Nancy Overman
English Teaching Insights,  ESL,  Georgetown,  Georgetown University,  Meet ELC Faculty,  School of Continuing Studies,  TESOL

Cross Cultural Communication in Nancy Overman’s Intensive English Classroom

“Sometimes when people hear about cross cultural communication, they think of the things that are observable, like different behaviors, like that Japanese people bow and American people shake hands, or that French people kiss on two cheeks or three cheeks, and Americans kiss on one cheek or not at all. What I’m interested in are the things that are not observable. And getting at the values or priorities that guide how people will behave even unconsciously”

– Nancy Overman

I recently sat down for a Zoom chat with Nancy Overman, an Associate Teaching Professor in our Intensive English Program, who is passionate about the importance of infusing English language instruction with concepts from cross cultural communication theory. From her perspective, interpersonal and group communication is deeply informed by our cultural context, and true language fluency is only achieved when students develop cultural competency as well.

Overman developed an appreciation for world cultures through study and employment experiences that took her far from the rural upstate New York community of Corning that she grew up in. She was an exchange student in France and Japan, manager of a non-profit student travel agency, and coordinator of study tours for Japanese English teachers. And as if that wasn’t enough, she recounts, “I was a flight attendant for two different international airlines, so I had interactions with bosses, colleagues, and passengers from all over the world. I had completed a certificate in Intercultural Training at Georgetown University and I considered being a cross cultural communication consultant, but decided to become an ESL teacher instead.” 

Luckily for Georgetown language students of the future, she chose to enroll in a graduate program in TESOL (teaching English as a second language) at Boston University. Soon after graduation, she was hired by Georgetown’s American Language Institute, a precursor to today’s English Language Center, and the rest is history! And while her teaching is rooted in best practices in communicative language instruction, Overman also brings insights from cross cultural communication into her classroom; especially the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall who developed a framework for analyzing cultures based on whether they are “high or low context.”

According to Overman:

  • Generally speaking, in high context cultures such as Japan or Saudi Arabia, people tend to be more bound to social groups and have lasting social bonds. For example, “[there is] more tendency to have friends from elementary school.” Furthermore, they are more top down and hierarchical, and people identify with the organizations they work for and are a part of. This also translates to nonverbal communication and group understanding. As she relates, “when I was an exchange student in Japan, it was not uncommon for someone to say yes, but everyone understood that they meant no.”
  • In low context cultures, such as typically seen in western cultures like the US, we form friends more quickly, but also might lose them more rapidly. In the US, “if somebody says, yes, they probably mean yes.” There is also less concentration of responsibility at the top and people identify more with their positions than the organizations they are a part of.

It is exciting to realize that greater awareness of deeper value systems embedded in our cultures can help us to become better communicators in a classroom setting. According to Overman, understanding cross cultural differences can instantly improve the classroom experience for teachers and students. In some cultures, it is disrespectful to look a teacher directly in the eye. So, as Overman says, “…when a person from one of those cultures comes to the United States and they look down while teachers are talking, the teacher is going to think they aren’t paying attention.” Further, “In terms of hierarchy, students from a high context culture might be hesitant to approach the teacher, or to even ask questions that might seem to challenge the teacher because social hierarchy is important and respect is important. So sometimes as teachers, we have to encourage students and really convince them that we do want questions, even if it’s a question that seems to challenge what the teacher said.”

Using the conceptual framework of high and low context cultures, teachers and students can also develop a means to discuss and understand themselves in new ways that extend beyond the classroom. For example, according to Overman, “One of the things I do is have my students read several articles to identify their own personal [cultural] style and also the style of the culture that they come from. And then they write a paper that includes advice for an international student moving into their culture… or moving into US culture.”

Overman brings a unique approach honed by decades of experience teaching international students to each of her classes in the English Language Center and students benefit from it. In doing so, the teacher of English becomes an anthropologist who encourages students to identify their own cultural contexts along a continuum and examine how these impact their communication with Americans and while communicating with other international students from different cultural backgrounds. Thanks for sitting down to share your perspective on teaching and cross cultural communication!

Reference the table below for an in depth description of high and low context cultures based on anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s original work:

High ContextLow Context
Association● Relationships depend on trust, build up slowly, are stable. One distinguishes between people inside and people outside one’s circle. 
● How things get done depends on relationships with people and attention to group process.
● One’s identity is rooted in groups (family, culture, work).
● Social structure and authority are centralized; responsibility is at the top. Person at top works for the good of the group.
● Relationships begin and end quickly. Many people can be inside one’s circle; circle’s boundary is not clear.
● Things get done by following procedures and paying attention to the goal.
● One’s identity is rooted in oneself and one’s accomplishments.
● Social structure is decentralized; responsibility goes further down (is not concentrated at the top).
Interaction● High use of nonverbal elements; voice tone, facial expression, gestures, and eye movement carry significant parts of conversation.
● Verbal message is implicit; context (situation, people, nonverbal elements) is more important than words.         
● Verbal message is indirect; one talks  around the point and embellishes it.
● Communication is seen as an art form—a way of engaging someone.                        
● Disagreement is personalized. One is sensitive to conflict expressed in  another’s nonverbal communication. Conflict either must be solved before work can progress or must be avoided because it is personally threatening.
● Low use of nonverbal elements. Message is carried more by words than by nonverbal means.
● Verbal message is explicit. Context is less important than words.
● Verbal message is direct; one spells things out exactly.
● Communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions.
● Disagreement is depersonalized. One withdraws from conflict with another and gets on with the task. Focus is on rational solutions, not personal ones. One can be explicit about another’s bothersome behavior.
Territoriality● Space is communal; people stand close to each other, share the same space.● Space is compartmentalized and privately owned; privacy is important, so people are farther apart.
Space & Time● Everything has its own time. Time is not easily scheduled; needs of people may interfere with keeping to a set time. What is important is that activity gets done.
● Change is slow. Things are rooted in the past, slow to change, and stable.             
● Time is a process; it belongs to others and to nature.
● Things are scheduled to be done at particular times, one thing at a time. What is important is that activity is done efficiently.
● Change is fast. One can make change and see immediate results.
● Time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.
Learning● Knowledge is embedded in the situation; things are connected, synthesized, and global. Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking is deductive, proceeds from general to specific.
● Learning occurs by first observing others as they model or demonstrate and then practicing.
● Groups are preferred for learning and problem solving.
● Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.
● Reality is fragmented and compartmentalized. One source of information is used to develop knowledge. Thinking is inductive, proceeds from specific to general. Focus is on detail.
● Learning occurs by following explicit directions and explanations of others.
● An individual orientation is preferred for learning and problem solving.
● Speed is valued. How efficiently something is learned is important.

Author Regan Carver is a Program Manager in the English Language Center.