Designing Effective Cross-Cultural Instruction

by Rebecca Sailor

The Rise of Cross-Cultural Communication

According to Monica Tracey and Gary Morrison, the need for developing effective cross-cultural training in the workplace is growing rapidly (Riser and Dempsey 184).  Innovative tools such as email, internet, and Skype allow us to expand our business borders and work both nationally and internationally, and as our communities become more diverse, we regularly employ multiple-language speakers.

The need for effective instructional design is increased when the content of the training relates to worker safety, institutional compliance, public health, etc.  If workers cannot access, utilize, and employ the information provided in such trainings, the consequences can be devastating to all involved.

Factors to Consider

Tracey and Morrison emphasize that two factors should be considered when designing cross-cultural instruction:  societal cultural factors and learner cultural factors.

Societal cultural factors may include:

  • generational and social heritage and/or traditions
  • the ideas, values, and rules for learning;
  • the way problems are solved;
  • the interpretation of patterns, colors, and symbols;
  • and the comprehension of ideas and behaviors (Riser and Dempsey 182)

Learner cultural factors may include:

  • Learner/instructor role expectations
  • Concept of time and use of authentic activities
  • Learners communication styles
  • Learners approach to interpersonal relationships
  • Environment to which a learner transfers the learning (Riser and Dempsey 182)

Instructional designers should first research and consider each aspect of societal- and learner-cultural factors when designing training materials.

Tips for Effective Design

Instructional designers may use a variety of tools to deliver instruction; however, Richard Johnson-Sheehan, author of Technical Communication Today, suggests that those desiring to communicate well internationally and/or cross-culturally should spend plenty of time researching the target culture.  Different expectations in content, organization, style, and design can greatly affect the usability of materials.  Here are some questions that instructional designers might ask.

  • Content:  What types of information are acceptable?  Must an instructor establish his/her reputation in order to establish trust before delivering training?  Are persuasive techniques favored or disdained?  Is the trainee allowed to bargain with content, or is s/he expected to accept it compliantly?
  • Organization:    What are the target culture’s expectations for document and presentation structure?  Does this culture value “getting to the point,” or must contextual or interpersonal bonds be built first? Is repetition favored or disdained?
  • Style:  Does the target culture value plain or ornate language?  What levels of formality are expected?  Do trainees expect to collaborate in training sessions?
  • Design:  How do readers in the target culture visually scan a page or screen (Left to right?  Right to left?)  Does the target culture have strong associations with specific colors, symbols, etc?  Will your visuals and graphics translate to the target culture?  (Johnson Sheehan 28-37)

The Importance of Good Cross-cultural Design

It’s important that instructional designers work to meet the needs of all learners in order to make sure that both employers and employees are safe, that human performance is maximized, and that business goals are met. 

More Resources That Could Help:

  • SAGE Publications, including journals such as Cross-Cultural and Intercultural Communication, Global Media and Communication, and Journal of Business and Technical Communication.
  • Intercultural Communication Institute.

Works Cited

Johnson-Sheehan, Richard.  Technical Communication Today.  4th Ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Reiser, Robert, and John Dempsey.  Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology.  3rd Edition.  Boston:  Pearson, 2012.




  1. You had some really good information in your post about how to guide instructional designers to be able to perform well with different cultures. One of my questions is how to approach a situation when many cultures are present, which is the case more and more frequently with increased diversity and globalization. There are circumstances where cross-culture training could demand researching several cultures for just one meeting. This could be extremely time-consuming. And even if an instructional designer does the homework, how possible is it to cater to all cultures?

  2. Eric:

    Yes, there’s probably a happy medium on the level of research one would dedicate to a densely cross-cultural audience. Obviously, one would spend more time on research that has very high stakes (safety issues or high consequences for a social error, etc.) Since part of my background is in rhetoric, I’m used to doing lots of audience analysis before composing materials. Professional writing/rhetoric people get used to writing to very specific, complicated, multi-tiered audiences. The “magic” of designing documents well seems to be in customizing messages to meet multiple readers’ needs, so researching one’s audience might take up 50-85% of the composing process. Let me say that again, since it is hard to believe: the “research” part of good composing takes up almost all of the actual “writing time.” It’s worth the effort because if the message doesn’t reach the audience, the whole communication act fails.

    However, it’s worth noting that assessing an intercultural audience probably takes a long time for US folks to research because we spend nearly none of our time educating people in this skill. We don’t require education in foreign languages, have laughable geography/international history scores in comparison to the rest of the world, and just plain don’t seem to value intercultural competency or understanding very much. (A minority argues that this should be part of 21st century curriculum; this is, in my opinion, why studying the humanities still really matters even though it sometimes seems fluffy and subjective.)

    In the likely absence of a good intercultural education, though, there are probably some time saving techniques. As our infographic lesson taught us, people probably learn better through image, so that would be a quick way to reach an interculturally blended audience quickly. Pictures/graphics/videos are often a universal “instructional” language, so that could help in any blended audience. (Think about your experiences in international airports, for example. Often, international airports have exceptionally well-designed, non-textual, visual instruction that must appeal to hundreds of different cultures, languages, and levels of literacy. You don’t even notice them until you, yourself, are lost in an international airport that uses your non-native language, but there they are, successfully guiding thousands of people toward baggage claim every day.)

    In doing my research for this article, I noticed that there are dozens of college courses and texts available on this subject, as well as institutes that promise short-course programs for folks doing international business. We’ve moved very slowly on this skill in traditional education, but it appears that people are paying a lot of attention to this skill in the business world.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. Good information. Also, this doesn’t just apply when designing globally. More and more we have international audiences when teaching and training locally. Many companies solicit foreign workers based on real and perceived skills in certain areas. Even when not actively soliciting, business still have multicultural employees. This is also true in education. Some of my classes at UNC have been largely comprised of Middle Eastern students. The lack of co-ed classes in their home countries creates some interesting dynamics that have to be taken into account in order to have successful lessons.

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