Considering Cross-Cultural Conferences

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36 Considering Cross-Cultural Conferences


In cross-cultural conferences, barriers to communication may need to be considered. The first concerns concepts of time and what it means to be late. For some people, being early is important, so that when the appointed time comes, they are already there and waiting. For others, the goal is to walk in the door one minute before the scheduled time.

They don’t like to wait. For still others, forgivably late means five or so minutes, and some people don’t consider 20 minutes after the scheduled time as truly late. Then for some people, clock time has very little meaning, and appointments may have even less. In their culture, arriving several hours or even days after the appointed time is within the bounds of courtesy.

Greetings have cultural rituals associated with them. Do you shake hands or not? What does a firm handshake mean? Does it mean you are a straightforward, competent person, or does it mean you are aggressive or rude? It depends on your culture. What does a slight touch mean in a handshake?

Are you a weak person with limp hands, or are you shaking hands in the polite manner of your culture? What about eye contact? Are you respectful if you look someone in the eye, or is that disrespectful? It depends on your culture. And along with culture are gender issues. What is okay for men to do may not be okay for women, and the reverse.

If you want to be warm and friendly, do you smile and insist on being called by your first name? Do you call others by their first name? How you will be received depends on the cultural meaning others give to your warm, friendly gestures. Instead of seeing you as open and welcoming, some may feel uncomfortable or think you disrespectful.

Do you like to get right down to business once the conference begins? For some people, it’s important to socialize before getting to the point of the conference. Asking personal questions about the family and each member may signal good manners for one family but feel uncomfortably intimate for another.

Of course, a huge barrier arises when families and professionals don’t speak the same language. Using professional jargon creates similar problems, but that is a minor barrier compared to when there is no common language between the program and the home.

One solution to these barriers is to become an anthropologist; however, even anthropologists don’t understand all the cultural differences that may emerge in one school, classroom, or family child care center.


  • See yourself as a lifelong learner. Studying differences may help, but the best approach is to tune up your sensitivity. There is always more happening than appears on the surface of any interaction, even between two people of the same culture and language group. The meanings of behaviors are what is important—and are what you need to find out in order to be a good cross-cultural communicator. Observe, ask, read, listen, and discuss to find out which behaviors mean what to which people. The meanings may be cultural, but they may also be individual.
  • Be prepared to make mistakes. You will make lots of them. That’s the way we learn. Regard each one as a learning situation rather than as a failure on your part.
  • Assume responsibility for understanding all parents by finding translators, if needed, rather than expecting parents to bring their own. Be sure the translators are competent. Also, make sure to provide all written notices in the languages of the families in your program.
  • If family members speak your language somewhat, but are embarrassed about their skills, help them understand that you are in the same or even worse situation regarding their language. It’s important not to assume an attitude of superiority.
  • When necessary, give up your agenda, and really listen to the parent—not only the words but also the feelings behind them. Listen until the person stops talking. Don’t interrupt. When it’s your turn, instead of arguing, educating, or responding from your own perspective, try to state the perspective of the other person. Put the gist or spirit of what you heard into words by making a statement about the other person’s feelings, experience, perceptions, beliefs, or concepts. See if you can get at the deeper message. Most people do little of this kind of listening and responding. In a conversation where there is disagreement, most people constantly push forward their own point of view. Listening skills can be learned. Best of all is the feedback you get when you’ve received the message that someone was trying to send, because the communication opens up and the conversation continues.
  • Connect parents from the same language backgrounds so that they can help and support each other. Also, introduce them to family members from other language backgrounds. Don’t let language differences keep you from inviting all parents to participate in the program at whatever level they feel comfortable with.

The following is a story about differences in concepts of time: A visiting professor arrived to teach a class in a country where time had a very different meaning. The first day, he arrived in class a few minutes early, and only one student was there.

By the time the class was supposed to start, he had only a handful of students. “They’ll be here,” one of the early birds assured him. The students drifted in over the first hour, and eventually, the room filled up.

The professor worried that he didn’t have the full time period he had prepared for. Five minutes before the end of the class, the professor expected the students to start closing their notebooks and picking up their backpacks. Five minutes later, however, when the clock indicated the end of class, not a single student had made a move to get ready to go.

The class continued on for quite some time after the scheduled stopping time. The professor had a whole different sense of time to get used to.


Last Updated on January 30, 2020