Runny nose? Please leave now

December 17, 2004

Few Britons would bat an eye if a lecturer sneezed, but Japanese would be shocked. Humphrey Evans says we must be more aware of the cultures of foreign students

I have resolved never to blow my nose in front of a class, but to go outside the room to do so - in Japan and some other cultures, the practice is considered nauseating. I've resolved not to cross one leg over the other in seminars to avoid the danger of being thought to have pointed my foot at someone - Arab cultures find this insulting. And I've resolved to make sure students know how they should address me and other teachers. With a group of Polish students, I had the experience of suddenly realising that they were unsure about how to get my attention. In their country, they told me, everything was formal: they would call a teacher "Sir". Here, I said, it was more usual to use a teacher's name and they could certainly do so with me. If the head of department were to join us in a discussion, they could do the same. But in a more formal setting, say at the certificate presentation, they should mark the formality by calling him Professor so-and-so. It's stuff that we, as lecturers, rarely think about.

A growing number of universities are addressing the problem of teaching students from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. The University of the Arts, for example, has just held a one-day training course on communicating across cultures for its lecturers. It was the first time it had run the course. Julie Allen, an adviser for international students, and Anne Bentley, a student counsellor, were the two trainers. They started the day by asking us each to say something about our names, pointing out that in some cultures names carry meanings in ways that they tend not to in Britain. Next we were put in small groups and instructed to think back to when we were about ten years old and discuss our families' attitudes towards things such as money, religion, art, women and travel. In my group, one person burst out: "I really can't believe how little has changed." When we were then asked to come up with a one-sentence definition of culture, the notion of an unquestioned background was obviously still strongly in our thoughts. It made sense, therefore, when Allen spoke about the clash of cultures coming when you hit the parts you can't see.

Then there are language difficulties. We were asked to speak without using certain letters to show how difficult it is using English as a second language and we watched a video made by the university's International Development Office offering advice from this generation of international students to the next. Over and over, the students said the most difficult thing to negotiate was language problems, but they gave hints on how to cope. One said: "If I can't understand, I just say, 'Please, slow, slow.'"

Allen added that if a student looked as though they were having difficulty understanding something, don't paraphrase. Rather, repeat exactly what you have said more slowly so that they can latch on to the individual words.

After the video, we went live. Students from Iran, China, Japan and Trinidad agreed to talk to us, and we began to perceive how cultural differences involved more than language. Students in Japan, for example, look forward to a cushy time at university after the rigours of entrance exams.

We started asking about their interactions with their teachers. One said her tutor thought international students were lazy because, she felt, he didn't understand how much time they had to put into, say, shopping or laundry because they have no support from friends or family.

Another complained of favouritism towards certain nationalities. Chinese students said they did not expect to ask questions in open class, but preferred to seek out the lecturer for individual discussions - time the British system doesn't allow for.

Language and time, and how to get round its limitations, kept coming up as we discussed what we had learnt during the day. We had our own experiences to share and had become aware of sources of advice, such as a 50-page British Council booklet, Feeling at Home , which offers guidance on issues of cultural awareness.

One participant said she asked her students to keep study journals; looking at these regularly revealed topics it would be useful to address. Another got students to write down questions that could be read out anonymously.

Another commented on the importance of giving students time for preparation, asking them, for example, to write out questions in advance.

Yet another pointed out that providing written material and references allowed students to check their recollections of a class.

At the London Business School, Christopher Earley, professor of organisational behaviour, has been developing cultural awareness courses for students based on a notion of cultural intelligence and offering them help if they want to adapt their behaviour. "We can offer exercises to help students figure out how to figure things out," he says.

In Australia, Shanton Chang has just completed a workshop on cultural diversity for colleagues at Melbourne University under the aegis of Isana, the Australia and New Zealand International Education Association. He says teachers "need to engage more fully with their students and understand them better, their cultural backgrounds, their attitudes to education and their expectations of the teacher-student roles".

With the number of international students likely to rise in British universities and a growing emphasis on the student as consumer, the need to cater for all our students' needs can only increase the demand for teachers who are culturally aware.

Humphrey Evans lectures at The University of the Arts

Further information:

"Cultural Intelligence", by C. Earley and E. Mosakowski, Harvard Business Review , October 2004 Feeling at Home , The British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN ( )
UKcosa, The Council for International Education, 9-17 St Albans Place, London N1 0NX( )


  • Put yourself in the student's place and try to understand their different expectations
  • Repeat questions more slowly if they don't understand and don't paraphrase
  • Get students to write down questions in advance or keep study journals
  • Provide written material and references so students can check what they have learnt in class

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