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Apr 25, 2013

Do people learn differently around the world? Does culture affect learning style?

The answer to both questions is “yes.”

If so, how do global companies deliver the same training program and consistent message on a worldwide basis while taking into account these differences?

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Translation is the not the answer. The biggest myth is believing that translating learning material into the local language will correct all problems. It is not the language that is the problem so much; it is the way the material is delivered.
  2. Avoid all slang, idioms, colloquialisms and acronyms. Examples: “Piggybacking” is offensive in Israel because pigs are unclean. “Sacred cow” used in a joke or in a derogatory manner will insult people from India to whom cows are sacred.
  3. Avoid U.S.-centric references. Using only American companies and experts as examples will reinforce the perception by non-U.S. participants that Americans are arrogant. In your examples try to refer to country specific companies and experts. Do your homework ahead of time.
  4. Encourage open discussion and debate. Be careful! Because open debate or discussion may ruin group harmony in some cultures, participants may be more likely to keep their opinions to themselves.
  5. Singling out a participant to answer a question. Be careful! In some cultures asking a question puts the participant on the spot. By answering he/she risks showing off to other group members and that is not appropriate. The participant also doesn’t want to cause others to “lose face” by not being included in providing the answer. In some cultures answers/recommendations are arrived at by consensus and are delivered by the whole group.
  6. Answering a question with a question. In some countries, the instructor is expected to be an expert and would never ask a participant to provide an answer.
  7. Don’t jump from topic to topic. This confuses participants with poor English capability. They have difficulty following topics that jump back and forth.
  8. Simplify instruction. Don’t use synonyms — example don’t use the word “compensation” and then later in the session use the word “pay” to mean the same thing. Stick with the same words that mean the same thing throughout the session.
  9. Follow formality protocol. Instructors in some cultures have higher social standing than in the U.S. In these cultures, sharing a good laugh or having dinner with the group creates too much familiarity.
  10. Managers and subordinates in the same training sessions. Understand up front when it is/is not appropriate. If combined inappropriately, in some cases the subordinates will either not participate at all or will agree with everything the managers say.

One last thing: People from Corporate tend to believe that employees in overseas locations are Americanized considering their dress, fluency with English, preference for Western food/music, etc. They may think that “cultural differences” don’t apply to their company or their employees. They may think “cultural differences” are a bunch of “hooey.” Just beware.

No matter how Americanized someone is on the surface, native culture runs deep. Like peeling an onion, once you get past the surface layer, native culture plays a bigger role than you might think.