Intercultural Business Communication Problems Are Highlighted in International Schools

Intercultural business meeting

I taught for many years in international schools and was quite surprised by the intercultural problems I encountered.  Since we were all speaking English, I did not even realize, during the first few years, that the problems I encountered were actually intercultural problems.  Eventually, I realized that the cultures of the Native-English-speaking world are all very different, particularly in terms of work styles, societal attitudes, and interpersonal exchanges.

A few examples of typical communication problems in international schools might be any of the following.  Staff meetings occur where various nationalities speak up, or don’t speak up in meetings, and many are judging that others are not speaking or behaving appropriately.  During working time, teachers and staff members of some nationalities work hard and are serious, while other nationalities seem to be taking time out of their working schedule for visiting and gossiping, and clearly not doing their work, or being punctual.  Some nationalities try to be helpful to others, while other nationalities habitually try to prevent others from obtaining information, make obstructive problems, and play power games.

Some nationalities feel that the same rules apply to everyone, while other nationalities feel entitled to “go around the rules” and be excused from them, because of “who they know.”  Meetings between parents of different nationalities sometimes become quite heated because some nationalities feel that only the highest “class” of parents has the right to speak up and/or make policy decisions (while others are expected to sit quietly, listening in acceptance); on the other hand, parents from other cultures feel anyone who raises their hand should be allowed to speak.

Even classwork and homework can be contentious.  Some nationalities feel children should have no homework at all in elementary school, while others feel they should be having four or five hours of homework a day in elementary school.  Sometimes even the facts being taught are contentious.  I was once brought to the principal’s office to explain why I was teaching my students that there were seven continents!  (This is when I discovered that the French-speaking world views the world as having five continents–North and South America are taught as the one continent of “America,” and Europe and Asia are taught as the one continent of “Eurasia.”)

A typical English-language American International School (outside of the United States) can easily have teachers and administrators from at least ten different countries, and from several different cultures, teaching together in school at any one time.  In most of these schools, teachers frequently change schools every one or two years, meaning that the communication problems continue.

Native English speakers usually account for about fifty percent of the staff, and can come from numerous English-speaking countries, such as England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, or the Philippines, among others.  Typically, about forty percent of other teachers and staff come mainly from the host country; they tend to be people with academic English qualifications. About ten percent of teachers are from other nationalities and cultures.

Problems occur most often on an organizational level because of three factors:  1.)  Differing assumptions about work, organizations, and personal life and goals; 2.) Different expectations about how work and meetings are conducted; 3.) Different methods for resolving conflict; and 3.) Different cultural factors regarding how others are treated in different societies.

Problems also occur on  a personal level:  1.)  Between supervisors and subordinates, who have different assumptions about how work should be done, and how much work is expected; 2.)  Societal attitudes which are coloring interpersonal interactions, without the other party being aware of the reasons behind the other person’s unexplainable behavior; and 3.)  Cultural factors, particularly when one party comes from a direct culture, while the other party comes from an indirect, or passive-aggressive culture.

Whenever people of several cultures are brought together and asked to work together on projects, or in meetings, really surprising and unexpected conflicts are the norm.  These problems no doubt occur in nearly every business with employees from a variety of countries; but the examples presented by many international schools provide us with a perfect series of examples to look at.

International schools provide a mixture of cultures in a fishbowl, where parents, teachers, administrators, and other staff, are all working under different sets of rules without even being aware of it.  People often think they are communicating when they speak the same language; but in fact, they are often more like two ships passing in the night.

Future posts will deal more specifically both with problems on the organizational level, and with problems on the interpersonal level.

–Lynne Diligent

4 thoughts on “Intercultural Business Communication Problems Are Highlighted in International Schools

  1. pascale Sztum

    I have a similar experience but as parent and intercultural trainer witnessing the interactions between administration, faculty, parents and even students. My children have attended 8 different international schools, most of which were IB schools.

    Some examples:

    An American head of school found out he could not effectively lead the staff. He was for the first time in his career in the cultural minority and could not work with other international staff. He also had problems with the local staff, which adversely impacted on motivation and commitment.

    Students from Latin cultures being sabotaged by the teachers and administration because their cultural context make it right to accept students in a grade if they were born before 31 December whereas the school imposes 31 August.

    Conflicts around cultural dissonances in teaching and learning styles but also around learning content.

    Problem of communication linked to the school imposing an Anglo-Saxon channel of communication to families from cultural background favoring indirect style

    Misunderstanding and conflict caused by lack of awareness of the teachers and administration of cultural diversity in the field of education..;

    Many more examples of problems between students from different cultural backgrounds

    Intercultural experts can help sorting these problems out… but so far we operate mainly in large for-profit corporations…

    If decision makers knew how much intercultural services could improve the quality of life but also the effectiveness and efficiency of people working in international school, they would not hesitate… but so far, people continue thinking that these problems are personal rather than cultural.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lynne Diligent Post author

      YES, YES, YES, and YES!!!! You are right in people concluding these problems are PERSONAL! They do become personal, but in most cases, the basis of why they are becoming personal relates back to different intercultural frames of reference and judgment. The intercultural judgments become personalized because when you only know one or two people from a culture, all your judgments become personalized and focused on THEM! It’s only after some time, when you later meet more people of the same culture, and find out they have the SAME thinking and behavior, that you begin to realize it’s not personal, it’s cultural. Furthermore, so many of the things which rub us the “wrong way” are things from our early childhood which we learned as a “right” way of doing something, and we feel “angry” (and therefore judgemental) when others “break those rules” or “don’t follow the rules”–when in fact, they have different rules in their own cultures!

      For a number of years, I thought these sorts of problems were only in the particular school where I worked. Then the faculty changed several times over during the long period of years I was there; yet the problems remained. One day I stumbled on an article about another international school in another country, and the problems mentioned sounded so similar to our own! This is when I began to realize that most international schools are dealing with the same problems.

      I do have to disagree with you about only one thing. While I can see the problems inherent in imposing 100% an Anglo-Saxon model in schools located in other cultures, I really do feel strongly that the administration HAS to make policies about WHAT teaching styles, helping styles, and behavior standards need to be expected. Otherwise, teachers are left “fighting it out” in their own classrooms. For example, if the administration decides to let each teacher decide completely what they will do in their own classroom, in some schools, students get to celebrate certain holidays, while in other classes they are actually “forbidden” from doing so (Halloween parties, for example). This causes quite a bit of resentment, with many students winding up in tears if they are in the class whose teacher does not allow them to wear costumes to school. (I’m not talking about scary or extreme costumes–I’m talking about no costumes at ALL!)

      Another example concerns the teaching of handwriting methods, or of calculation methods for multi-place addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. If the administration backs off “in order to avoid conflict with teachers,” what happens is that each teacher chooses the methods they were brought up with as a child (and quite normally feels those are the only “correct” methods). What happens is that the CHILDREN lose out and become confused. One teacher says, “This is the right way,” and the next year’s teacher says, “No, that teacher was COMPLETELY wrong, and THIS is the RIGHT way!” This happens year-after year, to both the students’ and teachers’ consternation.

      My recommendation for any international school is for the principal to do a survey of teachers covering the “top ten” issues they feel are problems between teachers and support staff, between teachers themselves, between teachers and administrations. Then the administration needs to decide a school policy on each of these issues, AND FOLLOW UP with each teacher to see how these policies ARE BEING IMPLEMENTED (such as a short paragraph from each teacher, after three months, on each of the new policies, regarding how they have implemented these policies). If the policies are ignored, they will never be implemented.

      However, the best way for the policies to be made is for the administration to take the top ten issues, as identified by teachers and staff, and ask for voluntary committee members who would like to meet on that issue and make recommendations once they have met several times and discussed the issues in detail. This ensures that all teachers and staff are heard, and that multi-cultural viewpoints are considered. It also breaks down barriers between staff members as they learn more about each others’ cultures, through discussion of these issues.



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