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Training Across Cultures

How do you train across cultures? Instructional design and delivery must be differentiated to be effective across cultures. I teach graduate students at Regis University’s College of Business and Economics (RU) in Denver, Colorado. Multiple times each year, I also teach PhD candidates in the India Institute of Intercultural Studies (IIIS) in Bangalore, India. In addition, I facilitate Masters level training modules in the Southern Cone of South America. What region-specific cultural factors drive the differentiation of design and delivery of learning objectives and activities? Among others, there are eight primary factors:

  1. Historical tradition of education in the region: For almost a decade I have thoroughly enjoyed my role as a professor/trainer throughout various geographic regions of India, from the city of Jaipur in the northwest to Madurai in the southeast. At any location and among every group of people, two influences are evident from an “etic” (outsider) perspective: (a) a formal British style carried over from two hundred years of colonization and (b) the guru/shishya tradition. A formality is generally maintained in the learning environment. At IIIS in Bangalore, India, silence will befall the classroom when I enter. The students will stand out of respect. This does not happen in the USA! In India, I am always and only addressed as Dr. Strauss. At RU in Denver, Colorado, I am generally addressed as Robert. Although there are effective techniques in India for facilitating an interactive discussion, often it is assumed that the professor is the subject matter expert and all must listen first and foremost. It may be difficult for a professor coming from an informal egalitarian context to feel comfortable in India. However, it is imperative to understand that it is the guest lecturer who appears and acts “strange” to the locals. I am the one with a strong accent. More often than not, the local cultural norms are tacitly assumed and are outside the awareness of the host society.
  2. Learning styles: Although rapidly changing, it has been more common in the West for students to learn through abstract conceptualization. Often curriculum content is organized topically and presented to students abstractly using carefully selected and defined terminology. An outline is considered helpful. If needed, a story may be told or photo presented to illustrate the abstract concept. My experience with concrete sequential/relational learners is the opposite. Who are they? They may be First Nations people in North America, NGO workers in Western Canada, module participants in Cordoba, Argentina, or PhD candidates in Bangalore, India. Concrete relational learners learn best through dramatic storytelling, experiential learning activities, or reflective observation about recent real life experiences from the past. Key topics can be embedded in the story line as pull down menus of exposition.
  3. High versus low context communication: My communication style is low context with assiduous attention to the taxonomy of terms with their precise definitions. I feel better if I can write words on a mark’n wipe board or give a handout to course participants. I reference subject matter experts to support my argumentation and conclusions. All of this is quintessential low context. In India my credibility is ascribed based on my age, academic degrees, the number of grandchildren I have, my familiarity with the famous educator Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and my close friendship with Dr. Jayakumar Ramachandran, the Chairman of the IIIS Board of Directors. This is high context. In a high context setting, a credible messenger will of certainty deliver a credible message. In Islam, note the relationship the Hadith presents between matn (content) and isnad (chain of transmission). Isnad is a means of authentication. Therefore, the messenger is key.
  4. Deductive versus inductive approach to information: High context learners tend to prefer one over the other. Do you know which? A deductive approach to information starts with summary generalizations. An inductive approach to information starts by gathering all the facts before forming any conclusions. The preferred approach makes a difference in how curriculum is designed and delivered.
  5. An “honor” overarching pattern of culture: The real differences between overarching patterns of culture impact every aspect of the learning environment across cultures. What are the three overarching patterns of culture? They are: (a) honor, (b) justice, and (c) clientelism. In “face saving” or honor cultures, a vibrant interactive learning activity will be impacted greatly by social status, whether ascribed or achieved. First of all, a prompt for interaction may result in silence. There will be a very strong tendency to agree with the professor. Shame/honor cultures will see plagiarism differently and required work outside of the classroom will be done in groups with liberal sharing among colleagues. In the classroom or training setting, it is more common to be indirect rather than singling out an individual in front of others.
  6. Status markers: Identity markers are characteristic of all cultures, but are more important in societies where hierarchy is valued. Despite the low context statements in the Constitution of India, the classification of communities throughout India is pervasive. Frequently, the PhD candidates in the IIIS program represent different communities. This fact impacts my relationship with the candidates, who speaks and to whom, the order of who speaks, the nature of disagreements, the establishment of actual facts, and much more. Related to status, throughout Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India, the structure of clientelism is ubiquitous. Not infrequently, in business training settings, the facilitator of training will be faced with both patrons and clients in the same room. Like the classification of communities in India, this phenomenon impacts the learning environment.
  7. Group orientation: Throughout the Majority World, learning takes place in group settings. Discussion occurs in groups. Small group activities are effective. Projects outside of the classroom or training center should be assigned to groups rather than individuals. Group orientation also impacts assessment.
  8. Time orientation: In the business sector, time may be segmented into past, present, and future with an orientation toward the future. Historically, this has been the basis for production. Training participants from a business background may be more precise in the segmentation of time, that is, into increments of hours and minutes. However, in cross-cultural training settings, these assumptions may not always be characteristic of participants. Sociologists speak of Latin and Mediterranean cultures as living in a “timeless present”. This perspective will significantly impact the framework and format of training across cultures.

There is more! Global Perspectives Consulting can help you with instructional design and delivery across cultures.

Dr. Robert Strauss

Dr. Robert Strauss

Robert Strauss is the Owner of Global Perspectives Consulting and a Member of the International Academy for Intercultural Research. He teaches  in the College of Business and Economics at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.


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