Intercultural diversity for children

How can we help our children to adapt to different cultures

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Most organisations with a culturally diverse employee base are realising the need to invest in workshops and programmes to teach how best to communicate within such teams. In this way, people better understand others from different cultures, their beliefs, values and ethics, work practices, how they greet and part company and even phone and email etiquette.

It is simply not enough to speak a common language

In the workplace communication rarely breaks down because of grammar, syntax and complexity of vocabulary. It’s rather because the people involved misunderstand each other on a deeper level (e.g. mindset, cultural habits, gestures, etc.) . For example, it is quite acceptable for a German to say things directly – albeit politely (e.g. no; this doesn’t work; I don’t want this etc.) which might come as a shock to someone from Asia.

But these issues are not confined to the work place or the adult world. Children encounter the same issues but often with no real guidance and they have to learn through trial and error.

Adults who might travel extensively for work to culturally diverse countries, often have the support of their organisation and colleagues to introduce them to the nuances of the new culture. If they relocate, their families – especially the children – are often left to themselves to figure out how to behave, what’s acceptable and what to expect from others. I find this especially pertinent for children attending secondary school who are too old to “get away with it” and not old enough to fathom the adult world.

I will take the example of my children’s school – an international institute within a local Austrian school. Students from an Anglo-Saxon background will often refer to an adult they don’t know as “du”, the informal German word for “you” where they should be using “Sie”, the formal and polite form. This is not necessarily a mistake due to language barrier but the concept of formal and informal is lost due to the lack of such form in the English language. The consequence is that children who speak German relatively well but haven’t quite grasped the nuance of the formal/ informal are sometimes judged as rude or impolite.

Non verbal communications

Some gestures and habits do not translate well from one culture to the next. An Austrian teacher might (completely innocently) put a hand on a student’s shoulder as they check their work. Students of different cultural backgrounds might not be used to this kind of gesture and could feel uncomfortable. In a similar way, in Austria, all students must stand up when a teacher enters the classroom as a sign of respect. This practise is no longer in use in a lot of countries and those children might find this habit strange. Even a gesture as simple as putting ones hand up in class must be thought through carefully: pointing the index finger up in the air is fine. Extending all fingers whilst raising the hand is offensive in Austria and Germany. There are a myriad of non verbal forms of communication that could be misunderstood if not checked.

Helping our children learn the art of intercultural diversity

Intercultural diversity is much more than accepting others, the colour of their skin, their religious beliefs, the clothes they wear or their accent. Learning to really understand others and to make oneself understood requires an open-minded and authentic approach.

Intercultural talks and workshops can be woven into many subjects in the school curriculum. I believe we need to invest in our children’s education beyond the academic one for them to truly thrive.

Originally published at

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