February 01, 2002
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 2002 Current Issue
February 2002 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics

By Sally J. Walton, M.A.


Sensitivity to attendees’ languages and learning styles enhances the meeting experience

Different cultures convey knowledge and learn in different ways, so a diverse audience presents special program challenges. How will your meeting “translate” to attendees from various regions of the world?

Rather than trying to remember tips for specific cultures, planners can focus on a few concepts that give international meetings a broad base.

The United States has possibly the most informal culture in the world, a characteristic that does not communicate easily to international audiences. Multicultural programs need to be more formal and prepared.

Ease the language barrier. Always have handouts available in various languages. Slow the pace of meetings and add more references to the printed materials if many in the group are not native speakers of the event’s chosen language.

Use formal names. Address participants as Mr. or Ms. (last name), unless you are specifically invited to use a first name.

Start on a serious note. Consider giving concepts, models and theories to begin a learning session; save icebreaker exercises until just before the first break.

Unlike in the United States, with its emphasis on individualism, most cultures prefer to spend some time working in groups or teams.

Include group exercises and even mini-competitions. Give rewards and recognition to the winning teams. This can be fun, and it helps attendees feel more welcome and involved in the overall event.

Ask open-ended questions to make sure your message comes across. While Americans are encouraged to ask questions and challenge concepts they don’t understand or with which they disagree, this is not so for some other cultures. When all is quiet, it is too easy to assume there is complete understanding.

Make it an exercise. Since individuals might be reluctant to speak up, have small groups of attendees develop questions about the session for the presenter.

Learn a few phrases, or at least a greeting, in the language(s) of the group, and welcome participants in their own language. They will appreciate the effort.

Observe the behavior and demeanor of those around you when in a foreign setting. That doesn’t mean you should slavishly imitate, but it could require adjusting your energy level, sitting more upright or lowering your voice volume.

Don’t use humor until you know the person or group fairly well. All cultures have a sense of humor, but what is funny is always based on shared context, and finding that context takes some time.

Don’t generalize. The many factors influencing behavior (age, gender, nationality, religion, education, class, life experience) are too complex to allow lists of general characteristics for any given group. What you will encounter with any given person will be influenced by the above factors, as well as how much they were studying your culture while you were studying theirs.

Take it all in. To win support and enthusiasm in a multicultural learning environment, have a genuine interest in other cultures. If you’re the one traveling, show appreciation for the food, special sites you’ve seen in the host country or home countries of attendees. If the group is coming to the States, find out what attractions are of most interest, and include the information in the welcome or registration packets.

Reap rewards. By learning how to communicate across cultures, learning increases, stress levels decrease and everyone has more fun.

Sally J. Walton, M.A., based in Petaluma, Calif., speaks on diversity issues (

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