Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February
Back to Basics
By Sally J. Walton, M.A.
BRIDGING THE CULTURE GAP
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
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
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
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
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
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 (www.globalperspective.com).
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