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4.1 Cultural Differences

durenmgmail-com November 9, 2021

Cultural Difference in the classroom

For ESL Teachers, understanding cultural differences is just as significant as knowing appropriate techniques or acquiring adequate teaching material. Not only is understanding required, but a commitment to promote positive activities in and out of the classroom to ease cultural conflict is an absolute must.


In western countries, we are usually taught not to stare at people who are ‘different’. This is drummed into us from an early age. We are taught that it is insulting. However, in some countries, they do not have this social inhibition. For an EFL/ESL teacher, this means that in some countries, you will be stared at often. At first, this can feel rude, but you will eventually learn that it is nothing more than a social norm unfamiliar to you.

Let us look at a shortlist of cultural differences and a few examples that may arise in class.

  1. Body language and gestures

It is easy to research the country’s common body language and gestures where the students are from. The list of gestures by the students or teachers that could be found offensive or misinterpreted is vast; the number of totally universal human gestures is very few. In the classroom, particular things to look out for include pointing at people, gesturing “okay”, holding up different fingers to represent numbers, etc. It is important to note that with any of these gestures is that people do not stop finding it offensive even when they know that it has a different meaning in another country.

  • Making mistakes and correction

It can be embarrassing to students who make mistakes and are corrected, either from the teacher in front of their peers or from other students. The shame of making mistakes and being corrected could also differ from person to person rather than culture.

  • Asking questions/ saying you do not understand

For example, in a Japanese organization, it is common for a subordinate to say, “Yes, I understand” to any instructions from their superiors. If they did not understand, they would then find out from someone else. Some students have the same response to classroom lessons and game instructions in class.

  • Gender roles

Female EFL/ESL teachers coming from a western country and moving to Asia might find it strange because women (especially younger) are considered lower in the social hierarchy. That is not to say that there is no equality; this is changing, of course, with the government bringing in reforms and taking steps to outlaw discrimination.

  • Status

Students might feel they are not allowed to interrupt, correct older, male, or people in a high-status job, etc., or sometimes get offended when the teacher or another student does not pay attention to such characteristics.

  • Taboo topics

A very less than an exhaustive list of taboo topics in various places included female family members, dogs, politics, social classes, specific periods of history, the Royal Family, the police, the underclass, mixed-race, and homosexuality.

  • Eye contact

The frequency and length of eye contact change a lot from country to country, as do the times when eye contact is not suitable.

  • Small talk 

There can be cultural variations in the amount and timing of small talk anticipated in the classroom. For example, In some Asian cultures, gatherings tend to start and finish with a significant amount of small talk. Other cultures might expect small-talk to be less or absent until the end of the lesson.

  • Silence

In some countries, the silence between conversational turns and when thinking is quite normal. Some people may leap in to fill the quietness, restrict them from speaking or make others feel awkward with their silence. The best short-term resolution is to teach phrases to fill thinking time like “Well, let me see”, with the next step being teaching sentence stems to at least get them started promptly, e.g., “I think that…”

  1. Interrupting

In some cultures, it is normal for multiple people to talk over each other, whereas others will pause until total silence before participating. This can be an obstacle when you have learners from diverse cultures working collectively. An excellent activity to help with this can be to give one person who starts talking something to hold or encourage turn-taking.

  1. Dress

Some cultures may find clothes with bright colours, multiple prints, or overly sturdy shoes being taken as unsuitable or unprofessional. Try to avoid even a brief and accidental display of parts of the body like shoulders and belly. There might also be concerns with students wanting to keep on headwear that blocks eye contact, making communication challenging

  1. Food and drink

In some places, it might be unacceptable for the teacher to have some drinks or to drink directly from the plastic bottle, or it is also seen as disrespect towards learners who do not have drinks. There might also be strong feelings in various places against smelling of or admitting to liking specific foods. In Islamic countries, you will need to consider low blood sugar levels and different break times throughout Ramadan.