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.