Multi-cultural Awareness: Lessons Still Learned in the Classroom

Today classrooms are becoming more diverse and present a unique challenge to teachers. Students are coming to class with a greater variance in values, cultural norms, and verbal and non-verbal communication behaviors that may be unfamiliar to some teachers.

According to Nancy Longatan (2009), “[b]y raising awareness of the non-verbal communication strategies familiar to students from other cultures, such as reflectivity, proxemics, volume and eye contact, teachers and students can significantly improve communication in the multicultural classroom”.

Longatan (2009) highlights key elements under each non-verbal communication strategy.

· Reflectivity – Recognize that in most Western culture a “quick response” is often the norm; however this is not the case for all. In some cultures, “reflectivity” or a time to carefully evaluate all of the elements of a question before providing a “detailed answer,” is the norm.

· Proxemics – is the study of how near or far people stand or set to each other when communicating. A student from a culture that values close proximity may be left with a feeling of rejection in a classroom setting where distant proximity is the norm.

· Volume – volume of voice varies greatly among cultures when communicating. This is the case even in “subcultures”. A child who speaks too soft or too loud in comparison to the classroom norm, may be at a disadvantage.

· Eye Contact – in come cultures eye contact is valued as a sign of respect; in others it is disrespectful.

Teachers must be conscious of these differences to be effective multi-cultural communicators. Children will quickly adapt to a new cultural setting, but a teacher can ease the transition by being aware and sensitive to the issues surrounding multi-cultural communication.

A classroom is no different than a multi-cultural workplace. Leaders, managers, and corporations, much like teachers, must be sensitive to cultural differences; including non-verbal differences. According to Moran, Harris, & Moran (2007), the collective image of ones self is projected “through body, bearing, appearance, tone of voice, and choice of words” (p. 44).

Each individual has their own unique perception of reality, influenced by the collective experiences in throughout their life. Therefore, each person, in this case the student, receives the same message and interprets it differently within their own sphere of reality. According to Moran et al. (2007), “[t]he individual working and communicating in a multicultural environment must ‘remember that the message that ultimately counts is the one that the other person gets or creates in their mind, not the one we send’” (p. 46). According to Longatan (2009), the message that is being received by the student includes not only verbal but non-verbal communications that the teacher must be sensitive to.

As good govies we all stand to learn a lesson or two from Longatan’s advice. We’re constantly working in a world that demands good multi-cultural leadership and communication skills. Being self-aware and conscious of our verbal and non-verbal communication will ultimately increase efficiency within our agency/ organization and the quality of service to those we serve.


Longatan, N. (2009). Issues for the multicultural classroom: Non-verbal communication can be a cross-cultural challenge. Retrieved on September 15, 2010 from

Moran, R., Harris, P., and Moran, S. (2007). Managing cultural differences: Global leadership strategies for the 21st century. Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

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