Culture and Participation


Sharing Opinions

Depending on their cultural background and confidence in their English skills, students may be more and less willing to openly share personal points of view. If students come from a culture where group harmony is the goal, they may not want to risk offending other students or the instructor. If students are from a more indivdualistic culture, conflict that arises from the sharing of opinions may be encouraged. While some international students are accustomed to a classroom in which they only listen to the instructor and are never asked to share opinions, others are used to a more lively style of debate, with interruption and talking over others being expected as well as many variations in between. 


In some cultures, turn-taking is expected in any discussion, and each person will prepare what they have to say then deliver it rather than interacting with or responding to what other students are saying. The oldest or highest ranking student may not be expected to chime in until the very end. If international students are waiting for a turn in a U.S. classroom, it is unlikely that the appropriate time will ever come

Wait Time

The average wait-time in any conversation in America, whether in a classroom discussion or between friends, is less than 3 seconds. For non-native speakers (NNS) of English, conversations seem to move very quickly, and if they are also used to a “turn-taking” style of discussion, it is unlikely they will be able to quickly enter a discussion. This can also affect their ability to respond to a question from an instructor, because many people will move on to another student or answer the question themselves before the NNS student has had a chance to formulate his/her thoughts. In contrast, some cultures have little or no wait time and frequently interrupt others or talk at the same time as others, which of course would seem rude in a US classroom.

Maintaining “Face” in Discussions

In some cultures it is considered embarrassing to disagree with a classmate in front of the “expert” instructor, because both students lose face: the former for being impolite and the latter for being questioned or doubted. It can also be considered rude and embarrassing to appear to disagree with an instructor, though in some cultures students can be expected to vigorously and vocally challenge what instructors and classmates say.

Students as Cultural Experts

While it may be tempting to ask students to speak for their culture (and this can be a good way to help other students see the value in a diverse classroom), instructors should keep in mind that just being from a country doesn’t mean someone is willing or able to speak for it on a given topic. If possible, discuss with the student ahead of time to ask if s/he would like to share information.

SEE: Encouraging Participation for strategies to help international students in the classroom