Culture Clash: Preparing ESL Business Students for the Cross-Cultural World

Culture Clash: Preparing ESL Business Students for the Cross-Cultural World

After teaching ESL for twelve years, I felt like a new challenge.

My school was struggling to hire ESL Business teachers, so I volunteered. I’m not trained in business or economics, but I found that a few hours’ research equipped me sufficiently to guide ESL students through the most important topics. Ultimately, it’s just another subject area, like the weather, or sports, or family life, and if you’re looking for a fresh challenge, I encourage you to give it a try.

One of the inevitable challenges of doing business in the twenty-first century is the global, multi-cultural way we now work. ESL Business students will, in all likelihood, spend much of their professional lives meeting, working and becoming friends with colleagues, suppliers and customers from all over the world. The unifying factor will be the use of English, which promises to continue as the world’s shared language, but in many other ways, our students will need to be adaptable, and above all sensitive to the background of those with whom they’re working.

To practice these important concepts, I work with my ESL Business groups to understand points of view, cultural traditions and philosophies of work which are very different from their own. This is both fascinating in its own right, and solid preparation for their professional lives.

3 Ideas for Preparing ESL Business Students for the Cross-Cultural World

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    A Starting Point: Welcoming a Visitor

    I pose my students a question: “If someone from a very different culture were to visit your country on business, what advice would you give them?”

    Students who are studying abroad already have some context for empathizing with such a visitor; additionally, basing this initial question on their home countries’ culture and business environment makes it an easier place to begin than, say, the US or UK.

    I’ve learned a great deal from these exchanges, and the advice my students give tends to fall into these categories:

    Etiquette: ‘Dos and Don’ts’, traditional greetings, expectations of dress, manner and comportment
    Surprises: The importance of being prepared to spontaneously give a speech (or, in one memorable case, sing a song for a large audience), go to a lavish but unexpected dinner, participate in drinking games, or meet a VIP without much in the way of preparation.
    Expectations: Gift-giving; traditional words of praise, conviviality and mutual respect (perhaps in the local language); the local attitude to time and punctuality

    One issue which crops up repeatedly – and I won’t euphemistically beat about the bush here – is corruption. It is woven into the business fabric of more countries than you might expect, and one of the quickest ways to alienate your potential colleagues and customers is to rail against these practices, which may have endured for centuries. When I discussed corruption with a group of advanced students, and wondered aloud whether accepting corruption might be immoral, or tantamount to cultural relativism, I was asked in turn, “So, do you want to succeed here, or not?”

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    Language: The ESL Issue

    This is a good time to review the basics of good communications skills, as well as the importance of listening, empathy and a willingness to bridge gaps. Remind your students that they may speak English to a much higher level than those with whom they’re working; brainstorm methods for simplifying their language and boosting their comprehensibility:

    • Keep sentences relatively short
    • Choose the simpler word – ‘important’, not ‘essential’ – even if this means somewhat compromising on clarity
    • Be aware of your use of jargon, technical language and slang
    • Be sensitive to a perception that you may be trying to sound intellectually superior, or that you’re using your English skills to bully or manipulate your colleagues. I’ve seen people arrive in these situations with an attitude of, “I speak better English than you, so you need to listen and do as I say”, and it can quickly wreck a potentially fruitful relationship.
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    Practice: Researching and Advising

    I assign my students a country from outside of the G20 – Kazakhstan, Bolivia, Brunei or Tanzania, for example – and ask them to thoroughly research the local business and cultural situation in order to produce a concise fact sheet. This would be intended to help a visitor find their feet (while avoiding cultural missteps). I invite them to consider these categories for research, and tend to provide some hints in the cases of countries with which I’m sure they’re not familiar:

    • Dress. Is a suit and tie expected, or is there a local alternative? How casual is the average office? (This is both so that the visitor knows what to expect, and so they can pack appropriately.)
    • Hierarchy. In the Robert Downey Jr. movie Air America, a visiting American diplomat steps off his plane and assumes that the first Vietnamese he sees is a baggage handler; of course, he’s the Supreme Commander of the region’s military, and the visit gets off to a rocky start. An understanding, in advance, of any relevant corporate or departmental structures will avoid embarrassment, and provide clarity as to the relevant influence and position of those with whom you’re dealing.
    • History. A little background might serve well; the story of the country’s independence, for example, or knowledge of a recent, major shift in political power.
    • Conflicts. Many of the world’s smaller economies are, or have been, in situations of conflict. A visitor needs to understand the parties involved and a little of the history, both to show a courteous interest in local affairs, and to avoid any faux pas (social errors).
    • Religion. One of my students put it perfectly: “Don’t travel without a reasonable understanding of the local faith system, whatever it might be.”
    • Time. This is a really key notion, because it varies widely from place to place. What exactly does, “See you at 6:30” mean? Would arriving at 6:40 make you catastrophically late? Or would a 7:30 arrival be perfectly acceptable? (I tell my students a story from my time in Fiji, a place I absolutely loved; upon asking what time the bus was coming, I was told, entirely without irony, “Thursday”.)

    The resulting fact sheet should be just that: it should stick to the facts. Remind your students that this isn’t the time for judgment, even if the culture they’re researching seems to clash with their own. Our visitor isn’t going to change reality simply by wishing it were so, and viewing cultural traditions just as the local people do is a great way to break the ice and become more accepted, not to mention respected, in a new place.

    Further this research by having your students write an imagined ‘diary’ of a business visit to one of these countries; this might not be the one they researched, and instead they could read the fact sheets prepared by others, to broaden their experience. I’ve had some great written pieces from my students, who imagine cultural screw-ups on day one which require humiliated backpedaling, horrendous alcohol-related disasters, and not a few notions which were ‘lost in translation’.

Cultivating an open and flexible attitude to the world’s cultures is not just good for business, and it does more than practice useful language skills; it reinforces the notion that all cultures are valid members of a world community, and that by better understanding each other, we can both prosper economically and achieve a greater sense of global unity.

This might sound like an awful lot to achieve in a couple of ESL Business lessons, but such classes are a great opportunity to plant some important seeds.

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