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Crossing Cultural Boundaries

Your audience is a small sea of upturned, eager faces with ancient eyes that bespeak an origin in some far away area of Southeast Asia, and your subject is Victorian English Sporting Prints. How can you excite this exotic assembly with such a seemingly irrelevant topic?

Here are some suggestions for communicating effectively across the many cultures that comprise our society:

  1. Be as open to your audience as you would like them to be open to you and your tour theme. Take time to ask them some questions about themselves and then validate their opinions. This creates a “safe” and comfortable atmosphere in which the opportunity for personal exploration will be enhanced. Then, anticipate unexpected questions, comments, or reactions and be relaxed about them. Look for even subtle indications of their interest and invite their perceptions. Inform them that you are open to their suggestions (and, indeed, do be open) in the context of your presentation.
  2. Avoid assumptions and stereotypes. Do not presume that Asian children will be quiet or that Hispanic teenage boys will subscribe to a philosophy of machismo. If you pick up reservations some of them have about you, demonstrate your sense of humor in defusing any misconceptions.
  3. Be personal in your approach. Share a personal insight or story about yourself that allows your audience to identify with you while learning about the subject matter at hand. For instance, in a Planetarium presentation about the constellation, relate how you thought the constellation GEMINI meant “Gem in the eye” and searched the stars for such a representation.
  4. Demonstrate an interest in your audience’s cultural heritage. In the context of a presentation about dinosaurs, ask your audience if they know ancestral legends or lore about great beasts that inhabited the earth in olden times. Be a model of curiosity and be comfortable and humble with your ignorance of their heritage. Allow them to teach you. Challenge your audience to identify parallels or contrasts in your culture’s approaches to the subject matter and cite these parallels or contrasts as valuable contributions to understanding.
  5. Place your subject matter in a cross-cultural reference by citing historical precedents or antecedents in another culture. For example, when teaching with those Victorian English Sporting Prints mention that “these proper English gentlemen pictured playing polo learned this sport from Ancient India where the rajahs and chiefs bred beautiful ponies and started a game hitting a ball with a stick from the backs of their steeds.”
  6. Don’t be in a hurry or too businesslike. Leisurely learning is preferable to little learning. A rapport is critical to the process of teaching. Pat Rice, a teacher at Waimea Elementary School in Hawaii, points out that many Pacific Island cultures, among others, operate in a closely-knit, extended family style, and that members of these groups can be put off by briskness. What a Westerner may see as efficient dispatch can be interpreted by these people as unfriendliness or even coldness.
  7. Use visual aids when possible. Remember the ancient Chinese proverb, “One picture is worth 1,000 words.” Showing your audience a picture may break through the language barrier far more effectively than a long or labored description might.
  8. Keep in mind that body language and non-verbal cues can be misleading. Don’t assume that all cultures “read” body language similarly. For instance excessive smiling can be interpreted differently than you mean. Making eye contact is taboo in some cultures Read about the behaviors and attitudes of cultures you see on a repeated basis. Don’t overdo Western-style graciousness in an attempt to make your audience comfortable – it may have the opposite effect!


Tanya Dean, Director of the Institute of English Studies for the Hawaii Preparatory Academy Middle School on the Big Island of Hawaii, attended by many Pacific Rim students, addresses another area of concern in cross-cultural communication besides difficulties stemming from content and cultural differences — difficulties stemming from language (both verbal and nonverbal). If you are dealing with students who may not be fluent in your language, she advises:

  • Speak clearly and slowly (without condescending).
  • Tell your audience to ask questions or make comments, and give them the ground rules for doing so, i.e. “Please raise your hand at any time if you don’t understand or have a question.”
  • Tell your audience that you will be happy to slow down or rephrase a statement if they request it.
  • Use repetition with a little difference each time in making important points.
  • If possible, allow for one-on-one time. Group situations can be intimidating for anyone, and it may be especially so for students whose background and language are dissimilar.

We receive the opportunity for insightful, and often delightful, learning ourselves when we work with cultures different than our own. Cathy Anders, a teacher whose assignments once included a public high school in Tonga, marveled at the gender differences she encountered in the matriarchal society (where leadership roles in the group were most likely to be assumed by females). Karen Thompson, Curator of Education at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, mentioned the culturally diverse conceptualizations docents deal with when they present Pacific Island arts to members of Pacific Island cultures who have no word for “art” as Westerners mean it. These objects are viewed by the Islanders as ritual in nature and/or, in all cases, as objects with a direct connection to their lives. Their frame of reference contrasts with the Western idea of art, in which an object may have no additional purpose other than self-expression.

The native people of New Ireland, an island in the nation of Papua New Guinea, create elaborate images of ancestor figures and clan totems for ceremonies that include funerary rituals, but discard these works after they have served their purpose. Polynesians, on the other hand, pass down their crafted object as family heirlooms (with the mana, or spiritual energy, within the object increasing as each successive generation takes custodianship). Yet both of these societies do not view their “art” as social statements, personal statements, or thought-provoking catalysts (as Westerners might view such works as Andy Warhol’s presentation of a soup can!).

So docents and others who teach can learn and be stimulated by their cross-cultural audiences’ ideas, as they hope to share ideas with them. That’s what makes our world go round! As Brian and Young Soo Brumsickle, a cross-cultural teaching couple, pointed out to me — showing interest in each other is what gives students a sense of belonging in this world. Ultimately, we should all be life-long students of the growing global community.

Caroline Hagan is a free-lance writer and substitute teacher living in Kawaihai, Hawaii.

Hagan, Caroline. “Crossing Cultural Boundaries,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 6-7.


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