Cross-Cultural Training Extends the Value of ESL

Heather Chetwynd


By Heather Chetwynd, president of Voice to Word Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based company which offers customized training and seminars to support the needs of clients who are not native English speakers.


When you work on refining your English language skills, be careful not to overlook the cultural aspects of communication. Not understanding the unspoken rules of culturally appropriate behaviours can hold you back from achieving your full professional potential.

It starts for many new immigrants with questions about their “Canadian experience.” It can be hard to get a job without Canadian experience and hard to get Canadian experience without a job. But why is Canadian experience such an issue when so many immigrants have an extensive educational and working background from their home country?

In my opinion, when a prospective employer asks about “Canadian experience”, he or she is concerned with two things:  that the applicant’s language skills are good enough for comfortable, efficient communication and that they will behave in a culturally appropriate manner. The employer wants to trust that things will be understood, feel confident that tasks will be carried out as indicated and know that the employees are comfortable communicating with each other in the workplace. Having Canadian experience is an indicator that you have probably learned a lot of these skills

Getting hands-on experience in the Canadian workplace, either paid or volunteer, can help anyone looking for work. Canadians have a long tradition of volunteering and so we have many organizations which help people find placements. And taking an honest look at your English skills to make sure your English is clear and appropriate is also key for anyone wanting a job or a promotion, whether you are new to work, a new immigrant or looking to get promoted. Even speaking English all your life does not guarantee that you will be easily understood. Differences in accent and communication expectations influence both your ability to be clear to those you work with and the impression you make on others.

But even with Canadian workplace experience and very good spoken and written English skills, we need to consider what anthropologist Edward Hall[1] calls “The Silent Language” — if you have not adapted your behaviour to what is expected in the Canadian workplace, you will tend to misjudge other’s behaviour and be misinterpreted yourself. Remember, what you intend may not be what people perceive. So, the next step is to explore your behaviour and see if it matches Canadian expectations.

photo of people doing handshakes

Culturally appropriate behaviour grows out of predominant cultural values. We can see the behaviour but the values are hidden. If we imagine an iceberg, we could say that the tip, the visible ten percent, represents the behaviours we can see. The 90 percent remaining under the surface represents the hidden values. So we only learn about a person’s values and attitudes when they are discussed or reflected in their behaviour.

While each of us is highly influenced by our personality and individual experiences, we tend to behave and interpret behaviour through our cultural lens. This process of evaluating behaviours from a different cultural framework than the one in which they were rooted can result in undesired judgments, such as “He’s rude;”  “She’s always interfering;” “They’re cold;” etc. To avoid this, it helps to understand how your native culture differs from the Canadian culture in fundamental ways and, also, how Canadians express their cultural values through their communication.

Let’s look at a common and very visible interaction – the greeting. Some of the elements we can observe are:

  • The distance we stand from each other
  • The act of greeting – kiss, handshake, nod of the head, etc.
  • The type physical contact we make or don’t make
  • The body language we use
  • Who speaks first, which may or may not be important
  • What we say

How far we stand apart is related to our concept of personal space. Cultures that bow traditionally stand further apart; those that kiss stand more closely. Canadians tend to be in the middle. If you stand too close, Canadians may interpret you as being too intimate. If you stand too far, you may appear afraid.

If we shake hands, we expect a full grip and roughly 2 ½ moves up and down. A weak handshake is associated with a weak person. Shaking too long appears overly enthusiastic. These aspects are related to our concepts of appropriate emotional and physical expression.

Some cultures wait for the person of lower status to initiate the greeting or don’t shake a woman’s hand until she offers it. In Canada, status and gender is not considered much when it comes to greetings. These behavioural differences can be attributed to our attitudes towards hierarchy and gender.

What we talk about and how long we talk is influenced by current events and pop culture as well as values related to interdependence – whether we come from an individualistic, collective or family-oriented culture — and our attitudes towards time.

Other, less obvious examples of culturally appropriate behaviour include:

  • Taking initiative at work – in Canada, taking initiative is generally viewed as a desirable trait; decision-making power is shared more easily between different levels than in more hierarchical cultures.
  • The role of a manager –the Canadian manager tends to play the role of coach rather than giving explicit, detailed instructions to employees.
  • Listing names – Canadians tend to list names in alphabetical order or randomly rather than by status.
  • Sense of privacy – Canadians generally have a very strong sense of privacy; we feel uncomfortable with someone looking over our shoulder, sharing contact information of others without getting their permission first, even dropping in on a friend without first notifying them

We learn many of these cultural conventions through trial and error. But it takes time and is often a very incomplete process. Taking the initiative to learn about cultural variables and Canadian cultural conventions can make the transition more fluid and leave less room for misinterpretation. Cultural training develops confidence and clarity which helps both immigrant employees and those who interrelate with them, whether they be native-born Canadians or other immigrants.

Being able to communicate appropriately is a key concern for all potential employers. Speaking clearly and correctly is only one side of the coin. Both employers and employees will noticeably benefit from adding a cultural dimension to their training initiatives.

[1]Edward Hall, The Silent Language, 1973