* Managing Cultural Diversity

Cartoon adapted for changes in idiom from:
National Labour Consultative Council: Managing a Multicultural Workforce,
          Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra 1987.
Cartoons by John Shakespeare & Phil Somerville

Introductory Questionnaire*

1. According to the 2006 census, what percentage of the Australian population was born overseas:







 2. From which country did most new settlers to Australia come in 2001-2006:



New Zealand



 3. From which countries did the most refugees come in 2001-2006:







4, In what year did restrictions cease on non-Europeans becoming Australian citizens:





5. In what year were Aboriginal people first counted in the Australian census:





 6. Studies in remote & rural areas of NT have shown that the percentage Aboriginal tee-totalers is:







  * John Gunn: Cultural Diversity Train the Trainer, JGConsulting

  Office of the Minister for ATSI Affairs: Rebutting the Myths



Questionnaire Answers

(See notes at the end of the paper for additional background information.)

1.  22% - about 40% % of these NESB (unchanged since the 1996 census, ABS 2006 census)

 2. England

 3. Sudan

 4.  1960

 5.  1971 (following 1967 Referendum)

 6.  75%



Handshake Exercise

 1. Participants stand & form pairs, preferably of people who do not know each other.

 2. They are instructed to shake hands & then remain standing where they are.

 3. One person in each pair then takes one step back. Shake hands again.

 4. Return to first position. One person takes one step forwards. Shake hands again.

 5. Discussion –

·        How far apart do you stand normally?

 ·        What happens when you stand further apart?

 ·        What happens when you stand closer than normal?

(How do you feel?)

 ·        How do you know how close/far apart to stand when you talk to a stranger/colleague?



What is Culture?

 "Culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. ... The real job is not to understand foreign culture, but to understand our own."

 Edward T.Hall: The Silent Language, Anchor Books, 1959, p.30




Formal, Informal & Technical Culture

 Formal - by precept & admonition - learned when mistake is made & corrected, without giving reason.

Violations produce great emotion.  Customs of this sort are slow to change, especially in "formal" societies.

 "Formal activities are taught by precept & admonition.  The adult mentor moulds the young according to patterns he himself has never questioned.  He will correct the child saying, 'Boys don't do that,'...using a tone of voice indicating that what you are doing is unthinkable."  Hall: ibid. p.68

 Informal - unconscious learning by imitation.  Discomfort when breached

 "Whole clusters of related activities are learned at a time, in many cases without the knowledge that they are being learned at all or that there are patterns or rules governing them. ...  Entire systems of behaviour made up of hundreds of thousands of details are passed from generation to generation, and nobody can give the rules for what is happening.  Only when these rules are broken do we realize they exist."

Hall: ibid. pp.69-70

 e.g., How do you know where to stand? Whose given name can you use?

 Technical - Fully conscious; explicit teaching, giving reasons, can even be written down for distance learning. Feelings suppressed.



Practical Implications

1. Different perceptions & responses

 a) Australians are disgusted when they see immigrants spitting - dirty, unhygienic.

 In many countries it is considered more hygienic to spit onto the ground than to carry dried up mucus around in a tissue in your pocket.

 b) Australians are annoyed by people sniffling constantly - we tell our children to stop sniffling and blow their noses.

 In many parts of the world it is very rude to blow your nose in public.  Students will often sit in class all day sniffling rather than breach etiquette by blowing their noses.

 c) Saying no is very rude in many cultures.

e.g., Aborigines will generally say yes to whatever you propose but will not turn up when the time comes to perform the activity or go on an excursion etc.

They mean, Yes, I am too polite to contradict you.  ody language, subtle variations in tone of voice etc distinguish between Yes, I am willing/enthusiastic, Yes, maybe that's O" and Yes, I don't want to contradict/disagree but I can't/won't do that.

 e.g., A European engineer managing a team of Asian engineers for an installation in Asia for his company explained the project plan and timeframe to the group.  o-one commented.  everal days later one of the Asian engineers failed to produce a critical piece of work on schedule.  he European was angry.  Later he learned that the Asian engineer had worked on the project until midnight for the previous four nights.

 This is another example of a cultural inability to say no even to unreasonable demands.  More subtle signs are often missed by an outsider.

 d) Australians are taught to ask questions if they don't understand, especially in education.

 In many countries it is impolite & disrespectful to ask a teacher questions.

 e) We stand to demonstrate respect.

In many countries respect is shown by keeping the head lower than the other person's.

 e.g. Samoans will sit in the presence of a person they consider more important - Samoan school children called before a principal for misdemeanors will immediately sit to show their respect & are often considered presumptuous and disrespectful by Australian principals.

 f) Different responses to officialdom

A survey by Prof. Michael Clyne of Monash Univ. German Dept of people from different countries showed different responses to a situation where a government department had not replied to a claim form.

 Australians generally phoned.

Italians phoned or went in person.

Germans wrote a letter or went in person.

Australians least likely to fill in a second form!

Michael Clyne: Beyond Grammar - some thoughts on communication rules in our multicultural society in John B.Pride: Cross Cultural Encounters, Communication and Mis-Communication, River Seine Publications, Melbourne 1985

g) Joking is very different in different cultures.  In particular Australians joke about almost everything, even things they hold dear.  Others find this offensive.

 e.g. Prof.Michael Clyne told the following story to a number of people from different countries:

A man was in hospital with pneumonia.  His friend went to visit him and greeted him with, "I hear you've got a bit of a cold, mate."

 Greek people considered this very rude & offensive.

Germans & Italians mostly considered it offensive; a few understood that a joke was intended but did not know how to reply.

Young Germans sometimes knew how to respond.

Australians replied with something like, "No, I just came to chat up the nurses."

e.g. One of our Bosnian students during the war period related with great emotion that he had seen a TV programme which joked about the Bosnian situation.  He could not understand, even when a teacher he respected explained it to him, that Australians joke about everything, even the things they take seriously.

 2. Body Language

 a)     Eye contact

polite, open, honest?


impolite, disrespectful?

 In Middle East, often stronger eye contact than we're used to - it feels intimidating to us.

In many Asian countries lowering the eyes is a sign of respect but this looks shifty to us.

 b) Physical position - how close is friendly rather than suggestive/disrespectful? how do you know?

 b)    Smile

friendly, happy?


any emotion - confusion, embarrassment, shyness, surprise, anger, distress?

 Asians are often thought to be heartless because they smile when they relate family tragedies, or disrespectful because they smile when they are being chastised.

 d) Beckoning with palm up, especially with forefinger is extremely rude in many cultures.  (Beckon with palm down, using whole hand)

 Video: Working it out, Adult Migrant Education Programme Australia 1986

 e) Touching head or shoulders is offensive to some groups - the spirit resides in the head.  (Be careful about patting children on the head!)

 Video: Working it out, ibid.

 3. Language

Learning another language is always difficult.  The degree of difficulty varies with the learner's age, intelligence, previous language learning experience & the degree of difference between the native language & the language to be learned.

e.g., English & German are closely related.  So an English speaker will learn German far more easily than s/he will learn Chinese.


* Language is the deepest manifestation of culture.

* Communication is a co-operative process. If you want to be understood, you must take infinite pains to understand.

(Apologies. I have lost the references from which the above quotes were taken.)

 Language is not just about using words - it’s about how we think, what we think about and the perceptions we have.  Words can become, in effect, mini-mindsets  (Fisher C. Mindsets Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME, 1993)  They help us make sense of the world around us.  Think, for example, of the different perceptions you have of a garbage dump and a landfill.

 There are many hidden problems for language learners:

a) Written language

·        Different alphabets - Chinese, Thai etc. Also Cyrillic (used by Serbs, Russians etc) which has some letters the same & some different from the Roman alphabet which we use.  

·        Formal, "official" language reverses normal word order by using passive verbs.
Approval to withdraw from a module must be obtained from the Head of Faculty. = You must ask the Head of Faculty if you want to withdraw from a module.

·        Formal letter writing conventions are different in different cultures


Intention of writer

Perception by readers from another culture

Indian politeness

long-winded flattery & overbureaucratic formulae

Asian politeness

long-winded explanation of reason for writing,

often followed by appeal for pity

Continental European politeness (avoiding aggressive directness)

long-winded, irrelevant, boring introduction

Hungarian confidence/credibility


Australian/American directness


Michael Clyne: Beyond Grammar, ibid.


b) Spoken language

a) Pronunciation 

·        specific sounds:
Almost all language groups:
confuse short vowel sounds, especially

a/u (cap/cup)

a/e (man/men)

e/i (pen/pin)

confuse long & short vowel sounds, e.g. i & ee (ship/sheep)

cannot hear or say th.

Here are a few other problems for specific groups:

Former Yugoslavia






s/es in initial position

s/sh in other positions


Asian languages


can't hear or say most final consonants, especially in clusters (is/isn't)

s/sh (sit/shit)


·          - rhythm & intonation - English is stress-timed.  We tend to take the same amount of time between stressed syllables, irrespective of the number of unstressed syllables.

The man's here.

The manor's here.

The manager's here

The manager isn't here.

The boy was given the money.

(Who has the money now?)

The boy'd given the money.

(Who has the money now?)

 Especially a problem with contractions
- Video: Hello Australia Unit 7, Dr Know, SBS 1986

b) Grammar - tenses carry a huge amount of meaning in English which most learner's don't grasp - often have only one verb form.  To clarify ask "When?"

c) Vocabulary - reflects cultural pre-occupations.
e.g., Societies with very strong, well defined social obligations often have no word for "thank you" - this applies to traditional Aboriginal communities.

English speaking countries have a peculiar pre-occupation with time not shared by most of the rest of the world.  Some languages have no word for "late" and the distinction between "in time" & "on time" is completely incomprehensible. (If my class is due to start at 9am and I arrive at 9.05 to find the teacher has not started, we would say I am in time , even though I am not on time.

d) Idioms  

Some are obvious, although we use them without thinking.

e.g., It's a piece of cake,  He drives me up the wall etc

Other are less obvious & more confusing:

e.g., German: When someone asks to speak to a specific person at the beginning of a phone call, "He's on the phone" = " You are already speaking to the person you have asked for "
not, as in English, "You can't speak to him because he's already talking to someone else on the phone talking to someone else"

"Thank you" in Australia = "I accept your kind offer."
In continental Europe = "No, thank you."

"You're not married, are you?" in Australia = I don't think you are married, but I'm just checking. We interpret the answer "No" to mean "I agree, I'm not married."
For many other cultures "No" = I disagree with you.  I am married.
Therefore, NEVER ask negative, tag questions (or double questions either)


Tips for Better Communication

1. Speak a bit more slowly & clearly than usual.

 2. Make your sentences shorter but retain all the normal words.

          Video: Working it out, ibid.

 3. Don't ask, "Do you understand?" because the answer will almost always be a polite "yes".  Ask the person to explain to you what you have told them

 4. Don't keep repeating the same words over & over if the person doesn't understand - try different words.

 5. If you are giving instructions, think first (NOT out loud - a NESB person can't tell what's important & will become even more confused by your little mutters to yourself) Arrange the instructions in order.  Video: Working it out, ibid.

 6. Avoid negatives where possible.  If you do use them, stress them - "is NOT", rather than "isn't"

 7. Avoid double negatives - "It is unwise not to ..."

 8. Avoid negative & tag questions - "You aren't married, are you?"

 9. Avoid passives "The class will be preceded by an introductory demonstration." = "There will be an introductory demonstration first.  Then the class will start."

 10. If you are dealing with something crucial, use an interpreter.  If the issue is confidential/sensitive, use the Interpreter Service rather than another student/family member whose English may not be much better than the other person's and who may have some reason for not passing on what you say.


Post-Session Quiz

Do you consider these statements to be true or false:

 1. All Australians come from immigrant families.

 2. It takes more time and effort to communicate with people from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

 3. All Australian residents should speak English.

 4. If I concentrate on the most important words and say them clearly, a migrant will be most likely to understand me.

 5. Employing people from other cultures can help us obtain business from their communities.

 6. The most important thing we have learned from other cultures is how to cook better.

 7. Non-Australian accents are difficult to understand.

 8. Employing people from other cultures is too expensive because they need special training to use our systems.

 9. The most important thing we learn from other cultures is to understand ourselves better.



Post-Session Quiz - Answers

1. True.  Even the Aborigines are generally believed to have some from somewhere else, probably Asia.

 2. Often true.

 3. False - This is an impracticable aim since, in a compassionate society, we will always accept family reunions & refugees.  Old people find learning another language particularly difficult but are especially distressed at separation from their children & grandchildren.  Refugees are by definition fleeing from danger and cannot wait till they have learned English to reach safety.

 Moreover, some very prominent Australians who have contributed greatly to our country's well-being arrived here without any English at all; e.g., Sir Arvi Parvo, Sidney Myer.

 4. False.  Speak slowly & clearly but don't leave out any words.  All the words are important, even the normally unstressed ones.

 5. Often true.

 6. False - unless you are peculiarly pre-occupied with your stomach!

 7. False - It depends on what accent you are used to.  A Scottish accent is difficult for me to understand but for someone who is Scottish my Australian accent can be equally incomprehensible.

Similarly, I can understand some of our Chinese students quite easily because I am used to their accents but I sometimes have difficulty with accents from Wales or Ireland.

 8. Often false - The potential extra training costs may be more than offset by the value of the employee's cultural understanding in obtaining & retaining new clients, and by other skills which s/he may possess from previous employment elsewhere.

 9. True.


Additional background information

Australian Population Born Overseas – Top 6 countries of origin 2006 Census (ABS)



1. England


2. New Zealand


3. China


4. Italy


5. Vietnam


6. India


 Proportion of Population Australian Born 2006 Census (ABS)

Australian Born


Overseas Born


Not stated


Proportion of new arrivals 2001-2006 by country of origin

Country of Origin

% of Intake



New Zealand






South Africa






South Korea


United States of America








Hong Kong


Sri Lanka


Viet Nam


 People arriving from countries affected by war or political unrest since 2001 (ABS)

Country of origin

Number of arrivals

Approx. % of Total Population