On Teaching Fashion: Intercultural Communication, Obstacles and Solutions

The world is full of exciting countries and cultures! Image source here.

This term, I have had the great pleasure of lecturing at a very international University with a cohort that covers the globe. It has been blissful to engage with students who bring cultural and local knowledge from their far-away homes which in turn inform their project work. The students are able to inspire one-another and benefit from an exchange of culture and trends amongst their peers. I have learned so much from them as well, broadening my horizon.

This is the good side of a very international cohort.

The sour side – and the one I want to address here – is that very different cultures, coupled with very different languages, can present some difficulties in the classroom setting, both for the students and their teachers.  To me it is utterly important that every student has the best possible academic experience and attainment and culture is closely connected to it because there are differences in values and norms, in traditions, in etiquette as well as learning and teaching methods. But how do you overcome the obstacles and find solutions to the best possible intercultural communication?

Former learning experience

For example, if the students come after completing high-school, depending on their home-country, the educational approach might be 180 degrees opposite from the one practices in Europe.

The teaching might be based on more discipline, hierarchy and instruction and promote less the independent, creative and innovative thinking which the European creative industries and educational institutions thrive on. This can cause for some discernment among such students as they have difficulties understanding what their teacher wants, expecting a different teaching method. If their teacher wants them to be innovative and creative, they might ask: “Which creative idea would you like me to do?” or “is this creative idea what you like?” Or they might resort to silence and polite nodding if they feel that they cannot cope with the language.

The opposite can happen, too. Students might feel that the teaching style is not academic enough, not challenging enough or perhaps not personal enough.



It might be hard to “fit in” and students can feel lonely. Image source here.


Language skills are very important when trying to study, grasp content and speak (or write) your thoughts. Some students might know English well, but feel to shy to use it. Others might have a basic level of English language skills and urgently need to take language classes parallel to their studies. This makes it difficult for lecturers to have a fruitful conversation with such students and at times it can be difficult to figure out whether poor performance of the students is just due to communication hurdles or just the student not trying hard enough. Of course, the students’ language fears can also generate a great amount of stress when they are worried about presentations, reports and written assignments.



And how do these students feel about leaving their homes? Unlike students who are from the many European countries and neighbours slightly further away, students from the USA, Asia, he Middle East, Australia and Africa might have a hard time with homesickness. They are simply unable to hop on a plane and fly home for a long week end to see family and friends. If they don’t make friends in their new city and university, they might feel isolated and sad. Sometimes students feel secure in a clique of their countrymen, which is of course good, but they might make very little progress in learning English because they hardly need to speak it in these groups. Equally, the other students might feel that they are ignored by a cultural clique which communicates in a language which is not the commonly spoken one at uni. It’s really a catch 22.



Image source here.

Culture Shock

Then there is the very well known effect of culture shock. Keele University in the UK describes this phenomenon:

Culture shock is the physical and emotional discomfort suffered when a person moves to live in another country or place that is different from their place of origin.

There are five stages to culture shock/stress

  1. Honeymoon stage
  2. Hostility stage
  3. Adjustment
  4. Home stage
  5. Re-entry Shock or Reverse Culture Shock

Signs and Symptoms of Culture Shock

  • Sadness, loneliness
  • Preoccupation with health; aches and pains
  • Disturbed sleep pattern
  • Mood changes; depression, mood swings, anger, irritability.
  • Unwilling to interact with others, withdrawal
  • Loss of identity
  • Lack of confidence and reduced abilities
  • Feelings of paranoia

We have probably all experienced some degree of culture shock during foreign travels or if we have moved countries and it can intensify when one is expected to perform, deliver and learn under these difficult circumstances.


Help and Counseling

Personally, I have now come to the conclusion that in order for any academic institution which embraces diversity and breadth of culture amongst students, there needs to be an offer of counseling for both the students and the teachers. (And many universities already do this but there is always room for improvement.)

Students who have come from abroad and feel stress, overwhelmed or simply that something is not right, should have the help of a professional counselor, support groups and special aid. The cultural differences are a special area, that differ from the usual mental health support which universities have in place. Cultural groups, unions and support networks can be a great resource, too!

At the same time, tutors would benefit from seminars where they can learn how to better teach students from a very different culture and with language barriers as well as how to make sure there is a healthy balance in the classroom where everyone feels welcome and can let their ideas be heard. Perhaps a person who originates from a different culture (or even a senior student) can give insights on the mentality, expectations and communication options which would positively affect the classroom experience.

What’s your take?

Writing this, I wonder what experiences my colleagues have had with this? Have you taught students where culture was a positive or challenging component? Have you overcome such barriers or found good methods to connect to the students and help them connect to their classmates? I am eager to hear your opinions!

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