Nov 24, 2014


Culture 101: Basics For Relating to Internationals

Tom Knight, a collegiate strategist in North Carolina, breaks down some basics for relating to internationals.

Working with international students from other countries can be an exciting and wonderful experience. It can also be a frustrating and confounding experience. Dealing with people from other countries offers many challenges. One of the biggest is differences in communication styles and behavior.

In her book, Foreign to Familiar Susan Lanier divides the communication world into two main realms, the “hot” and “cold” cultures. Hot cultures are those that are more relationship-based while cold cultures are more task-oriented. According to Lanier, cold cultures include north Europe, the northern part of the USA, and many places where the British colonized such as Australia and New Zealand.   Hot cultures include south Europe, the southern states of the U.S. and many parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. Of course there are exceptions, and we need to understand these are large, sweeping generalizations, but she makes a good case for two macro level styles of communication. She then breaks down the issues that come up when people from the two different worlds interact. Here are some of the major differences.

Relationship vs. Task Orientation

Relationship-based cultures value the person over efficiency and time. Conversations are usually in a “feel good” atmosphere where questions about family and home are important. Business is important and will be discussed but first there should be some face time.   Task-oriented cultures, by contrast, are much more interested in efficiency and time in doing the task. Communication must provide accurate information and “saving face” is not important. The task should be done in a timely and efficient manner.

Individualism vs. Group Identity

One of the most glaring differences among different groups of people is how they view the individual vs. the group. For most “cold” cultures, including Americans, individualism is paramount. This focus on individualism is also present in much of Europe. Much priority is placed on individual “rights” and “speaking your mind” as an individual. However, in many countries the focus is on the group and how the group thinks about an issue. Students coming from “hot” countries may see Americans as too self-focused or as “loners” not working with the group well. Students may feel lonely if not included in a group setting. They may not share their true feelings so as to be part of the group.

Direct Vs. Indirect Communication

In “hot” countries communication will be more indirect. It will take into account the feelings of others and try to save “face” when possible. Direct questions are not always the best, and answers are not always what they seem. In “cold” cultures, however, the communication style can be very direct without regard to the feelings of others. Getting to the point is often the regular way of speaking. Taking time to make small talk and concern for feelings is secondary. Hot cultures may see cold culture communication style as “rude”, while cold culture countries may see hot culture communication style as “wasting time.” Students from hot cultures will sometimes agree with one, not because they really want to do something or believe something, but to make a person feel good. Some will even make a profession of faith to please someone even without truly believing. It is important not to push people too directly.

Different Concepts of Time and Planning

Nothing spoils a party like someone who comes an hour late or does not know when to leave. Different cultures differ greatly on the use of time and planning. Hot cultures are not as oriented to the clock as cold cultures. People may be an hour or two late to events and may stay late into the day or night talking and fellowshipping. There is more of a give and take to what is going on at that moment rather than a strict time schedule. Cold cultures, by contrast, try to keep events in thought-out patterns that are sometimes scheduled months, or even years in advance. Helping students understand our use of time may help tremendously while here.

Inclusion vs. Privacy

Crossing certain norms can cause embarrassing moments or even anger. Knowing what to ask and not ask is important in fitting into a culture. However, different cultures have different behavior. Hot cultures tend to be much more inclusive. They are group-oriented and do not stress privacy “rights”. Possessions are much more likely to be shared and enjoyed by the group. Cold cultures, however, tend to value time and space by themselves. Possessions are attached more to a person than a group.

These contrasts in cultural communication will not cover all areas of differences, but they do help volunteers and students see important areas they need to navigate. Have students reaching out to internationals go over these differences in communication so they will be aware, or have internationals over and work through the differences together. It will be an amazing learning experience.



about the author

Tom Knight

Tom is a collegiate strategist in North Carolina, specializing in international student work. He holds a law degree from Wake Forest and an Mdiv from Princeton. He is the author of No Passport Required: Collegiate Ministry as Global Missions.