Cross-cultural differences in the workplace։ lesson ideas

Cross-cultural differences in the workplace։ lesson ideas

More and more organizations operate across national boundaries involving an increasing number of people with different cultural backgrounds. Diversity in the workplace brings potential benefits, as well as potential conflicts for business owners to manage.     

Students who work in international companies often talk about the difficulties they face while working with their colleagues from other countries. Contradictions can be caused by differences in thinking or stereotypes. Some cultures are more formal than others. Some have distinct customs regarding greetings, rules, attitudes and values, beliefs, feelings, patterns of thought, and role expectations in work. 

This once again confirms the fact that the knowledge of the language is not the only guarantee of good relationships between foreign colleagues. It is also important to be familiar with their cultures and know what’s acceptable in their business environment. That’s why cross-cultural communication is such an important topic.     

Here are some lesson ideas where students will explore what cultural differences exist and their impact on interpersonal communication. The tasks will be suitable for Pre-Intermediate+ level adults. 

Task 1: Warm-up

Ask students the following question: 

  • How might people from one culture differ from people from another culture? (Possible answers: education, social standing, religion, personality, belief structure, values, behaviours).

Choose one of these options to continue the warm-up.

Option 1: Play some music from different cultures and see if students know where it is from. Ask how the music is different from their own.  

Option 2: Find some pictures representing different cultures and ask students if they know which countries the images come from and how they relate to culture. 

Option 3: Play the short video from the movie “Mr Baseball” about cross-cultural etiquette. Ask students how they would react in this situation.

Task 2: Lead-in

Discuss the following questions:

  • Have you ever experienced another culture? Where? (Possible answers: while travelling, at work, living/studying abroad). 
  • Do these differences facilitate communication or create misunderstanding?

Play the commercial ad “HSBC Funny Culture ads”. After watching, ask students to discuss the content of the ad with you or in groups. Ask what problem is mentioned in the video and the reason why the conflict occurs. (Possible answer: cultural differences and misunderstanding because of the lack of knowledge of other cultures) 

Task 3: Checking knowledge 

Discuss the question with students: 

  • What cultural differences can you think of about doing business? 

Then send them the link to a quiz where students can test their knowledge of international business norms. Ask what facts are new and surprising for them. 

Task 4: A piece of advice 

Ask students the following question: 

  • If someone from a very different culture were to visit your country on business, what advice would you give them?

Let them think a few minutes, then answer. To help students, show them the tablet: 

Task 5: The impact of cultural differences 

Show students the following saying of professor Geert Hofstede: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster”. Ask them the following questions: 

  • Do you agree with this saying?  
  • How do you think cultural differences can affect international business? 
  • What positive and negative impacts can they have on business/work? 

Play the video about how cultural differences affect business by business speaker Erin Meyer and check the ideas.  

Task 6: Tips for managing cultural diversity in the workplace

Ask students how people who work in multicultural companies can avoid difficulties. Let them read the article and check their ideas about the question.

If your students are business owners, they may be interested in leadership topics. Ask what they think the key to success in a multicultural team is. Send them the article “How to Lead a Successful Global Team” where they can also watch a video by business professor Erin Meyer.

Optional task: Cultural differences in telephoning 

If your students mostly work remotely and often make calls, send them the article about “Cultural differences in telephoning”. Tell them that in the next lesson they will have a role-play. If you work with a group, divide students into pairs and ask them to prepare a dialogue where they will be from different cultures. In the case of individual lessons, take the role of the foreign colleague. Prepare the topic of the conversation beforehand.  

Optional task: Business entertaining role-play

Let students think of cultural differences for business entertainment. Prepare a few cards with different situations connected with the topic. 

Created by canva.com

Ask to choose one of them and brainstorm useful phrases for that situation. Role-play it with students.    

Homework: Researching and Advising

Find out from what countries your students have colleagues/business partners. Give them a homework task to thoroughly research the local business and cultural features. Give them specific categories to explore. You can also send them the link to the article “Nine cultural value differences you need to know” which can help them understand what other differences there are and what they need to know.

You can find more ideas here: 

Impact of Cultural Norms on Global Businesses

Business Spotlight: Working effectively across cultures

Culture know-how

Cultural diversity 

Business and Culture

Conversations About Culture

Communication is not that easy

Understanding culture is a key to successful communication in the business sphere. It also helps to expand horizons and opportunities.

Speaking activities are, obviously, essential for English language speaking classes. A lot of students join classes particularly to develop their communicative competence, become more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and confident communicators in English. However, designing speaking activities might be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for any teacher. We have prepared a memo with superb ready-made speaking tasks that will make your student talking. Download it here.


Маргарита Аветисян

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