Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

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?