Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The High-Low Dilemma: Recommendation for Presenting Culture

Assumed knowledge:
  • The difference between high and low context cultures
  • How this difference can impact communication

The difference between high and low context is a theoretical concept that is difficult to translate into activities for training.  The trainer can either present the theory and use examples to illustrate the difference, or they can show 'model' communication to mitigate the risk of misunderstanding.  Furthermore, because high and low context is not exclusive to national culture, the learners must be able to identify different communication styles in various situations.  This effectively eliminates the value of trainer generated models because they may not be appropriate to the situation.  Therefore, it would be best to give the learners a more solid understanding of how cultural context affects communication and let them apply the lesson to their needs.


There are many points of view on the topic, but I will highlight just two.  Going back to 2010, Evan Frendo offered an outstanding menu of comparing and contrasting activities.  They were all based on input from the trainer on the theory.  The learners are then ask to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the differences.  The weakness in the approach is in the presentation phase.  I feel that presenting Edward Hall's theory as an academic topic is not a guarantee for comprehension.

Another approach is that from authors Bovèe and Thill from Business Communication Essentials (Pearson, 2012), a fairly standard university text book.  The book echoes a wide range of business communication material when it states, "The different expectations of low- and high-context cultures can create friction and misunderstanding when people try to communicate across cultural boundaries."  While certainly sound, this doesn't give the trainer or participant much to work with.  The authors then provide a model of effective intercultural communication with some basic tips.  Sadly, the model consists of a sterilized business letter.  While extremely clear it does little to support Bob Dignan's ideas of building relationships, influencing people, or building trust.  Effective for the immediate event, it does little for the long-term business relationship.


So, to compliment Frendo's activities, a better method of presentation is needed.  From this, the learners can create their own trainer supported models to fit their communication needs.  One method is to link lesson plans we are already using to illustrate the difference between high and low cultures.  After all, the employees are already living in a high-context company culture.  Also, they all remember starting at the company and trying to understand 'the way things are done'.

1.  The Unwritten Rules of the Company

A good model for this lesson can be found in Vicki Hollet's series Lifestyle (Intermediate by Iwonna Dubicka and Margaret O’Keeffe).  This will help define the company culture.  In the lesson, the learners discuss and formulate the unwritten rules of the company. Language point - modals of obligation

2.  Your First Day

Learners tell stories about the challenges they faced during their first day/month at work.  Language point - past tenses and past obligation

Some guiding questions can help the lesson:
  • What company/school did you come from?  How was it different?
  • Did anyone help you understand the unwritten rules?
  • Did you come in and give lots of recommendations or sit back and listen?  Why?
  • Do you remember any mistakes you made?  How did your colleagues handle them?
  • What were the most important lessons you learned?  How did you learn them?
  • Did you understand what everyone was talking about (terms, projects, people, etc.)?
  • What did you think about your new colleagues?  How did they treat you?
  • Did you ever hear...
    • That won't work here.
    • We don't do it that way.
    • Trust me, this is the best.
    • We already tried that xx years ago.
3.  The New Hire's First Day

From here the lesson moves to giving advice for an employee's first day.  Using the previous lessons, the learners must 'sponsor' a new employee.  This could be done as a role-play, a written list supported by instruction, etc.  The new hires should prepare a list of questions for their sponsors to help make the transition faster.  Language point - giving advice, modal question forms

4.  Reveal the Learning Point

It is at this point that the trainer reveals that their company is a high-context culture.  It has its own traditions, conventions, symbols, etc., everything that makes a culture.  The trainer can also show the difference between the way they talk to each other in class (high-context) and the way they explain things to the trainer (low-context).  Because the difference is already illustrated using a personal situation, it is much clearer for them to understand.  One visual way to reveal this is to board the advice under the title "Company", then replace with "China"

5.  Replace Company with Culture

Now that the learners comprehend the difference, it will be much more fruitful for them to do activities like Evan Frendo's or create models for their communicative situations.  Now they can better analyze their communication.  Furthermore, the tips they gave to the new hires and the questions they wrote for the sponsor are great resources.  They will mirror the advice given by Dignan, Bovèe, Thrill, and others.  The questions are very useful when working with their foreign contacts when they need help navigating the confusion.

Question for the reader:
This post uses a specific communication style.  Did it feel strange to read such a blog post?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Why Grammar is Still Important

The chorus among my colleagues seems to be reaching a nice harmonious tone about grammar.  All the voices seem to say that it's no longer important.  It's all about communication they say, and has simply no place in the Business English course... well, okay with lower levels, sure we need it.  And if it causes a misunderstanding, certainly.

I started listening to this siren song some time ago and began to all but remove grammar from my lesson plans.  I gave some feedback, but gone was the 90 minute lesson on getting all our 'if's and 'would's in the right place.  But over time, I feel the pull of grammar bringing me back and while I'm still not running entire lessons focused on a certain element, grammar is tangible in nearly every lesson.  So, I thought I would spell out a few reasons why it's still okay to teach grammar (even to higher levels) and why we can even learn to love it again.

1.  Grammar is image

We have been watching Cars a lot in my house lately.  Cars and Cars 2 are films from Disney/Pixar about a race car, Lightning McQueen, and his best friend, Tow Mater, a lovable redneck tow truck.  In the second movie they introduce Finn McMissile, a soave British secret agent.

Michael Caine and Larry the Cable Guy. 
Photo of Michael Caine: Harry Wad, both from

Here's a quiz based on these two pictures:
  1. Which man is the voice of the lovable redneck tow truck?
  2. Which man is the voice of the soave British secret agent?
  3. Who uses the sentence... "My apologies, I haven't properly introduced myself."
  4. Who uses the sentence, "Ah!  I knowed you wasn't gonna leave without sayin' goodbye!"
  5. Which image would your learners most like to portray?
My point is that grammar is somewhat like a set of clothes.  Do we want to send our learners into a meeting dressed like Larry the Cable Guy?  This type of appearance probably isn't going to help them persuade others or defend their ideas.  Sure, other NNSs may give them allowances, but having good grammar shows qualities useful in business, namely persistence, hard work, mastery, and attention to detail. 

2.  Without grammar it's not language teaching

The basic truth is that our learners expect teaching in grammar.  It is one of the core aspects they expect in our classes.  Sure they may not want to spend a lot of time listening to the teacher drone on about when to use the past perfect, but grammar is one of the ways they measure their own progress.  Unlike vocabulary, which they may or may not see again in their daily lives, they will recognize grammar.  It also helps the learners battle ambiguity.  Especially in writing, they have fewer doubts, "Is this right or not?"  That is a big confidence boost.

In fact, grammar serves as the key to unlock meaning.  We often ask our learners to try to define unknown words in context.  We ask them to find collocations and lexical chunks.  Without understanding the grammar, they cannot perform these tasks.  For more difficult texts, it can be very difficult for them to even distinguish the core sentence from the accompanying clauses.  Giving them a set of keys to unlock meaning will give them more freedom to understand outside the class room.  Without it, they are limited to the set phrases and functional sentences we give them.  If they aren't used, the learners will struggle.

3.  Grammar is relatively easy to teach

Let's be honest, we can't walk into every classroom every week and be 100% engaged.  Setting up and evaluating skills training can be hard work.  Listening for lexical gaps and absent functional phrases takes immense concentration.  Sometimes we are tired, distracted, or just plain having a rough day.  Identifying and filling grammar deficiencies is much easier to do.  We should certainly try to do more when monitoring, but it's not always possible.

Grammar provides a great way for the teacher to relax a little bit.  We all have a bank of grammar based activities and ideas to draw upon at a moment's notice.  We all have our standard way of teaching the present perfect continuous and passive modals.  Sometimes it does us good to dust those off and have a nice standard grammar lesson.  The learners will get something and the teacher can live to fight another day.

4.  Grammar teaching supports awareness of language

By dissecting the language, the learners are practicing the skill of analyzing what they say and how they say it.  This supports our other training areas.  It shows them that small things can make a huge difference.  It then becomes easier to show them how word choice can change the tone of a sentence.  We can then show them why formal language is different than informal language.  It better enables us to show how discourse markers help the listener to understand.  Etc., etc.

My approach

I continue to listen politely to my colleagues about grammar.  And I will give them one concession,  we need to prioritize which grammatical elements to include.  There are many steps between Finn McMissile and Tow Mater.  We need to think about which elements will help them fit the image they want to portray.

I now include a grammar element in nearly every lesson I have.  Sometimes it is planned based on the text/listening, sometimes it is feedback driven, but it is always there.  It worries me when dismissing grammar in Business English training becomes so common that we take it for granted.  In meetings with other trainers it seems as though we compete at who teaches it the least.  This is not the right approach and is not helping our learners.  But I suspect many of them are secretly teaching it anyway :)

So, learn to embrace it and love it... just don't let it get too passionate.