A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching

Posted On: December 26, 2016

Just as many professionals buy into a myth that ‘since we are all professionals, there are no cultural differences,’ many international students or even corporate learners and trainers working across cultures may believe that learning and teaching or facilitating has a global flavor. I can tell you from the experience of being a US expat who has worked, lived, studied, and delivered corporate training there certainly IS a cross-cultural approach to learning and teaching that needs to be considered when learning and teaching across cultures.


I’d like to share my story: A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching: US & India Comparative Study


“What does Freedom mean to you?”


This was the first topic I was asked to weigh in on during the first few hours of studying at Madras Christian College. As the only American and foreigner in a class of South Indians, this exercise was both a culture shock and an initiation. From my US cultural lens, it appeared Indians students were hesitant to share their opinions. Rather than share their own opinions, they would wait, ask the teacher some indirect questions about the topic, and then discuss their thoughts on his answers or opinions. Any students brave enough to share contrary opinions to the teacher were immediately hushed by fellow classmates out of respect for the teacher.


This environment seemed restrictive to me; the exact opposite of the discussion topic freedom! As a comparison, this was surely not how I would have experienced the same group discussion in the US. In the US, students would not ask the teacher’s opinion before sharing their own. If a student shared an opinion, which differed from the teacher, the student would not be hushed and the teacher not disrespected. In many cases, there would be a healthy conversation or even debate on differences of opinion.


This was only one aspect of the flood of cultural differences I encountered in the educational setting in India. In order to be successful, pass and earn First Class marks, I was forced to make many changes in mindset and behavior. Some of these changes came naturally, while others were forced out of necessity.


I returned to Kochi, Kerala (South India) in 2011 to start Authentic Journeys, a consultancy providing services to IT professionals’ working with US Americans to help bridge the cultural gap. While my experiences as a student in India provided fertile training ground for some of the cross-cultural expectations, there is nothing like real life, in the moment experience to humble us.

Rather than highlight the lessons from my role as a student, this article will highlight cultural differences faced while standing on the other side of the desk – in a teaching role. I will share how relationship building, the importance of facilitation to enhance group learning, and the art of addressing mistakes in a public forum are key elements in building a strong track record as foreign trainer in India.

Author, Jennifer Kumar, delivering corporate training in India

Author, Jennifer Kumar, delivering corporate training in India


A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching: Relationship Building

Starting with one’s “good name,” typical south Indian introductions detail one’s family background, including “native place” (hometown), spouse’s and immediate family member’s names and positions, parent’s current town and professional or educational qualifications, and if time permits, personal educational and professional qualifications and, in some cases, hobbies. In my case, as I am married to an Indian, and an Indian who is originally from the same town I work in, many find this to be a curious and intriguing fact about me. This curious fact often breaks ice and builds bridges in a climate where many in the training floor may feel they have nothing in common with me.


Many Americans many wonder how I justify this kind of introduction. I surely wouldn’t use this introduction in the US, so why do I do it in India? It is out of necessity. It is out of finding success in discomfort. In my experience, I can confidently say that higher engagement levels are equally proportionate to the relatability or likability of the trainer or coach. While some may argue that local trainers do not have to do this, keep in mind that I am a foreigner. I am an outsider. People will approach me very differently than a local person that they more readily find a common thread with.


Corporate Food Fest - Proceeds go to Charity

Corporate Food Fest – Proceeds go to Charity

Last, but never least, celebrating joyous occasions with others, showing dedication and care and apologizing appropriately when required go a long way in building relationships in and out of the training room. While food is universally used to celebrate, food can also be used to say ‘I’m sorry’ when the words get in the way. In India, I have learnt an art of apologizing without words. It is not easy. This is one of the cultural differences I quite like. In one situation, I was alerted to a social gaffe I committed. I was so embarrassed and knew that saying, “I’m sorry” would not communicate my true feelings. Instead, the next day, I purchased a big cake and salty snacks. Before sharing them with the group, I shared with them how much I cared about them and wanted to see all of them succeed. They all looked at me with an immediate look of understanding. They knew I was apologizing for my mistake, and they were happy to accept my peace offering. I also know this worked because while partaking in the food, on this third day of training, everyone came to me and held lively conversations with me. It was an amazing experience.


Tied to this is sharing with groups my emotional connection to their success. There have been a few sessions where emotions ran high due to the urgency of the trainees absorbing and applying the information. Because I also felt their discomfort and nervousness about adapting to these new mindsets and behaviors, I temporarily stopped the session and shared, “I know this is all new to you. If I were you, I’d also feel overwhelmed and confused now. I am here to help you to succeed. Your success is my success. I share in your success and your struggles. I care about you. I care about your success. If you have any questions do not hesitate to ask them so I can help you to understand this better.” In a few cases when I shared this, I actually started tearing up. I would never get so dramatic or emotional in an American training room. Though this emotionality was never planned, I felt Indians connect to this emotion in a way that motivates them to take more responsibility for positive outcomes.


A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching: Importance of Facilitation to Enhance Group Learning

Facilitation is toted as a key element of successful training programs across the board. Facilitation has more successful outcomes than lecture for the three key reasons below.


A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching: Lack of Reference Point

Unlike hard skills training which already has a reference point, many participants may not have any previous experience with the soft-skills or cross-cultural modules presented. Facilitation allows the participants to explore the material in a deeper, more relevant way than they have been able to do in most traditional educational experiences.


Lewis Model of Cross-Cultural Interaction as Portrayed by Training Participants

Lewis Model of Cross-Cultural Interaction as Portrayed by Training Participants


A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching: Sharing as a Group Preferred to Individual Sharing

Many Indians prefer to share their experiences as a group. I have noticed that many participants are comfortable speaking up about topics that others have already spoken about, rather than talking about something unchartered. (This piggy backs the story told at the opening of this article.) Instead of feeling others will appreciate their boldness in discussing unfamiliar topics, many in the training programs seem to approach sharing unfamiliar stories with hesitation and a sense that they may be unfairly judged for talking about things they are not 100% certain about. So, when teaching new concepts or having them test their knowledge, I would break the class into groups for discussion, activities and even competitions. The picture above is of the Lewis Model of Cross Cultural Communication. To help demonstrate the cultural gaps on their virtual teams, I had teams create the model from candies, labeling their team’s international representations as seen in the image above. After making the model, we discussed the gaps, and ate the candy!



It is common in training programs in India to create teams and competitions. First, I’d break up the class into groups. Each group would choose their team name. Activities would be given to do based on the concepts given in the session (email writing, presentation skills, etc.), and in some cases, these activities would be completed as competitions with prizes given out. To the right, you can see some brochures. These were made as part of a business writing class. In that class, I broke up the class into groups. Each created a brochure, and prizes were given for the best brochure at the end of the training program.  
See: Instructional Design for Training Programs in India
Or: What is the Flipped Classroom

A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching: Speaking, Thinking and Communicating in English 

English is a second language for a majority of participants. While understanding written language is not usually a problem, holistic comprehension – listening, speaking and thinking levels must be taken into consideration while planning and delivering sessions.
Learning How to Make Small Talk With US Americans

Learning How to Make Small Talk With US Americans

See our training program on making small talk with US Citizens at work


Couple fluency challenges with the delivery of new and unfamiliar topics and possible confidence issues in speaking up in English with their peers (and the first native speaker, foreigner they have met), and it is not hard to understand why session facilitation can take longer than it would for those already fluent in a language.


To overcome this, I have changed my teaching style dramatically. Rather than deliver concepts in a lecture format, they are delivered in small chunks as group discussion topics, case studies or role-plays. Initially, I was worried how the group would absorb the information if I did not deliver it in a lecture, as the concepts and terminology would be new to them. With trail and error, and an ability to work on my feet, I have pared down the lecture section dramatically, speaking in smaller chunks, relying on videos (with English subtitles where possible), and descriptive analysis. Since their strength is reading the written word, the concepts that were to be delivered in lecture become handouts for the participants to read and use in tandem with the role-plays, demos, mocks, group discussions and case studies. Again, I have to plan in time for them to read and absorb the material. Often the role play sections require a significant amount of time, and are often facilitated in the afternoon after lunch, allowing participants 3-4 hours for knowledge transfer, group discussion, creation of role play conversations, role play delivery, feedback from facilitator and redelivery with mistake correction as time permits.

Team building training game: Rocket Launch

Helps with team communication, coordination, project management, resource allocation, requirements gathering


Breaking lectures into bite-size chunks helps to solve two problems: improving concentration and reducing tiredness and boredom. Studies prove humans have an attention span of 10-15 minutes. Couple this with listening to someone speaking in a foreign language or accent, and having to translate what they say in your head into your native language, and the concentration factor proportionally rises with the exhaustion factor at a higher rate. In addition to helping the participants maintain focus, offering less information through lecture and more through written materials and group discussion gives the participants a chance to discuss the concepts and learn from each other. Initially, I was quite nervous about this method of facilitation, thinking my instructions or lecture would be too vague and not give the participants all of the information they needed. I can confidently say that the participants always exceed my expectation. The main reason for this is unlike Americans, Indians are much more comfortable with a lack of process, step-by-step instructions and vagueness. Because of this, group discussions on the concepts coupled with interaction with the facilitator in small groups to discuss concepts and answer questions have led to much more successful outcomes.


Those familiar with teaching second language learners may use many of these techniques in teaching English as a Second Language. Since facilitating training in India, I am frequenting websites and professional development materials for English as Second Language (ESL) teachers and applying it appropriately as required.


A Cross-Cultural Approach to Learning and Teaching: The Art of Addressing Mistakes in a Public Forum

As a student in Madras Christian College, an embarrassing thing happened to me. I was scolded by my teacher. I was made to stand up in front of my peers, seniors and all the department staff (over 60 people), and ‘was publicly shamed.’ In the US, this kind of public humiliation would not shame a person to motivate them to do better, but make them feel disrespected by their teachers and peers. Rather than gain respect for people who behave this way, Americans lose respect for people with such behavior. In many cases, managers who behave this way could have high turnover. Fast forward years later to working in India, where such a situation happened to me yet again in a Western Multi National Corporation (MNC). Again, their idea was to shame me in front of peers and others to motivate me to improve myself. The medium did not resonate with me, but the message surely did. Though, intellectually I understand why this happened, it was hard for me to accept it or feel the same way an Indian may when in this situation. My reaction and internal motivation to improve is different. Whatever I can do to make it better, I will for the sake of the trainees. Assuring the training participants have their objectives met is the bottom line. Period.


That being said, as I am learning how to react to public criticism, I am also learning how to dole it out. Though I try to balance positive feedback with constructive criticism, I am advised against focusing only on positive outcomes in the training room. I am told that in Kerala, focusing only on praise often backfires.


Management consulting clients have told me that while negative feedback is given in a group setting, the positive aspects of achievement are kept mum. When asked why this happens, a few managers relayed that if too much praise about team members or company achievements is advertised, employees often become jealous and territorial. As an example, if a company was to win many new client contracts because of the extraordinary work that was put in, and this was advertised to the company, employees may start wondering about the company’s excess revenue and start demanding raises. Similarly, if one person gets praised in a public forum (be it face to face, email, etc.), even for doing routine work, that employee may attempt to use that as a valid reason for getting a raise.


After completing routine work on time, Umesh (name changed), received an email from the US client praising work well done. He immediately took a printout of this email to his boss and demanded a raise citing positive feedback from the client. Because many may feel entitled to awards or pay hikes when even small achievements are praised, the culture tends to lean toward self-deprecation and pointing out other’s faults. Rather than being motivated by the achievements, some expat managers have seen that this “public shaming” motivates employees to do better as it provides group accountability.


Because of this approach, many companies have specifically asked me to deliver training sessions from a ‘dos and don’ts approach’ where the attendees are to showcase their work as it usually is done and be publicly corrected by the trainer in front of the whole group. Popular topics for these kinds of sessions include:
  • improving conference calls (Actual client calls are analyzed on word choices, etiquette, pleasantries, accent, etc.)
  • e-mail writing seminars (Actual client and colleague e-mails are reviewed and corrective actions are advised or brainstormed.)
  • professional mannerisms within the team (Scenes are enacted from colleague and client interactions for behavior modification.) 
Conference Call Group Work, Facilitation & Feedback Sessions.


Like sharing in-depth introductions about myself in the sessions, pointing out other’s mistakes in a pubic forum goes against my cultural upbringing. Yet, after finding ways to do this without compromising my style and personality (and without feeling emotionally guilty about it), I have seen dramatic and positive results. Participants and their managers write to me within weeks or months of the training gloating how the employee in question has improved their relationship with their client due to the training delivery. Often in these sessions, the Indian participants, unlike most Americans, do not take the mistake personally (even if it their email or interaction being analyzed), but understand that the mistakes are being pointed out and enhanced for the betterment of the group. From this perspective, they practice the corrections with the coach through writing emails, role plays or future client calls, internalize the new behaviors and overtime, as with any behavior modification, it becomes a productive habit.



Often, the best cross-cultural lessons come from in-the-moment interactions. This article strived to highlight this throughout. While it is important to intellectually understand the cultural differences, internalizing them and creating new behavioral outcomes is an uncomfortable proposition. The training room provides a safe space for participants to practice. And, as the facilitator, I help each participant to achieve their own success through my own unique blend of relationship building, group learning through facilitation and mistake identification and correction.


Our Email Writing course, The Ultimate Guide to Email Writing for Ease and Professionalism, is designed to teach effective Email Communication, covering aspects like structure, tone, grammar, and etiquette. It helps participants write clear and concise emails tailored to different audiences and purposes. The course includes practical exercises and feedback to improve writing skills and build confidence in professional communication through email.


Our Small Talk course, Building Trust and Good Relations With US Americans, teaches individuals how to engage in casual conversations with others. It covers topics like initiating conversations, asking open-ended questions, active listening, and body language. The course helps participants build rapport and establish connections with people they encounter in social settings. Overall, a Small Talk course is a valuable investment for anyone who wants to improve their social skills and feel more comfortable in various social situations.



Related Posts:

Cover image: Author, Jennifer Kumar, going for field work in Chennai as part of her Master’s in Social Work program.


Find your Program!

Find your ideal program in just a few clicks.
Select Industry > Learning Level > Skill, to see 1-3 suggested programs.