Ticktock | An intercultural activity

Time cultural differences.jpg

This activity looks at differing perceptions of time by exploring some intercultural critical incidents.


  • Explore varying perceptions of time causes by intercultural differences and their impact on work and relationships.


  • Making tape
  • OHP pen or similar
  • Critical incidents listed below

Pre-activity prep 

  • You’ll need to do this before participants come in. Stick 12 fairly long pieces of making tape in a large circle as if they were points on a clock face i.e., the masking tape takes the place of hour marks that run along the periphery of your imaginary clock.
  • On each bit of tape, write one of the critical incidents.
  • If you don’t have enough space for a clock, you could stick the masking tape on the floor along the walls of your classroom or anything else that works for you.

Critical incidents 

  1. When you mail your Japanese colleague to ask for his opinions on anything, he takes days to get back to you.
  2. Your Belgian French team members come in 5 – 10 minutes late for meetings after lunch, even important ones.
  3. Your Indian direct report commits to deadlines he can’t meet and asks for extensions only after you request for a progress update.
  4. You are debating a critical issue with your German stakeholders and the meeting runs over. You ask for 5 – 10 min to conclude but they refuse to stay.
  5. Your Dutch colleague gets annoyed when you send her reminder mails about upcoming deadlines.
  6. Your Thai client tells you that he will send you his requirements tomorrow but tomorrow never seems to come.
  7. Your Swedish coworker asks you to stop sending him mails over the weekend although you don’t expect him to respond until Monday.
  8. Your American team members want to implement ideas immediately often without spending time thinking through challenges and issues.
  9. Your Brazilian clients spend a lot of time in meetings on social conversation instead of focusing on the agenda.
  10. Your Australian team members stop responding to emails by 4 PM Sydney time and often leave for the day by 3 PM on Fridays.
  11. Your Omani counterpart refuses to commit to a specific timeline, preferring to focus on outcomes and whose support will be required.
  12. Your Filipino direct reports never seem to be able to submit their deliverables per the deadlines you’ve established.


  • Ask participants to stand up and find a partner.
  • Stand at 12 o’clock and signpost the clock on the floor of the classroom and ask the participants to quickly move to their favourite time of day with their partner. Make sure there isn’t more than one pair at each point.
  • Participants read the critical incident on the masking tape and discuss it with their partner. They should look at the situation from the perspectives of the two parties involved.
  • Ring a bell or strike a gong to signal that each pair should move clockwise to a new point and repeat the procedure.
  • You can have the participants process as few or as many critical incidents as you have time to cover. You can also stop and take whole class feedback in between.


  • Use fewer critical incidents.


  • Ask participants to talk about the critical incidents from this list that they have personally experienced or that they found interesting.
  • Point out to participants how easy it is to become judgmental when dealing with cultural differences over time – she’s inefficient – he’s lazy – they’re wasting time etc.

Action plan 

  • Ask participants to reflect and discuss how they would address or resolve intercultural critical incidents caused by different perceptions of time.
  • You could assign a critical incident to each participant and ask them to research different cultural orientations and report back to the group either in the next lesson or through asynchronous online forum.

Culturestorming | An evidence-based intercultural activity

Brainstorming culture.jpg

Brainstorming is better suited to some personalities and cultures than others. Extroverts who “think out loud” and Westerners who have grown up in educational environments where classroom participation is required, usually thrive in brainstorming sessions. But others around the world grew up in classrooms where they were taught to think before speaking and to avoid standing out with unique ideas. As a result, many individuals in the global workplace dread brainstorming sessions and say very little. Livermore (2016)

They say diverse cross-border teams have the greatest potential for innovation. But this isn’t always true in practice. The work horse of innovation is idea generation and the strategy that we reach out to most frequently for idea generation is brainstorming. We treat brainstorming as if it were a universal technique but it’s one that grew out of North American cultural preferences and business norms. There are many cultures that find group brainstorming unnatural, intimidating, and uncomfortable. This activity adapts ideas from this HBR article and helps participants explore the issues surrounding the use of conventional brainstorming in intercultural settings.


  • Develop an awareness of the challenges of brainstorming in cross-border teams.


  • Flipcharts and markers
  • Printouts of a list of idea generation strategies (alternatively, you can project this on a slide)
  • Printouts of the article in its entirety or sections.


  • Divide participants into groups of four.
  • Ask them if they use team meetings and other group forums to generate ideas. How do they normally go about doing this? Participants will generally explain that they use brainstorming.
  • Get groups to create a mindmap with as many team idea generation strategies as possible. You’ll generally find that they articulate different versions of a conventional brainstorming activity.
  • Have groups take a look at each other’s mindmaps and note any differences.
  • Distribute or project a list of idea generation strategies like the one below and ask participants if there are any new techniques in the list. Quickly get feedback on how familiar participants are with these ideas.

1. Group brainstorming: Team members generate as many ideas as possible at a rapid pace by shouting them out while a scribe notes them down on a whiteboard or flipchart. Evaluation of these ideas is not immediate, and occurs after they have been generated.

2. Individual brainstorming: You come up with ideas on your own and send these to your team via email or share them during a meeting.

3. Group mindmapping: A graphical technique for creating a web of relationships between ideas. Team members shout out ideas while a scribe draws a mindmap on whiteboard or flipchart.

4. Individual mindmapping: Team members create a mindmap individually before coming together as a group to uncover insights.

5. Visual storyboarding: Often used by product teams for innovating, team members collectively view visual stimuli in the form of pictures, photographs and customer quotes to identify relationships and generate ideas.

6. Role playing: Team members play different characters such as customers in specific scenarios to discover ideas.

7. Attribute listing: Team members list all the attributes of specific components of a product or service to identify if there is any way to improve them.

8. Visualization and visual prompts (e.g., problem trees, fish bone analysis etc.): One of the team members draws a graphic organiser on the whiteboard and the others suggest ideas that can be populated within it to explore causal relationships.

9. Questioning assumptions: After determining a problem statement, team members come up with as many assumptions (valid and false) about the situation. They then collectively analyse each assumption to uncover insights.

10. Research: Individuals are allocated a problem statement or topics to research which they do by reading or consulting with others. They then bring these ideas to a meeting.

  • Distribute flipcharts and ask each group to divide it into three columns. Label column 1 – US team; label column 2 – Indonesian team; and label column 3 – cross-border team. You can select any other North American or Northern European culture for column 1 and most Asian and Latin American cultures will work for column 2.
  • Ask participants to imagine that they are responsible for facilitating idea generation sessions with three teams (An American one, an Indonesian one and a diverse cross-border team with people from different countries). How would they rank the idea generation strategies that they have just reviewed (where one is the strategy that would probably work best)?
  • Get groups to put the flipcharts on the wall and encourage them to do a wall crawl. Ask participants to defend the strategy they have at the very top and very bottom of their list.
  • To validate the rationale that participants suggest, ask them to either read printouts of the entire article or excerpts depending on their level.
  • Ask participants to compare their own ideas with the research presented in the article by discussing findings in groups.


  • Nominate participants to report back to the whole group.
  • Ask questions to elicit the following insights:
    • Although the article is about brainstorming, many of the other strategies work on similar principles. People come together to spontaneously assert their ideas in an environment that can be quite competitive.
    • Research suggests that in a brainstorming session, the first idea is likely to be the one that people are most receptive to. First ideas tend to be expressed by the most assertive in the group. Cultures like the United States tend to reinforce this kind of behaviour whereas cultures like Indonesia tend to be more reticent about being a first mover.
    • Team members’ level of fluency with English can hamper their ability to participate actively.
    • Asian cultures are often collectivistic, and consequently tend to value harmony and convergent thinking. Brainstorming was conceived by individualistic, competitive Western cultures which value divergent thinking. This behaviour of voicing contrarian ideas in an open forum can seem quite unnatural to many Asian cultures.
    • Whether the team members involved in an idea generation session have a preference for big picture or holistic thinking or a more detailed oriented approach can also affect the dynamics of brainstorming (The article suggests that Americans are big picture and Germans are detail oriented. This is both true and false. Americans are more holistic in their thinking than Germans but when compared to Japan, they are quite detail oriented. Cultural preferences are all fairly relative)

Action planning 

  • Ask participants to think and discuss how they can meet the challenges of brainstorming in a cross-border team (some suggestions are given in the concluding section of the article)


Image attribution: Brainstorm by theimagegroup | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 

This is crap | An intercultural competence activity

This activity is based on an article by Erin Meyer titled How to say “this is crap” in different cultures. Meyer recycles some material from an old Internet meme about British-Dutch cultural differences. Nevertheless, it demonstrates differences in how people convey feedback linguistically quite well.

intercultural feedback

Image attribution: Meeting by Howard Jefferson | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0


Raise awareness of the cultural gap caused by direct vs. indirect approaches to giving feedback  and allow learners an opportunity to discuss ways of mitigating risks arising from these differences


Make copies of and cut up the table titled ‘Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’ in this article. You don’t need to use the entire table as participants might take too long to unjumble it. Select four rows that your learners might find interesting.


  • Board the phrase “this is absolute crap” and ask participants if they would ever use this phrase while giving feedback to a colleague about some work they’ve done. Ask them to discuss the reasons for their response with a partner.
  • As you take whole class feedback, you’ll find some participants articulating a softer response such as “this is sort of what I was looking for”. Board these.
  • Derive that some cultures are more explicit or direct in communicating feedback.
    • Upgraders: These direct cultures tend to use upgraders such as absolutely, strongly, or totally before negative feedback to strengthen it such as “This is absolutely inappropriate”. In these cultures, “this is absolute crap” may be perceived as acceptable.
  • Point out that other cultures are more implicit or indirect as perhaps with the utterances shared by the participants for softening the message.
    • Downgraders: These indirect cultures tend to use downgraders such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe and slightly to soften the blow. They might also use a type of downgrader called an understatement such as “We are not quite there yet”.
  • Ask participants to categorize some national cultures based on whether they are relatively direct or indirect (bear in mind that indirect cultures like India often perceive themselves as more or less direct).
  • Board participants’ suggestions and circle the UK & the Netherlands.
  • Signpost the cutouts and state that the cutouts belong under three headers: What the British say, What the British mean, and What the Dutch understand. Ask participants to work in groups to put them in the right categories.
  • Get participants to identify the gap between what is being said/meant and what is understood and the problems this might create.

Action planning

  • Ask participants to think about the kind of culture they come from – indirect/direct – and consider their own personal orientation to giving feedback. Do they use upgraders or downgraders?
  • Have them imagine a situation where they are working with someone who has a different preference to feedback than them, what could they do to ensure that they are not misunderstood or don’t end up damaging the business relationship.

Reference: Meyer, E., How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures in the Harvard Business Review, Feb 2014.

Listen to the beat | An intercultural jolt

6845838363_9b000ca3f2_oA jolt is an engaging learning activity that lasts for a brief period of time and illustrates one or more important learning points …  A typical jolt does not teach a skill. Instead, it helps you experience an important principle in action and provides you an “aha” moment … They capture your attention by startling you … Thiagi.

This quick jolt is inspired by a YouTube clip that Dr. Broady posted yesterday over on her blog.


Access to YouTube to play this clip – Ghanian funeral dance, speakers.


  • Don’t tell Ss the title of this clip. Tell them that you are going to play some music and they should think about where this might be taking place in terms of the country or region as well the event or venue. They should try to imagine what people at this event might be doing while listening to this music and what sort of people they might be.
  • Play only the audio – doing whatever you need to (depending on the device) to block the video.
  • Ask Ss to share their ideas in pairs. Take whole class feedback.
  • Now play the clip again, allowing Ss to see the video.
  • Ask Ss to work with their partner to discuss how close or far their guesses were.


  • Use open-ended questions to facilitate a discussion and elicit the following learning points:
    • In cross-cultural interactions, when we jump to conclusions, based on our own frames of reference, without taking the time to observe, we may make decisions or base interactions on incorrect perceptions and information.
    • And when we jump to conclusions and receive new information through this flawed lens, we may become overly judgemental about cultural differences.
  • Ask Ss to relate these points back to the cross-cultural interactions they have at work.

Image attribution: Flickr | Jolt Cola by Brent Moore | CC BY-NC 2.0

Whatsapped surveys | A structured sharing activity

Everyone and their uncle seem to be on Whatsapp these days and I’ve been attempting to use it for activities.  One of the advantages of Whatsapp is that it sends and loads images really quickly, even on networks with poor connectivity. Here’s a warmer/speaking activity using images shared on Whatsapp.

HBR survey


You will need survey results like this one from the Harvard Business Review. Your Ss will need smartphones. Onscreen timer.


You will need to take a picture of survey results with your phone. I prefer to use the Harvard Business Review’s HBR Survey which is a regular feature in their print edition but you could use any survey from a newspaper or magazine. You’ll need to have created a Whataspp group for your class. But, you might not have to because I find Ss usually create their own groups so could just send the image to one person and have them share it with the Whatsapp group.


  • Share the image of the survey results in the class Whatsapp group.
  • Pre-teach any blocking words (or don’t depending on which school of thought you belong to).
  • Ask Ss to individually make predictions about the results for the same parameters in their own class e.g., what percentage of their peers would strongly agree with the statement “I would prefer to be told bluntly if I’ve done poor work”.  Ask them to record these predictions in their notebooks.
  • Bring up the onscreen timer and set the countdown timer based on how many Ss you have.
  • Ask Ss to poll their peers and find out their response to this survey question. Have them record these responses as a tally under agree, disagree etc.
  • If someone says “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree”, they should find out why.
  • Call time and divide Ss into small groups. Ask them to analyse the results and discuss the reasons shared by their peers.
  • Debrief the activity by eliciting reasons for differing responses. Draw out the cultural dimension and how it might affect the way people would want to receive feedback and criticism.

Discussion functions | A turn-taking activity

Discussion functions

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a course I taught last week where I needed to encourage my Ss to speak up. The other activity I used to spur my Ss to participate more actively in discussions was one I borrowed from Leadership Games by Stephen S. Kaagan. I must confess that I didn’t really focus on turn-taking as a skill as much as I did on giving Ss doable ideas for making their voices heard but it could be used quite effectively to practice language for turn-taking. I thought this was a very successful activity.


Discussion function cards for each person, you’ll need 1 NT, 1 S, 1 I, 2 Qs and 4 Bs as in the image.


  • Divide your class into groups of 5 or 6 but no more than that or it will get unwieldy.
  • Write up a key for the cards on the WB or on a slide:
    • B: Build on an idea shared by the previous speaker.
    • NT: Introduce a different topic into the discussion.
    • Q: Ask a question of a speaker or the group.
    • I: Interrupt the discussion.
    • S: Synthesize or summarize the points made by other speakers.
  • Announce the topic for discussion. I used this one: “How do we as a service line or an organization stay innovative in an extremely competitive market?” Set the timer as appropriate and allow the Ss to discuss the topic.
  • Each time Ss speak, they must use one of the cards, slapping it on the table as they take their turn.
  • Ss must try to use up all their cards by the end of the discussion. They should be careful to space out their contributions so they don’t end up exhausting their cards too early. This should encourage them to listen to their colleagues and then comment appropriately instead of just hogging the limelight.
  • Debrief the activity by asking Ss to reflect on how they participated in the discussion and what they would do differently if they were to run the activity again. Ask them which cards they found easy to use and which cards more challenging. Did any of the cards compel them to participate in a way they wouldn’t normally do in a meeting?

Adapted from Discussion Functions. Kaagan, S.S., Leadership Games: Experiential Learning for Organizational Development. Sage Publications, 1999, pp.77-79

Speak up | A technique for immediate feedback

I’ve been away in Bangalore teaching a short course for a team of software professionals. One of the areas I needed to focus on was encouraging these Ss to speak up in meetings. Their reluctance to say anything at all during conference calls was leading to serious issues with their clients. This was partly due to inadequate language for expressing different meeting functions for some Ss but for most it was down to cultural reasons. Indian professionals tend not to express their opinions as openly as perhaps their American counterparts. They are particularly hesitant or inhibited when people at a higher career level, key stakeholders or clients are involved; even more so when the topic of discussion involves something negative or unpleasant such as the inability to meet a deadline or a mistake that has cascading consequences.

This particular group represented an extreme because they would simply refuse to speak on conference calls that involved their American clients to the extent that on one such occasion, the client complained to the team’s manager that no one from the team bothered to attend a critical meeting despite the fact that there were five people from the Bangalore office logged in – they were there but as quiet as a mouse.

I used two techniques to encourage Ss to participate more actively and make their voices heard. The first I adapted from a book on Leadership Games which I’ll share soon.  The second was my attempt to put into use some maths puzzle blocks which I received at a recent TEDx Gateway event as a part of a promo by a new international school. It was something I did on the spur but worked out quite well.

The objective of using these blocks to give feedback is to make sure Ss are not just sitting back and listening to others and essentially wasting opportunities for practice during a meeting simulation – but compel them into participating as well as refine their manner of contributing to the discussion. I had two classes and I tried this technique with both. It worked really well with the smaller group of seven but was less effective with my larger batch of 13.

Immediate feedback


  • Blocks in different shapes and colours.


  • Write up a key on the whiteboard preferably using the same WB marker colours as the blocks themselves.
  • Explain the key to the SS and what they should do if they receive a particular block during the meeting simulation.
  • Start the meeting simulation.
  • Observe participation and dole out blocks according to the key. Make notes on how Ss are able to increase their level of participation or enhance their clarity of speech.
  • Take back blocks when Ss increase or decrease their level of participation.
  • At the end of the meeting simulation, after you’ve facilitated content feedback, ask Ss to recall the blocks they received and self-evaluate their speaking skills during the simulation – noting down feedback against little drawings of the blocks in their notebooks. Ask them to share this feedback in pairs or small groups.
  • The feedback against the yellow and red blocks can become things to work on for the next lesson.