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More important cultural differences in the classroom

1. Hospitality and gift giving
Hospitality is not normally an issue actually during class time, but whether an invitation to meet outside the classroom should be met with a positive response and ignored until they invite you again (if they do), accepted and not forgotten under any circumstances, or can be met with a negative response varies from culture to culture. There might also be issues of whether making excuses should be done vaguely (“I’m a bit busy”) or with specific, if fake, reasons (“I am visiting a scalp specialist”). The issues are similar with gift giving, but also include whether you are supposed to reciprocate, and if so where the fine line with bribery lies. When and how you should open presents might also be an issue.

2. Attitudes to strangers
In the classroom this is mainly a matter of how many lessons you should wait before loosening up a little and telling them your true opinion, showing your human side etc. This generally correlates well with how long people in that culture would wait before calling someone they have met a friend.

3. Attitudes to grammar
This usually specifically depends on the education system in their culture, in teaching of both foreign languages or L1. For example, if they have been told prescriptive rules on what they should and shouldn’t say in L1 or the dominant language in their country, they might take longer to get used to descriptive grammatical explanations in English. Different countries also have differing amounts of grammar from almost zero to almost 90% in their English lessons, but negative reactions to school English lessons could leave them expecting the exact opposite from your classes.

4. Attitudes to games
I haven’t worked out more general cultural differences this might be connected to, but whether language games are considered useful for adults or not seems to vary from country to country.

5. Embarrassment
There might be differences in how easily people get embarrassed, what things embarrass them, and what the reaction (e.g. let them leave the room, make a joke of it, distract everyone with something else, apologise after for embarrassing them, ignore it) is best. Things that might embarrass people include praise, error correction, arriving late, not doing homework, misunderstanding tasks, being caught out on general knowledge, a lack of life experience such as travel abroad, standing too close to someone, suddenly realising a mistake they have been making for years, people waiting for them to speak, revealing personal information they would rather have kept private, and being asked to speak about taboo topics.

6. Teachers’ status
In countries where the status of teachers is very high there might be negative reactions to being seen smoking, drinking, wearing cheap or scruffy clothes (even in your free time), dating locals, public displays of affection etc, even if you see local people and even your students doing those things all the time. To give just one example, Thais do not generally expect middle class people such as teachers to wear flipflops when not on the beach.

7. Politeness
As there are different ways of being polite in different countries, this is more a case of different methods than different amounts in different cultures. For example, in Spain shopkeepers rarely say please and thank you but usually say hello and goodbye. As well as needing to be taught how to be polite in different countries, monolingual classes might also need the English equivalents of polite language that doesn’t really translate into English but they feel rude greeting each other without.

8. Grading and pacing
In different countries it might be most common in the schools system to move through the syllabus at the pace of the slowest, fastest or average students. This might also affect whether you let everyone finish an activity or cut some of the groups off in order to move onto the next point. This might also manifest itself in students accepting or even asking for mixed level classes with their friends or family members, or at the other extreme complaining about other students holding the class up.

9. Nationalism/ attitudes to foreign countries
The nearly universal one is that even if students criticize their own country, that doesn’t usually make it okay for an outsider to do so. There might also be particular issues between your country or the country mentioned in the textbook and the country where the students come from. Another thing to bear in mind is that what people say about their country has more to do with what is acceptable to say in their country or what they have been taught at school than it is necessarily a real representation of their feelings.

10. Positives and negatives
The meaning of “yes” and “no” and the way they are expressed vary in different countries. As well as differences in gestures and head movements, there might be differences in what “Yes” means (it could just mean “Yes, I am listening”) and how negative questions (“Don’t you like cats?”) are answered

11. Showing your real feelings
Some examples include whether it is okay for a teacher to show their anger, and whether it is acceptable to say bad things about your country, other countries and other people.

12. Names and titles
For example, in Japanese in-company classes students will expect the teacher to call them by their first names but might continue calling each other by their family names. Students might also make mistakes such as using Mr plus first name. Students might also call you “teacher” thinking it is an honorary title like “hodja”, “guru” or “sensei”.

13. Rules and flexibility
Students with a rigid idea of keeping to rules might have difficulty accepting teachers who are not strict about homework, not moving through the book at the agreed rate, skipping pages in the textbook, correcting only some of the errors in written work, allowing other students who are not quite the right level to stay in class etc. At the other extreme, students who expect the rules to bend with the circumstances might have problems if the class has started when they arrive 1 minute late, if they are not given a second chance to take a test, and if their friends are not allowed in the same class just because they are a different level.

14. Timekeeping
This can affect not only getting started and finishing, but also if you should wait until everyone has finished before moving onto the next activity, and whether you should allow extensions of time limits for homework.

15. Modesty
This can be an issue during needs analysis, classroom feedback questionnaires, student self-assessment, and with students asking to go up and down a level. It might also make some students unhappy about topics that could seem to result in them boasting, such as academic achievements.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net April 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Alex Case says:

    That’s an interesting point. I do have students who start reading aloud every time, but I’d also assumed it was just the way they had been taught English.

  • mohd abu amr says:

    silent reading can be another sign of difference among cultures.some people prefer reading anything available silently and some prefer to read aloud.so please if anyone has any new topic or idea about this matter, he/she is welcome to add whatever he/she likes!!

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Home and Abroad : More important cultural differences in the classroom