Four lessons for operating in a different cultural environment

By Nithya Ramachandran

author_nithya-ramachandran
Nithya Ramachandran (biography)

What does it take to operate successfully in a university located in a different culture?

I am an Indian academician working in the Middle-East, specifically in the Sultanate of Oman and share four lessons about teaching and working in a different cultural context. Although the specifics will vary depending on the culture, the general lessons are likely to be more widely applicable.

The four general lessons are:

  1. Make the most of mentoring
  2. Be open and responsive to feedback
  3. Reinforce positive aspects of student behaviours and find ways to counteract the negative
  4. Enjoy the diversity.

Make the most of mentoring

Mentoring for new faculty is built into the Omani university system, as many faculty come from other countries. Mentors provide general guidance on the model of education, curriculum, course content, recent innovations, teaching methods and assessment methods, as well as providing a point of contact to help newcomers who don’t know anyone in the new country. More importantly, mentors from the same country can:

  • advise on cultural differences in how students are educated and how the university works
  • help develop case examples based on local experience to use in teaching
  • help interpret feedback, as I discuss below.

In my case, a mentor from the same region in India guided me during my three-month probation period. He had been at the university for around ten years and was well versed in how the university teaching system operated. In turn, I have now become a mentor to a new colleague from India. As well as helping her deal with common issues, I have also been able to help her think through and respond to problems quite different from the ones I faced.

Be open and responsive to feedback

It can be hard to receive negative feedback when you are new and when you do not understand what the problem is, especially when it stems from cultural differences. This is where a mentor who has already navigated those differences can be very valuable.

In my case, students wondered why I was angry with them and not hearing them. They raised their concerns with the departmental administrator, who in turn raised them with my mentor, who then discussed them with me. It turned out that they were mistaking what would be considered to be normal behaviour in India with irritation and aggression.

My mentor helped me:

  • speak more softly
  • modulate my reactions to students
  • ensure that I came across as polite rather than harsh
  • slow down, so that I was not going too fast.

In addition, I made sure that I was available in the ten-minute break that was taken in each two-hour class. It was an opportunity to chat informally and get to know the students better, especially the young women in the class.

Reinforce positive aspects of student behaviours and find ways to counteract the negative

Student groups develop their own behaviours and norms, some of which are positive and to be encouraged and some of which are negative and to be counteracted. These also tend to be culture specific and it can require some effort to manage them appropriately.

In my case, a positive behaviour that I reinforced was that students did not make fun of mistakes made by others, for example in explaining a concept or pronouncing a technical term. Instead they encouraged each other to seek advice and learn from the mistake.

On the other hand, young women were reluctant to speak in mixed classroom environments. I encouraged them to speak by: a) adding class contributions to the assessment and b) handing out small gifts such as chocolate for good participation.

Enjoy the diversity

My faculty colleagues come from 16 different countries. Taking an interest in each other’s countries, cultures, food habits, lifestyles and so on helps smooth relations between us. An annual cultural night has become a highlight of the year and helps integrate newcomers.

One particular challenge is simple communication. Although English is used as the common language, differences in vocabulary, intonation, and other aspects of speaking style, mean that it is not always easy to understand each other. To counteract this we have staff development programs focused on presentations and a Toastmasters club. Ongoing interactions over time also help, especially by talking about things other than work.

Concluding questions

What has your experience been of teaching, working and researching in a different culture? Are there additional lessons that you would add?

Biography: Nithya Ramachandran PhD is a lecturer in accounting and finance in the Department of Business Studies at the University of Technology and Applied Sciences – Ibra in the Sultanate of Oman.

32 thoughts on “Four lessons for operating in a different cultural environment”

  1. Dear Dr Nithya

    your thoughts on operating in a different cultural environment , particularly in academia is very valuable.

    Being adaptive to the environment is critial. How quickly we make sense of the environment and adapt matters.

    Your experience and suggested strategies will be useful in this context. We need to be creative and innovative in our approaches.

    Best wishes.

    Dr.Kabaly P Subramanian
    Arab Open University
    Sultanate of Oman

    Reply
  2. Thanks Nithya for this very nice post! I’m Chinese and I was studying and working in Belgium for many years. What I have learnt is that always being sincere to colleagues from different cultures. Whenever there is misunderstanding, or possible problems with colleagues, I always try to initiate good communications. I found that human feelings are always so well connected if we can sincerely and directly communicate, whatever language we speak and wherever we come from.

    Reply
    • You are right Lin,
      Wherever we are from, in whichever culture we are raised, finally all of us are human beings. Sharing good thoughts, understanding people and much more is possible anytime anywhere.
      Thanks for your comment.
      Merry Christmas.

      Regards,
      Nithya

      Reply
  3. Hello Nithya, This is a fascinating topic. I like the way you cover your experience in working in the Middle East or a different context. I was thinking in one of the most critical issues that might need to be included is reading and knowing the background and local culture of the new community that newcomer will move in. In this line of thinking, did you have the chance to read about Oman before starting working there? Best wishes and have a good stay!

    Reply
    • Dear Abeer,
      Thanks for spending time to read the article and write a comment.
      I have not done any background research as I was the first one to move to this part of the world among my family and friends. But now I wish to say that it is a right decision after seeing this country and people.

      Regards,
      Nithya

      Reply
  4. Dear Nithya,

    Thank you for your posting. The advice you provide on why taking culture into consideration when teaching and mentoring in a different country is relevant for all our research and engagement with communities and the public more broadly. In my own work, recognizing and embracing cultural differences, even those that may be uncomfortable for me, moves my thinking and action forward in unexpected, nuanced and, most importantly, collaborative ways. Often it is these small steps that have big impacts. I definitely find that to be true when working with students and younger colleagues. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Michael

    Reply
      • Thanks to you and Gabriele for reposting my previous blog. I am more convinced than ever, for a host of contemporary and intellectual and applied reasons, that we need to pay much more attention to culture and we need to be more explicit in how we understand it and its impacts. Culture does matter, and it can be studied in scientifically as well as humanistically, which when combined create collaborations and co-production of new knowledge, practice and institutional change that can be highly adaptive and flexible.

        Reply
  5. Dear Nithya,

    Very well written!! Especially on the going slow , customised approach to each student

    good observation and very well articulated
    regards
    madhu

    Reply
  6. Thanks for your sharing! Indeed, I totally agree with the opinion that it is necessary to react to students’ appeal positively. In such a special period, not only the faculty suffer from great pressure, but also the students burden a lot of pressure, both in learning and find a good job. Therefore, care, encouragement, and sharing will support them in a different cultural environment.

    Reply
    • Students also have pressure in adjusting to the new lecturer, especially those who are at the higher level. Motivation, special attention is needed to make teacher student relationship strong. Thanks a lot Ying Huang for your comment.

      Regards,
      Nithya

      Reply
  7. Thank you so much Prof. Nithya for sharing your experience. It is really useful and interesting for me to know how you handled your teaching career in a middle-East country. Effective engagement of foreign teachers with students is very challenging, especially at the beginning and it is highly dependent on the cultural context. I have been responsible for teaching local and foreign students in Germany and China. There are, of course, obstacles that you might encounter such as language barriers, cultural differences, developing new communication skills, collaborative engagement with your colleagues, the opinion/personal point of view of your superiors, and the acceptance by students to your religion/culture/country. In your case, the present of an experienced mentor from your own culture was really helpful and effective for your fast integration in the new culture and I appreciate that you are doing the same for your colleagues adding your own experience.

    In my case, I had to learn without mentor for 3 months to observe the surrounding environment even for small details and study how to integrate what I have learned to effectively engage with my colleagues to let them become my mentors, provide attractive teaching methods for students from my own culture, amplify the impact of successful teaching methods for each student and build on it, build strong social relationship with my colleagues in a similar manner as you enjoyed the diversity of your colleagues, but I added collaborative research work on a common research problem. You have to be the one who searches for common ideas and don’t wait for them to invite you in to their research because they will not do that at the beginning. You can’t succeed in a different country without the help of your colleagues especially if you don’t have any one from your own country to help you.

    I really like your blog and how you reinforced the positive aspect of student behaviours and remember that your self-esteem, self-confidence and creativity will be reflected positively on your students and colleagues in the University
    Best regards,

    Tarek Elkhooly

    Reply
    • Thanks a lot Tarek Elkhooly for your comment. Moving to a new work environment builds in us more patience, self-confidence and creates interest to learn, experience new things and people. Initially it was hard but with support from my mentor and other colleagues I could overcome the challenges.

      Regards,
      Nithya

      Reply
      • I am happy for you that you integrated well in this new community and different culture. I wish you all the best in sharing your knowledge and experience to Arabian world

        Reply
  8. Dear Nithya,

    many thanks for sharing your experiences and recommendations in such an open manner!
    I think that differences that enrich, challenge, hamper can only be transformed and brought into fruition engaging with each other — ‘enjoying diversity’ – as you recommend, in dialogue and in an open attitude towards the Other(s) – ‘open and responsive’ – as you write. But likewise we need to acknowledge that we are all born into and formed by history that brought about cultural hegemonies, oppression, injustice that may burden intercultural encounters. Rebecca Freeth, coming from South Africa — “a place of fire”, as she writes in her brilliant contribution entitled ‚Burning to be Understood‘ (2019) has outlined a true blueprint for engaging in challenging, burdened, stressed but at the same time promising collaborations among different – something I’d like to share with you and others here.

    „It is hot. The deal is that every voice deserves to be heard. Especially the one’s we don’t want to hear because they carry too much hatred, or pain. These are often the ones we’ve silenced internally too, especially if, at our most honest, those voices have found a small echo within us. By listening to every perspective, we carve out more spaciousness within ourselves to hold the whole picture, not just the bits we like…“ (136).

    Freeth, Rebecca (2019). Burning to be Understood. In: The Dark Mountain Project: Dark Mountain 15, http://www.dark-mountain.net

    Reply
  9. Hi Nithya
    Thank you for sharing your experience in teaching in a different cultural environment with us.
    I am an Egyptian researcher (Associate Professor) and I have a long experience in researching in Japan as a postdoctoral fellow. Actually, my experience is the main reason for my interest in your article.

    Egypt and Japan are very different in many aspects such as the culture, language, daily habits, foods, ……. etc. In my case these differences were not all favorable as most people think about Japan as an ideal country. Actually, I have a long time struggling to accommodate and I can’t claim that I completely succeeded.

    One major obstacle is the language where English is not common at all in Japan. In my laboratory, the two seniors can hardly understand me while none of the students can. In the streets, no one at all can speak English. I was very surprised to know that the students translate the scientific articles from English to Japanese to introduce them in the weekly seminars. Meanwhile, I found Japanese language very hard to learn. So far, it is the biggest challenge for me. It is very upsetting that the mentors can’t understand me. You may realize that I can’t make the most of mentoring in this case.

    I faced also another hurdle during my fellowship period in Japan. As I mentioned above, I am associate professor in my home institute. It was difficult for young students (BSc students) to accept a non-Japanese senior in the laboratory, specially, there was no other foreign researchers in the lab. I faced many challenges that necessitate the intervention of senior Japanese associate professor. However, I believe that age and experience are the reasons for these behaviors. In general, Japanese people are polite and respecting others.

    I can endorse your suggestion about enjoying the diversity. The diverse cultures and habits has a great impact on me too. Japan is a beautiful country with tremendous technological advancements in addition to its unique natural sights. Foods are distinctly different from Egypt. I am enjoying such diversity.

    Thank you again for your article

    Kind regards
    Rania

    Reply
  10. Important lessons for working cross culturally in any environment. An important lesson I learned is to really listen to others insights. If you are providing technical assistance, it’s important to share the knowledge you have but more important to understand how it is being received and what may need to be adapted to make it successful. This requires relationship building, communication and active listening (verbal and nonverbal).

    You are very lucky to have a good mentor. Mentors are so important to equation.

    These comments were posted on the LinkedIn Group “American Public Health Association” and are copied from there.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your important addition. Of course yes, mentors play a very important role in the initial days of new work environment. I am happy that my mentor supported me as much as possible to get on track and I could do the same to my mentee as well.

      Reply

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