIVE for the other person's actions based on your own cultural understanding, when the only information you really had was the BEHAVIOR itself. In effect, you filled in the bottom part of the iceberg with your own cultural lens rather than with that of your conversation partner.

This is both human and necessary. We need shortcuts to make sense of the world. As this Learning Center has demonstrated, most of what we perceive from others is not spoken, but still expected to be understood.

So, it's inevitable that we will be sometimes hurt or insulted, as will others we deal with. Here are a few suggestions. Try them and if they don't ease the situation, move on. You might just have to prove yourself through future actions, accepting the fact that the impressions you left in the past are there to stay.

  1. Acknowledge to yourself that at least part of the problem is probably due to cultural differences.
  2. Apologize for your behavior. It doesn't work to say, "IF I offended you, I'm sorry." The truth is, you HAVE offended someone, and need to leave your sense of injustice (that you were wrongly considered a boor) behind you, and deal with the behavior alone.
  3. Observe the person or local group and figure out what would have been appropriate behavior.
  4. Analyze what you did or said against the many aspects of human communication styles that you encountered when you did the Cultural Style Observation exercise.
  5. Practice a new approach based on your observations and self-assessment.
  6. Shake it off and start again. Most people are forgiving if they see you trying to repair a goof. And since everyone in a cross-cultural situation was once new to that experience, everyone can relate to the first few fumblings. If you establish a long-term relationship with the person or people in question, your early behavior might well become part of a funny story that you and your new friends can enjoy and laugh about for many years.

Assessment: What Did You Learn?

Assessment: What Did You Learn?

What have you learned? Have you tried the seven exercises described in this Learning Center? Have you practiced some of the skills they suggest?

To assess your growth in the field of cross-cultural communication, do the following:

  1. Describe your own cultural background and its effects on your personal communication style.
  2. Describe a time when a communication break-down was caused by cultural differences.
  3. Describe what you did to repair the situation. What might you do differently in the future?
  4. Did you explore scholarly and popular literature about cross-cultural communication by referring to various links in this Learning Center and checking out the References page?
  5. Did you try any of the exercises in this Learning Center with your students? Did you discuss with them how to recognize their own cultural communication styles?
  6. Did you design an exercise of your own that you can share? If so, please type it into the Comments box at the bottom of this page.
  7. Can you illustrate communication styles with examples from a variety of cultures?

Academic and Cultural Standards

Academic and Cultural Standards

Geography Standards

National and most state standards in Geography address issues in cross-cultural communication and understanding.

NSS-G.K-12.2, Places and Regions

As a result of their activities K-12, all students should

  • Understand how culture and experience influence people's perceptions of places and regions.

NS-G.K-12.4, Human Systems

As a result of their activities K-12, all students should

  • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

Cultural Standards

In 1998, the state of Alaska adopted Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools (click on this link for a complete list). Separate sets of standards were developed for:

  • Students
  • Educators
  • Schools
  • Curriculum
  • Communities

If your state does not have cultural standards, Alaska's list can serve as a reference point and model.



There are a number of web sites devoted to cross-cultural communication. Many are links within this Learning Center. Others can be accessed by Googling "Cross-Cultural Communication." In addition, the following books and articles are a good start. If you know of other resources that are especially helpful, please note them in the Comments box at the bottom of this page.

Barnhardt, Ray (1977). Administrative Influences in Alaskan Native Education. Cross-Cultural Issues in Alaskan Education. R. Barnhardt. Fairbanks, AK, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, UAF. I: 57-63.

Collier, M. (1979). A Film Study of Classrooms in Western Alaska. Fairbanks, AK: Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska.

Demmert, W. G., Jr. (2005). The influences of culture on learning and assessment among Native American students. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 16-23.

Erickson, F., and Mohatt, G. (1982). Cultural organization of participation strtuctures in two classrooms fo Indian students. In G.D. Spindler (ed.), Doing the ethnography of schooling: Educational ethnography in action (pp. 132-174). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

First Alaskans Foundation (FAF).  (2001).  Alaska Native Education Study:  A Statewide Study of Alaska Native Values and Opinions Regarding Education in Alaska.  Anchorage, Alaska:  The McDowell Group.
First Alaskans Institute (FAI). (2005). Alaska Native K-12 Indicators, 2004. Anchorage, Alaska: McDowell Group.

Kleinfeld, Judith (1972). Effective Teachers of Indian and Eskimo High School Students. Fairbanks: ISEGR.

Ongtooguk, P. (2000). Aspects of Traditional Inupiaq Education. Retrieved from

Philips, S.U. (1972). Participant structures and communicative competence: Warm Springs children in community and classroom. In C. Cazden, V.P. John and D. Hymes (Eds.), Functions of language in the classroom (pp. 370-394). New York: Teachers College Press.

Reyhner, Jon (ed.) (1992). Teaching American Indian Students. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Tharp, Roland G. (2006). Four hundred years of evidence: Culture, pedagogy, and native America. Journal of American Indian Education, V. 45, N. 2, Special Issue Guest Editors, Peggy McCardle & William Demmert (pp. 6-23).

Scollon, Ron and Suzanne B.K. (1980) Interethnic Communication. Alaska Native Language Center. Fairbanks.