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Cultural Dos and Don’ts for Global Training

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Headquarters asked you to facilitate global training for your multinational organization. The training course is the first opportunity for global partners to meet face-to-face. On day one of training, introductions run long, so you decide to shorten the icebreaker and break. Half the participants return late from break. Another group of overseas participants talks only among themselves. By lunchtime, you are exhausted from trying to engage everyone. You choose to eat alone at your desk. The afternoon doesn’t go much better. You wonder, “What went wrong and what can I do differently tomorrow?”

As workplaces become more culturally diverse, the opportunities for cultural missteps increase. The adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans” does not hold true for learners. How participants learn is part of their culture and educational upbringing. Here are suggestions on how to adjust to engage diverse learners with their various expectations and customs.

Hold Audience Needs Analysis Conversations

If you have participants from multiple countries, be sure to have an audience needs analysis conversation with a manager from each attending country. Identify the listening, speaking, and writing skills of the attending learners. Offer to have materials translated if necessary.

Ask about the participants’ attitudes toward people from your culture.

Do research. Reading newspapers and magazines with international news will help increase your global awareness in general. Read my new ATD Press book Destination Facilitation. Learn insights and tips about how to facilitate learning with people from other countries.


Begin Training With a Neutral Attitude and Manage Your Gestures

There are inconsistent expectations when participants come from different cultures. Participants from the Middle East consider it pompous to open training with a list of your credentials. Chinese participants believe it is essential for establishing your credibility. Canadians respect humility and vulnerability, so showing a little nervousness is considered charming. For South Korean learners, the facilitator’s appearance greatly influences impressions, so business attire is important.

Start with an icebreaker that highlights cultural similarities and differences, such as the coin icebreaker. Give each participant a coin with a date on it. Ask participants to share a story of what they were doing that year. Similarities include stories about family, work, or school. Differences show up in the details of those experiences. Don’t shy away from talking about culture.


During the presentation, manage your gestures. Keep in mind that Chineses participants don’t like exaggerated gestures. However, participants from Latin America and Japan expect you to be high energy. With participants from the United Kingdom, use gestures sparingly and keep your emotions in check, but don’t put your hands in your pockets or you will look too laid back. Participants from Southeast Asia believe in keeping direct eye contact to a minimum, which shows respect and politeness. The solution: Practice keeping your gestures between your shoulders and waist initially. After the participants become comfortable with you, it is OK to allow yourself to be more natural (but never do the OK gesture in Brazil).

Break Bread

We learn so much about other cultures through food and laughter shared at meals. You may have dietary limitations, so adjust as necessary, but eat together when possible. The Japanese appreciate after-business dinner and drinking to build relationships. Brazilians view lunch and breaks as a time to chat, learn, and team build, so never cut lunch or breaks short. Keep in mind that in India, consuming any food during class is considered very rude, even for the instructor. However, people from India are passionate about the mind-boggling range of their cuisines. Sharing food and food habits and being daring during lunch and tea breaks will immediately make you accepted with Indian participants. And, if training in Turkey, expect to extend lunch to enjoy Turkish coffee!

Manage Time Expectations

The Japanese consider it late if you are not 10 minutes early. In India, if you arrive within 30 minutes of the announced time, you may be the only person at the venue. Germans will be precise about the time. Canadians and participants in the United States value time, so never arrive late or you will lose the respect of your audience. Discuss your expectations about time with participants during pre-work discussions.

Given our cultural differences, what can go wrong? Almost anything, depending on the diverse makeup of your audiencess. Don't let mistakes happen. Destination Facilitation is a book rich with talent development tips, plans, and advice from master trainers from around the globe. Learn local training customs, body language dos and don’ts, the tone to use in needs analysis conversations with managers from different countries, and classroom management techniques in face-to-face or online global classrooms.

About the Author

Donna Steffey is an international trainer, author, adjunct faculty at both Lake Forest Graduate School and DeVry University, and sought-after speaker who helps organizations achieve their desired business results. Donna incorporates her 20 years of management experience to educate, inspire, and coach. It takes the right blend of information, introspection and humor to cause people to look at themselves and change. Global organizations such as Marriott International, Barclaycard-UK, XIBI-China, Tumine Center-Africa, and the Royal Australian Air Force, have found that after Donna's workshops people were more self directed, customer service driven and mindful of their team participation. Donna combines learning with fun and applies her master's degree and life experiences to professional and real world situations. Your participants will be motivated to hit their performance improvement targets and your training will be a success!

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A wonderful read.
And despite the brevity, rich in information and insight.
Thank you for publishing and sharing this.
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Great article Donna! I wish I had read this before traveling the world and learning the hard way! Thank you for your wisdom!
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I appreciate your top-notch global expertise and recommendations; thanks Donna!
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