“Hey! Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Communication Patterns and Cultural Misperceptions

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This post was written by Susan Weymouth

When you teach EFL, you expect linguistic challenges, but have you thought about how the patterns of communication influence us? Differences in behavior are objective, but their interpretation is subjective. Take the time to consider if the conclusions you are drawing in your EFL classroom are accurate.

For example, making direct eye contact with the teacher is seen as being attentive in some cultures but combative in many others. The student who looks away when you correct him may be showing you respect. What is perceived as respectful silence in one culture may be seen as indifference in another. One culture’s exuberance can be misunderstood as pushiness or failure to listen to another.

When you are teaching in a new country, there are a few cultural communication issues to consider:

Willingness to initiate conversation

People in varied cultures are more or less likely to speak to each other in line at the grocery store. This will also be true in the classroom. What interpretation do you bring to this difference? Does hesitance to “break the ice” equate to respect for privacy or unfriendliness to you?

Thinking aloud or silently

Teachers often ask for immediate answers from students and are disappointed not to get them. People in many cultures prefer to think before they speak and will be more responsive when allowed this time.

Connotations of chattiness

In the U.S. many people see a talkative, bubbly personality as an asset. According to Kondo and Blake Willis (2005), in Japan chattiness may be perceived as untrustworthiness. How do your students see you? Rules of turn-taking in conversation are another sore spot. In some cultures, interrupting shows enthusiasm while in others it is quite impolite.

Directness of opinions 

Ways to express sensitivity to the listener’s feelings when stating opinions and the subjects to avoid completely are clearly cultural issues, as any teacher whose weight, age, and bank balance have been commented on can tell you. (Yes, I’ve heard them all!) However, we are undoubtedly less aware of the slips we make toward our students and their culturally taboo subjects.

We cannot prevent all cultural misunderstandings when teaching in a new country, but we can avoid jumping to negative conclusions. Goodwill and the willingness to consider alternative explanations for student behavior can help you be a more successful communicator and teacher.


Kondo, F. & Blake Willis, D. (2005).Communicating with Japanese students: Understanding cultural influences on language and behavior. In TESOL ICIS Newsletter, 2, 1.

It is extremely important to understand how different cultures communicate. However, there are other cultural clashes that are going to come into play while teaching abroad. Learn about various cultural clashes and how you can combat them in your ESL classroom!

June 23, 2011