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Teaching English Abroad? How to behave

Teaching English Abroad? How to behave

With English as a global language, we may assume there is a corresponding understanding of British/American customs, ways and body language.

Anyone who has travelled widely or lived abroad for any length of time knows this is a mistake. It can be hard to navigate the rules in certain very formal cultures, such as Japan or Korea, for example.

Don’t put your feet up on the desk in Thailand or Japan, since showing the soles of your feet is very bad manners. Closer to home, removing your jacket and rolling up your sleeves means getting down to business in the UK and Holland, but in Germany this action would be regarded as a having a laid back or relaxed attitude.  And, consider the implications of socialising in Russia where it is only polite to keep up with your host drink for drink!

Similarly, when teaching in places with a traumatic history, it is wise to do some homework as seemingly innocuous occurrences can signal more than you intend.  One teacher comments that when teaching Vietnamese and Cambodian students he had a red pen clipped into his shirt front pocket.  Weeks later he discovered that this was THE status symbol of the Khmer Rouge.

So how much do you know about gestures in various countries. Try our quick quiz:

Identify which countries fit the descriptions below:

a)      Bulgaria                                b) Japan                               c) India                                 d) Iraq

1) In which country is ‘yes’ indicated by the wobbling of the head side to side?
2) In which country is ‘yes’ indicated in 2 ways; by the wobbling of the head side to side or by nodding
3 ) In which country is a ‘thumbs up’ hand signal considered a very rude gesture?
4 ) In which country is blowing your nose in public considered bad manners?

Answers are at the bottom of the page.

Implications for teaching English

So, knowing how important it can be to be culturally appropriate, how do we apply this as teachers of English? Is it our job to teach our students more than just the language? Might we want to consider non-verbal communication as well, such as how someone from the UK can perceive arms folded as quite a defensive gesture in conversation?

Now think about this. If we are teaching questions and our student forms this perfectly grammatically correct sentence:

‘How much do you earn?’

how essential is it that we inform them that this is not a very polite question in the UK?

Your experiences

Over to you. Do you teach cultural appropriateness in class and if so, how? Have you ever got it wrong abroad? What advice would you give to someone coming to live in your country?

If you are interested in this area, the Global English TESOL Master course goes into this and various areas of sociolinguistics in more depth. Alternatively, you can take this interesting area as a separate 30-hour programme through our Introduction to Linguistics course


Answers to the quiz

Yes’ is indicated by the wobbling of the head side to side in India.
Yes’ is indicated in 2 ways; by the wobbling of the head side to side or by nodding in Bulgaria.
A ‘thumbs up’ hand signal considered a very rude gesture in Iraq.
'Blowing your nose in public' is considered bad manners in Japan.


Over to you

If you haven’t joined our community on Facebook, you’re missing out on half the fun!  Our Facebook page is the perfect place to ask your TEFL questions and get answers directly from Louisa Join here now... In the meantime, take a look at this video you could use in your classrooms on cultural difference and the humourous aspect of getting it wrong abroad. Enjoy!

  • Author: Louisa
  • Date: Wednesday 14th December 2011


D' Almeida Pinheiro

Cultural differences may not exist but simply other forms of interaction, other customs and above all other concepts of interpreting reality.

There is no language in pole position to define reality better than others.

Most people into English language teaching are monolingual and remain like that for their entire life. They presume that reality can be decoded in one single language.

Unfortunately they are not able to overcome their myopia in understanding and respecting the world and its diversity.

In the twenty first century is still acceptable to work abroad as Language teacher without mastering the language of the place where one is going to work.


Louisa Walsh

I agree we English teachers can be a little narrow minded as we assume everyone wants to speak English. In defence of EFL teachers, many want to live abroad explicitly to experience other cultures - and may move around from country to country which means they may pick up only a small amount of each native language on their travels. Also, many English learners want to learn more than English and so English lessons can extend into instruction on US/UK cultural norms/social expectations.


Actually, even the English-speaking world is not all that mono-cultural. I feel that I have more in common with other Europeans than with the English-speaking Americans I know. Living in the USA for a while, I thought there would be no culture shock - boy was I wrong about that!

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