Relating across cultures in university classes: Understanding and addressing the challenges

by Dr. Helen Spencer-Oatey, University of Warwick

Employers frequently identify the ability to work effectively in diverse teams, including the ability to communicate and relate well with others, as one of the crucial skill sets they are looking for in graduates (e.g. British Council, 2013, 2018; Coffelt & Smith, 2020; Diamond, Walkley, Forbes, Hughes, & Sheen, 2011; QS Intelligence Unit, 2018). Universities similarly refer in their internationalisation strategies to ‘global citizenship’ and ‘global mindset’ as key rationales for internationalisation, often linking them with employability and pursuit of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. University of Nottingham, n.d.; University of Sheffield, n.d). It is important, therefore, to consider one core area of student experience – the classroom – in order to examine ways of promoting these goals in this setting. I focus on one particular aspect – relating across cultural boundaries. By this I mean the interaction (or lack of interaction) that occurs among students in the classroom and between students and staff. Interaction offers wonderful opportunities for learning from others with different background experiences and perspectives and for gradually honing intercultural skills (Spencer-Oatey & Dauber, 2019b), yet it can also risk frustration and annoyance, and avoidance of future interaction. In this paper I explore some of the challenges to relating well across cultural boundaries, how we can understand them conceptually, and ways of addressing them.

Challenges of relating across cultures

Research by Spencer-Oatey and Dauber (2019a), which draws on data collected in several different universities across Europe using the Global Education Profiler (GEP) (i-graduate, n.d.), found that a significant proportion of students (between 20% and 25%) reported little or no experience of mixing across cultural boundaries in the classroom even though they regarded it as (very) important. In addition, a similar proportion of students actually reported no particular wish to interact in the classroom with people from different backgrounds. Far more of these non-interested students (irrespective of location or institution) were home students rather than international students, indicating that it is particularly important for staff to find ways of motivating home students, as well as of enhancing the experiences of everyone in the class.

Sometimes such a lack of connection is ‘blamed’ on students, yet the dynamics of classroom interaction is at least partially influenced by the interactional management skills of the teaching staff. In another GEP study involving 13 European universities and over 4700 academic staff, Spencer-Oatey (2020) reported that 88% of these staff regarded student interaction in class as important, yet only 61% felt confident in handling it. In other words, despite the vast majority believing it to be very important, 39% of respondents reported low levels of confidence in handling student interaction in class. In a complementary GEP study, Spencer-Oatey and Dauber (forthcoming) report that ‘participating comfortably in class’ was the element of academic integration given the highest rating of importance by student respondents, but was also the item with the largest gap between importance ratings and experience ratings. Students noted in their open comments many different reasons for this. One was very critical of the departmental culture:

Comment 1: I do get to meet a diverse group of people on my course, but in terms of feeling comfortable enough to participate, my department are terrible at making students feel comfortable enough to do so. If anything, they make it worse by making you feel like you aren’t clever enough to participate – it’s a huge downfall of this uni. [Home male undergraduate student]

Also blamed are others’ lack of appreciation for unfamiliar information and an absence of encouragement to participate:

Comment 2: My background is different, therefore what may be common knowledge for British students/staff is not for me and the opposite way, which many do not recognise. I definitely think that if I bring an example in my lecture or classroom about my home country, it is not valued as much. It is mainly so because people don’t have any knowledge about it and cannot relate to it, which is understandable. However, I sometimes wish it would be more valued and people would ask me to evaluate anything they don’t understand. [EEA male undergraduate]

Comment 3: I have found that there is reasonably little encouragement for students to contribute in seminars, particularly those from different ethnic backgrounds, and as a result frequently find myself in one-on-one discussions with the seminar leader for the whole hour as no one else is willing to or encouraged to contribute. [Home female undergraduate]

Both these comments partly point the finger at staff, but also implicate students because they too have a major responsibility to engage actively. Failure to respond sensitively to different students’ comments, whether by staff or by students, can not only limit interaction at the time, but also have a knock-on effect, discouraging individuals from speaking up in the future. Debray and Spencer-Oatey (2019) report a sad case like this where one international student was repeatedly positioned by other students as an ‘outsider’ in their group project, with the result that as the months progressed he became more and more silent and eventually hardly said anything at all.

This points yet again to the dynamic nature of interaction and the importance yet difficulty of handling it well. One student reported to me the following problem that occurred in her group work project (used with permission and very slightly re-worded for clarification purposes).

My group was formed of four Chinese students (named C1, C2, C3, and C4) and one German student (named G). The deadline for the group assignment was about three weeks away and it was necessary for all group members to complete their task in time. However, C1 did not take the group assignment as seriously as other group members and did not finish her task before each week’s group meeting and gave the reason that she had lots of other stuff. It was annoying for other group members because if one person did not complete the task of the week, the whole plan needed to be postponed and they might be worried later on. The German student’s patience has run out and she asked C2 to have a talk with C1. The German student said that since C1 and C2 were from the same country they could maybe communicate easily in Chinese. G wanted C2 to get across that it was a group work and you cannot always put your own schedules or stuff ahead of the group assignment, you need to finish the group work on time and not hinder the others’ progress.

This led to a problem. C2 was embarrassed for two reasons. On the one hand, C2 felt a loss of face that C1 did something inappropriate, maybe leading the German classmate to form a negative opinion of Chinese. On the other hand, C2 felt that since C1 and C2 both had the same nationality, C2 did not want to say something negative to her group member as this could negatively affect their friendship and might lead to problems in the future. C2 wanted the German student to talk to C1 directly instead of asking her to do this kind of ‘difficult’ thing.

Here we can see two layers of problems: (a) an initial behavioural problem – in this case, not completing work on time; and (b) a response problem – how to handle the issue. In order to know how to handle a situation, we first need to understand the source of the problem and so I turn to that next.

Understanding the sources of the problem

The open comments and the case-study example reported above reveal two key sources of the interconnected problems of relating across cultures in the classroom: the dynamics of classroom interaction and of rapport management. I deal with the latter first.

The case example reveals the following underlying concerns:

  • Threat to goals. All the students in the group except C1 wanted to complete the work in a step by step fashion so that they could all complete it on time and to a good standard. C1’s behaviour was threatening their goals.
  • Infringement of rights/failure to meet obligations.
    • All members of a group have a responsibility to fulfil their obligations to other group members by completing the work that has been assigned to them.
    • All members of a group have an obligation to consider the needs of other members of the group and not just repeatedly do what suits them.
    • C1’s behaviour was infringing their group member rights in both these respects.

In other words, all members of the group except C1 were agreed on these fundamental principles and were annoyed by C1’s breach of them both. This aligns with Spencer-Oatey’s rapport management and evaluation framework (Spencer-Oatey, 2008; Spencer-Oatey & Kádár, 2020), which identifies three types of interactional challenges that people frequently react to:  infringement of their interactional rights and obligations (especially role rights and obligations), frustration of their interactional goals, and threats to their sense of self identity and worth. In this particular example, the breaches to their goals and role rights were serious enough to trigger negative evaluations of C1, to adversely affect their rapport relations with C1, and to lead to a reactive response on the part of G.

G proposed a strategy for addressing the core problem (C1’s failure to complete her work adequately and on time), but this then led to another problem: concerns over face. Face refers to our desires to be accepted and appreciated by others, and can be threatened if we are criticised, excluded, and so on. C2 felt that it was too face-threatening, both for herself and C1, for her to talk with C1 about her unacceptable behaviour. C1 would likely be upset with her (i.e. C1 could experience a loss of face) and this could affect their friendship. C1 was thus unwilling to do this.

Personal face is also closely associated with issues of identity and a sense group face (Spencer-Oatey, 2007).  C2 was also concerned that G would form a negative opinion of Chinese students in general, as a result of C1’s behaviour, and that this could increase cultural divisions not only in this classroom but more generally. According to a study by Harrison and Peacock (2010), perceived threats to identity can have a major impact on student relations and need to be taken into consideration.

Issues of face can also affect the dynamics of classroom interaction. Students may fear contributing ideas, lest others disagree with them. Or if they make a comment which others ignore, this too can be face-threatening, especially if it happens repeatedly. Comment 2 reported above illustrates this.  It is extremely important for interpersonal relations, as well as for academic learning in itself, that students and staff both build on what other students say, yet, sadly, such responsiveness may be lacking (Comment 3). Without it, individuals can easily feel excluded and may feel a sense of face loss, and the potential benefits of a culturally diverse classroom are undermined.  The culture of the department is also influential, as Comment 1 indicates.

Addressing the challenges and enhancing rapport

The first step in dealing with any challenge is to be aware of the problem and to understand its source. The next is to find ways of addressing the challenge.

In terms of the dynamics of classroom interaction, Okech, Pimpleton, Vannatta, and Champe (2015) provide some very useful case study examples of ways in which teaching staff can manage these issues. Key recommended steps are:

  • When there are communication difficulties, use clarification questions. In this way, also act as a model that students can follow.
  • Show explicit interest in the experiences of any potentially marginalised students and bring their contributions into the group discussion.
  • Be careful to avoid any unintentional collusion with dominant/majority students, such as by primarily responding positively to them.
  • Look for opportunities to link marginalised students with other group members.
  • Conduct activities that encourage students to consider any stereotypes they may hold about people from different cultural backgrounds.

Similarly, Reissner-Roubicek and Spencer-Oatey (2020) describe an e-course, Working in Groups, to help students relate more effectively with each other when doing group work. They report on the design and implementation of the resource, which covers the following potential challenges: Communication (especially the dynamics discussed in this article), Trying out ideas, Working Patterns, and Giving Feedback. The pedagogic design principles that they found to work well included the following:


  • promote reflection as a skill and support its development in a structured way.
  • model how to reflect specifically on the phenomenon under scrutiny.

Experiential engagement:

  • include case study analyses, simulations, discussions, and role play.
  • take an inductive approach to dismantling assumptions.

Conceptual understanding:

  • take an implicit approach to focusing on group work processes.
  • offer brief accounts of underpinning research.

(Reissner-Roubicek & Spencer-Oatey, 2020, p. 89)

Rapport management concerns are closely interconnected with these issues, and care needs to be taken to consider potential cultural differences in people’s senses of rights and obligations and face sensitivities. Spencer-Oatey and Kádár (2020) offer a wealth of useful information with regard to this.

Concluding comments

In this article I have focused on two interrelated challenges associated with relating across cultures in university classes: dealing with the dynamics of classroom interaction and handling rapport-based concerns. I have explained that both teaching staff and students need to take responsibility for these elements. I have illustrated how they can be manifested and explained and how they can be understood conceptually. Finally, I have proposed some ways in which they can be addressed, making suggestions for both teaching staff and students.


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