BTR-TESOL Unit 1D - Understanding and Adapting in a New Culture



objectives of this unit

the least you should know

what is culture?

culture shock

comprehension questions

individualistic vs. collectivistic culture

comprehension questions

nonverbal communication

comprehensive questions

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



Whether you go abroad or you work with international learners of English in your home country, you still need to understand culture, cultural differences, and culture shock. Cultural concepts influence English language teaching and English language learners in many ways. This unit will teach you "the least you should know" about these cultural topics.

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Scenario: Getting “insulted” in South Korea

monty's faceMy first extended travel outside of the United States was to South Korea when I was 20 years old. I quickly learned to love the people and the language, but everywhere I went, I saw and heard things that I thought were very bizarre. I understood that Korean culture was different from my culture and so I tried to keep an open mind.

However, one day as I was getting out of the elevator at my apartment, I met a friend of mine who was getting in the elevator. As we passed, we greeted each other and then she said, “Wow, your face has gotten worse!” referring to my bad complexion. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just smiled politely and as the elevators doors closed, said, “Yeah…Have a nice day.” I knew she was a good friend and that she wouldn’t intentionally hurt my feelings, so I wasn’t offended, but I was very confused. I tried to simply forget about it, but I obviously still haven’t.

What would you do in this situation?

How would you feel?

What do you think her intention was?

Would you ask your friend or other natives about her comment, or “simply forget about it”?  

Later, I came to understand that her statement was not an insult, but a show of friendship. Commenting on my physical appearance (even negatively) was her way of showing interest in my life and my health. Had we not been both on our way somewhere, she would likely have even recommended some kind of solution to help me with my problem. During my 20 months in South Korea, I was offered lotions, massages, foods, and home remedies to help improve my complexion by many of my well-intentioned Korean friends. 

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Objectives of this unit

After working through this unit, you will be able to…

➢ describe the meaning and importance of culture in a language learning environment

➢ deal with the various challenges faced when encountering a new culture

➢ apply the principles presented in this unit in your own ESL/EFL classes in the future

After you do these things, you will be able to avoid some common misunderstandings that occur in cross-cultural communication and be able to help your students overcome culture shock and ethnocentric behaviors.

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The least you should know

This section will help you learn more about what culture is and the role it plays in society and your classroom. If you are teaching in a foreign culture, you will be able to better cope with your environment. If you are teaching students who are living in a foreign culture, you will be able to help them to cope better with their environment. The principles will help you later as well, if at some point you desire to incorporate a culture component into your teaching.

This unit has four sections:

1. What is culture?

2. Culture shock

3. Individualistic versus collectivistic culture

4. Non-verbal communication

1. What is Culture?

Learning what culture means is a very important step in becoming an effective language teacher. Knowing that culture differs from country to country is common knowledge, but realizing that it also differs from family to family and even at the individual level gives us a new perspective by which to view our interactions with those around us.

Culture is who we are

Culture has been defined by many different people in many different ways. Simply put, culture is the way we think, talk, and behave. Our culture influences our actions, thoughts, beliefs, the language we use, and our perceptions of the world around us. Interestingly, our culture is something that can be very general—"I'm an American"—or very specific—"I'm a middle-aged white male American from Utah with three children who attends graduate school." Each culture group has a shared set of commonalities: beliefs (political, religious, social, etc.), norms, values, taboos, attitudes, and/or language. At this point, two things should be apparent: culture is hard to define, and there is no end to the number of culture groups that could be defined.

Culture is a filter

Culture is the filter through which we judge input: our surroundings, the behavior and language of others, and the nonverbal communication we observe. This filter begins to form from the moment we are born and continues to develop throughout our lives. As we get older, it often becomes more difficult for us to distinguish which aspects of our beliefs, thoughts, and actions are a result of our own personality and which are the result of learned culture. The good news is that we can learn to make the gaps bigger in our filter to allow that information in; however, the process of gaining a cross-cultural view is not easy.

Culture and language

Culture and language share a close relationship and are strongly connected to each other. You cannot learn a foreign language without encountering instances of culture-influenced language and you cannot attain mastery of that language without understanding the underlying cultural concepts. Similarly, you cannot fully understand a culture without knowing something of the language and the thought patterns that are used to express ideas in that culture.   

1. What cultures do you belong to? Make a list of at least 10 different culture groups which you belong to. Which do you identify with the most strongly? Why?

2. Name two cultures which you do NOT belong to. What do you know about those cultures? How can you find out more about them?

3. In what ways does your native language influence your views on the world? Think about things such as how you address acquaintances. Do you address your parents and siblings differently than your friends? Coworkers? Boss? Students?  


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2. Culture Shock

When learning to understand the importance of culture, it is essential that you and your students gain an understanding of culture shock. A lot of people understand the basics of culture shock, but what they don’t realize is that it can largely be prevented and the effects of it lessened through a better understanding of what it is. Going through culture shock without the help of friends and people you trust can leave you with long-lasting emotional pain and disappointment.

Defining culture shock

"Culture Shock"occurs as a result of being placed in an environment or situation in which the behavioral and language patterns of social interaction that you have become accustomed to do not apply. When we are faced with a situation in which we don’t know how to cope or respond because we do not have the shared background knowledge of culture or language that a member of the target culture does, we are experiencing culture shock (the scenario at the beginning of this unit is a perfect example of culture shock).

Culture shock and language learning

Culture shock is very common in people who encounter a new culture and it can potentially be very difficult to handle. When one is learning a new language in addition to this exposure, the problem becomes compounded due to the massive amount of input. Depending upon the severity of the culture shock, it can make language learning stop completely. It is important for teachers and friends to recognize the symptoms and offer support and comfort.

Stages of acculturation

Culture shock is a single event, but is comprised of many various stages, with most models having four to six individual stages. Oberg (1960) was one of the first people to define culture shock and to look at these different stages. Oberg’s model of culture shock has four individual stages: the honeymoon phase, culture shock, the acculturation stage, the adaption stage. Each stage will be discussed briefly followed by a figure which represents these four stages.

1. The honeymoon phase: As any newlywed knows, the first few months of marriage are a wonderful time and it seems as if nothing can, or will ever, go wrong. Issues that arise are viewed without hostility and compromises are made as you try to overcome them. The marriage of a person to a new culture is very much the same. The new culture is interesting and a positive mental attitude is maintained in the face of “strange behavior” and unfamiliar food. This stage is also called the tourist stage by some to reflect the fact that it lasts about as long as a tourist might spend in a foreign culture. In essence, you don’t know enough about the target culture to make judgments.

2. Culture shock: After the initial fascination and excitement has worn off and reality sets in, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a positive attitude as all of the little incidents that were once overlooked begin to count up to become something unforgiveable and/or distasteful. An individual suffering from culture shock may have a variety of physical or emotional symptoms. Physical symptoms might include: headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or loss of appetite. Emotional symptoms might include: feelings of anger, hostility towards members of the target culture, depression, nervousness, and homesickness. Unfortunately, you may not even recognize that the feelings or illnesses experienced are a result of culture shock and may try to treat the symptoms instead of the cause.

3. Acculturation: As you learn to cope with these feelings and beliefs and learn to view the target culture as merely “different” rather than “backwards”, you can move out of culture shock into a stage of understanding. The new culture is once again viewed as interesting and a source of learning and growth, though at times it may still be difficult. Cross-cultural misunderstandings are no longer a source of anger, but rather an opportunity to develop one’s knowledge of the target culture.

4. Adaption: Once you have become comfortable with the process of coping with new situations in the target culture, you can then learn to adapt your behavior to be able to function effectively in the target culture. However, this does not mean that you will not have occasions in which misunderstandings occur, it simply means that you do not react with hostility and will be willing to work towards further understanding.

U-shaped curve

Figure 1. The u-shaped curve of culture shock

Factors that affect culture shock

There are many other factors that determine the severity of shock which an individual experiences, to name a few: one’s sense of ethnocentrism (the feeling that your own culture is better than other cultures), low levels of empathy, previous exposure to other cultures, understanding one’s own norms and beliefs, and the reason for the cultural exposure. Just as each person has their own individual culture, each person experiences culture shock differently and to a different degree.

Overcoming culture shock

Just as there are many causes of culture shock, there are also many ways to overcome culture shock. Following are some ideas that can be helpful for those who are experiencing culture shock. Remember, in severe cases culture shock can become a threat to the health of an individual; if you or someone you know is seriously struggling with culture shock, do not hesitate to seek professional guidance.

➢ Social networks and strong relationships can be a powerful influence in helping people to overcome culture shock. Positive social interactions help us to maintain a good attitude despite the negative feelings we may have towards the host culture.

➢ Because culture shock is essentially a lack of the skills and knowledge necessary to function effectively and successfully in a new culture, one of the best remedies for culture shock is learning more about the target culture.

➢ Develop strategies to turn culture shock into a positive experience: try to think of the process as an important step in self awareness and personal growth, a way to develop a more open-minded, un-biased view of the world, an opportunity to obtain a deeper tolerance for ambiguity and acceptance of diversity.

➢ Just as is the case with language learning, motivation plays a critical role in determining the speed at which people move through and deal with the stages of culture shock. Someone who is highly motivated will likely have a longer honeymoon phase and shorter period of culture shock than someone who has little motivation.  


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Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  1. Have you ever experienced culture shock? What did you do to overcome it?
  2. Do you know anyone who is experiencing culture shock? What can you do to help them?
  3. If you are teaching in a foreign culture, do you have opportunities to learn about the host culture? If your students are in a foreign culture, what can you do to give your students opportunities to learn about the host culture?

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3. Individualistic versus Collectivistic Culture

There are many factors that influence the cultural orientation of individuals and groups, but one of the major distinctions that can be made is the distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. The basic difference is in how individuals view themselves in relation to those they come in contact with; in other words, how do they interact and respond in relation to the people around them?

Individualistic cultures

These types of cultures are found chiefly in most northern and western European countries, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Individualistic cultures emphasize independence and responsibility for one’s own actions. An individual’s goals and intentions are seen as more important than those of society. Societal roles are more flexible and interaction between people of the opposite gender or between people with very different ages is typically not an issue.

Collectivistic cultures

Many Asian cultures, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are collectivistic in nature. In these types of cultures, children are taught to think about the good of the whole group before their own wants and needs. The groups to which they belong may be one or more of countless groups and sub-groups, such as their family, a religious or political group, or even the whole country. In most Asian cultures, family is the highest group priority wise, and to disappoint or create problems within the family often has very negative consequences, including the loss of face and honor. 

Not a dichotomous distinction

It is important to know that cultures are not simply one or the other, but rather a culture group or even an individual has a tendency to be more dominantly one or the other along a continuum depending on the current context. For example, whereas members of a certain culture group might be more collectivistic in a family setting, they may also behave very individualistically in other settings, such as at work or school.


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Comprehension and reflection questions

  1. Do you think you are more collectivistic or individualistic? Does your orientation match your major culture group?
  2. Are there situations in which you are more collectivistic? individualistic?
  3. Are your students from individualistic or collectivist cultures? Does their behavior seem to match their culture group?
  4. If you are teaching in a foreign culture, do you feel that your culture orientation is different? If so, how does this affect your behavior?

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4. Nonverbal Communication 

Most people don’t realize just how much they make use of nonverbal communication as they go throughout their day. In fact, research has shown that more than half of what we communicate when talking with another person occurs through nonverbal means—as the saying goes: “Actions speak louder than words.” Just as we learned our native language as we grew, we also learned the appropriate nonverbal behaviors of our native culture.

Universal and culturally-learned nonverbal cues

Around the world, there are some basic emotions that produce universal responses across all cultures: a smile for happiness, a frown for anger, sadness, or disappointment, and laughter when something amuses us. However, there is great variety in the rules for when it is acceptable or expected to produce these emotions, and there may also be further uses for these same nonverbal behaviors. For example, a Japanese person may surprise his/her Westerner guests with a smile and laughter when the guest accidently breaks an expensive decoration while visiting his/her home. The Japanese person is certainly not happy that something got broken; he/she may be merely expressing embarrassment and trying to save the Westerner from losing face. It is important that your students understand that much of the nonverbal communication they do is culturally-based.

Teaching nonverbal communication

A good place to start teaching about nonverbal communication is with gestures. Of the different ways we communicate, gestures are the most easily recognized and demonstrated. If you are uncertain about what different gestures people make, there are many textbooks and online sources that have pictures and descriptions of various gestures and their meanings. You might decide to share a “Gesture of the day.” Before doing an activity like this, you need to make sure that students will not be offended should you make a gesture that is offensive in their culture; there are simply too many gestures and too many cultures for you to research every gesture in every culture.

Start by having students share some gestures that they have seen members of the target culture do. Discuss what they mean in each of their cultures (if it has any meaning at all), and explain what they mean in the target culture. Not all of the gestures they have seen will mean something; perhaps they have seen some gestures that are simply an individual’s personal habits (for example, cleaning one’s fingernails or playing with one’s hair) that may have meaning to that person, but not to the larger culture groups to which they belong. Similar activities can be done for eye contact, proxemics (how closely people stand when talking), haptics (what kind of touching is permitted), and kinesics (body movements, such as bowing).


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Comprehension and reflection questions

  1. What kinds of nonverbal communication do you use? Do you have any gestures or nonverbal behaviors that are unique to you?
  2. Have you noticed any types of nonverbal behavior from your students that you didn’t understand? If you are in a foreign culture, what things have you noticed outside of your class?
  3. Are there any nonverbal cues that you feel are used a lot in your culture? Do they have the same meaning in your students’ culture/s?

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Video example

You will now view a video clip of a graduate student talking about her experience with culture shock.  This particular student lived in the United States for 6 years, returned to Mexico for 4 years, and then came back to the United States later.

Click here  


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Reflection and Responses

As you view this video clip, think about each of the following questions.

1. What did you enjoy about this video?

2. What does she say or do that helps define what culture shock is?

3. Are any of the examples she shares a good indicator that the United States is an individualistic culture?

4. What kinds of nonverbal communication does she use?

5. What other things might you do to help your students understand what culture shock is?

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Where to go to learn more

That’s it. That’s “the least you should know” about understanding culture. Of course, there is much more that you can learn about culture. For more information, please use the following section to guide your search.

Connections to other units in this program

Here are some other units in this program that relate to topics we have addressed in this unit.

• Unit 3C, “Managing classes of English language learners.”

• Unit 4F, “Developing an awareness of teaching styles and cross-cultural style differences”

• Unit 5C, “Understanding your students’ language learning styles”  

• Unit 7E, “Teaching culture”

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Online and other electronic resources

Here are some web sites that are helpful resources for understanding and adapting to a new culture.
A short workbook produced by the Peace Corps to help orient people to the topic of culture. It contains great activities to help you gain insight into what culture is and how it affects our lives.
This website is designed to help people understand the process of culture shock. It is short, but has useful information, including ways to help people overcome culture shock.
Produced by the National Institute for Urban School Improvement, this document aims at helping people, specifically teachers, develop cultural responsivity—“the ability to learn from and relate respectfully to people from your own and other cultures” (p. 15).

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Print and paper-based resources

Here are some helpful, published resources about culture and culture learning.

Andrea DeCapua and Ann Wintergeist. Crossing Cultures in the Language Classroom. University of Michigan Press, 2004. This book looks at the theories behind culture to help the teacher learn to become more culturally aware and includes great exercises for use in the language classroom to help your students overcome cross-cultural problems. ISBN 0472089366


Joyce Merrill Valdes, ed. Culture Bound. Cambridge University Press, 1986. A collection of articles compiled to give language teachers a foundation in practical and theoretical matters relating to culture. Contains a Classroom Applications section which has helpful ideas on bringing culture into the classroom in a relevant and non-confrontational manner. ISBN 0521310458


Miilton Murayama. All I Asking For Is My Body. Kolowalu Book. This book is the story of a Japanese-American boy growing up in Hawaii during the Second World War. Determined to be who he is, but not quite sure of what that means, the emotions and experiences he shares help the reader to view the world through his eyes and see what it was like to grow up as a Japanese-American during an era when America was at war with Japan. ISBN 0824811720


Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall. Understanding Cultural Differences. Intercultural Press, Inc., 1990. The first section looks at some key concepts in helping people to understand cultural differences. The latter half of this book contains a specific look at three major culture groups, Germans, French, and Americans, that can be very helpful for people teaching in one of these cultures or teaching students from or about these three cultures. ISBN 9781877864070

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Additional References

Oberg, 1960. Culture Shock and the Problem of Adjustment in New Cultural Environments. In: Weaver, Gary R. (Ed.) Culture, Communication and Conflict. Readings in Intercultural Relations. Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster Publishing.

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