One bump, two perspectives

I wrote something about “Cultural Bumps” for an online course I’m teaching related to culture. In one course assignment, participants are asked to write about a conflict or misunderstanding they had with someone from another culture and then are asked to write up the same incident from the perspective of the other person involved. Below is what I wrote as a model. I hope it is somewhat enjoyable or interesting.


Mike’s version
A few years ago I was talking to students after class had just finished. From my view, students in my school tend to work extremely hard and are very polite and kind. In this conversation they were complaining about how tight their schedule is and how they have classes all day and no time to rest or even any time to have lunch. They do have a tight schedule and I tried my best to be a good listener and to empathize with them. I agreed they work very hard and even said how impressive their hard work was. As they were talking, I thought they just wanted to be appreciated for their hard work and to feel understood. I acknowledged I knew how hard they worked and sort of just kept saying that I know it is tough. I think I even suggested that they make sure to get enough sleep.  I took the whole conversation as something friendly and maybe that they were trying to develop a sense of camaraderie and mutual understanding. I felt like students wanted to be heard and maybe forgiven for being tired. I didn’t even think the conversation was anything unusual or out of the ordinary until a few days later when one of the students enlightened me. She told me they were actually trying to ask if we could start class a little bit later in order to give them time to get some food and have a break before starting my class. My assumption that if they had a concrete request they would just ask me directly about it. I didn’t consider that they could mean anything beyond the words what they were saying. I couldn’t imagine complaining about a busy schedule was actually a request for a slight change in the time to start class. The story ended with me thanking the student who told me about the intended meaning and then suggesting to the whole group we start class a bit later the following week. I think this resolved the issue, though the story is always a good reminder to me that things might not always be as they seem.

Kyoung-Min’s Version 

A few years ago after class with Mike, one of my favorite teachers ever, I had an interesting experience. Class had just finished and we were all sitting around and chatting on a Tuesday night after class. On Tuesdays we had 9 hours of class, all right in a row from 9 am to 6 pm.  Class with Mike was from 3 pm to 6 pm so you can imagine how tired we were after such a long and busy day. So, Mike was packing up and getting ready to go and Sojin mentioned how hard we were working and how long of a day it was. She was trying to suggest that we start class a bit late but she didn’t want to offend him or make him feel bad. I think she was worried Mike might think she was complaining and also worried to make a direct request because it might seem lazy or like we didn’t’ care about his class. Mike smiled and said he understood. He said he knew how hard we were working. He said it was impressive but he didn’t make any mention of changing the starting time. Next, I mentioned how we didn’t even have time to eat and I thought for sure he’d figure out what we were getting at. Mike is usually pretty good at figuring things out and reading the room but not this time. He just kept re-stating that he knew how hard we worked and how impressive it was. This went on for a while and ended with Mike saying something about the importance of sleep. I know he was trying to be helpful but we really just wanted to start class 15 minutes later and we didn’t want to ask directly. We thought it might sound rude to ask directly so we just left increasingly big hints. He never got it. The whole situation was uncomfortable for me and probably all the students. Mike seemed to think it was just fine and normal. He was oblivious! We really thought he’d figure it out, especially by the time the third person explained the situation and mentioned how long and exhausting our days are. Finally, a few days later I mentioned to him privately that we were actually trying to change the starting time for our class with him. He seemed shocked! He changed the schedule and we started class later from then on. My classmates never knew that I’d explained it to him and gave Mike credit for figuring out our request, even though it was later than we expected and hoped.


  1. patricepalmer

    I really enjoyed your post. It made me reflect on the numerous cultural bumps I have experienced working in the ELT field. I did something like this after a cultural incident. A class of students were asked to RSVP (via email) if they wanted to attend a dinner for international students at the college. No one emailed the coordinator. Instead they all just showed up about 45 minutes after the event started to find a shocked and embarrassed coordinator and that there was no food. I did the de-brief orally but a written exercise would have been more useful as some students did not say anything, and a few felt that they were being blamed for what happened. Thanks for making me reflect on cultural in our classrooms as I get ready for the Spring semester.

  2. M. Makino

    I had an experience lately where I had to learn that my students’ constant attempts to negotiate aspects of the syllabus with me after the fact were actually expressions of keen interest in success in the course. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

  3. geoffjordan

    Good story. I’ve found thru 50 years of misunderstandings at every level, that a “counselling response” is often helpful. When somebody says something that involves a less than obvious suggestion, criticism, request, etc., you paraphrase what you heard. You say “So, I think what you’re saying is ……… . Is that more or less right?” Often they reply “Well, no, that’s not really it. What I mean is …….. ”

    It can work the other way, too. When I was DoS, I sometimes had to tell teachers that some change in their behaviour was required. When I’d told them, and we’d talked about it, I’d say “Please, Jim, now tell me what you think we’ve said, and what we’ve decided to do.”

  4. Chris Ożóg

    Very much enjoyed reading this, Mike – thank you for writing it up.

    Here’s one from me. I was recently working with some teachers from China on an enjoyable training project. The teachers had a habit of taking photos of me in class, which I let them do as it doesn’t really bother me and they had their phones out to take pictures of slides, materials, the board, etc., anyway. However, I noticed they were all taking photos of one thing in particular – in monitoring, I was kneeling (on one knee) as I talked to teachers at different tables. This is to not loom over them as they work, be more personable and because I find crouching difficult. But for some of the teachers, this was amazing. One of the more senior came up to me and told me after a class that she was so impressed that she would be showing this to all the teachers in her school as an example of ‘an excellent teacher’ (at which news I probably gaped).

    To me, positioning myself like this (without thinking) was just a practical way of listening and interacting, but to the teachers there, it was extraordinary; that’s not what a teacher does. Of course, this makes complete sense to me in other ways: I live in Japan where (like Korea?), serving staff in many restaurants crouch down to below your level (which I find so odd) to take orders. But teachers don’t do that. We had some interesting discussions about it and about how for me it just seems normal given the space restrictions but for them they never do it in their classes.

    I was rather hoping that other aspects of the training might have been what they took away, but turns out my knee is quite the thing. And this is one of the reasons I love my job. #incidentallearning #emergentknees

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