Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

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.