LOS Reflections – Connecting & Learning Across Cultures

I recently moved back to my home country, the United States, after three years of living in Spain.

I lived first in northern Spain, then southern, and finally in
Catalonia, to the east. Especially in the latter two, people are very conscious and proud of their regional identities, and will happily
explain them to a curious foreigner. The more connected I felt to my new
friends, co-workers and students, the easier it was for me to speak to them, and the better my language and teaching skills became.

When I read The Culture Map
by Erin Meyer, the sections on task-based vs relationship-based
approaches and linear and flexible time made some thoughts about my
experiences in Spain just ‘click.’ According to Meyer,
relationship-based cultures think that good productivity means having trust with the people you work with, while task-based cultures are more
focused on work as work, and value professional performance first and
foremost. Linear-time cultures value punctuality according to the clock.
Flexible-time cultures will finish one thing before moving onto the
next, and not mind too much if this changes the day’s schedule. Meyer’s
explanation of Spain as more relationship-based and flexible-time than
the more task-based and linear-time USA made a lot of sense to me.

When I worked in public schools in Spain, the teachers there made me one of them, inviting me for coffee at break time and helping me get
oriented in my new home. My students also taught me about their lives and traditions. The cultural exchange strengthened our classroom relationship as we gained more common ground.  However, I felt a tension between my desire to ‘get things done’ ‘on time’ and the warm, relaxed Spanish attitude. Sometimes classes wouldn’t start for 10 or 15 minutes! When there was a holiday, we might spend a lot of class time preparing
crafts and performances instead of following our curriculum.

At school, I followed the lead of my co-workers, despite occasional doubts. I also taught private classes in students’ homes, where I had
more control over our approach. My initial attitude was very much what
Meyer describes as task-based: I wanted class to start and end exactly on time and made sure to ask my students just what they wanted from the class, never straying far from the plan I created. I would get nervous
if students wanted to chat, because I had scheduled classes back to back. There was no room in my timeline for ‘extras’– I wanted to make sure I was doing a good job and not wasting anyone’s time.

My students and their families, however, always wanted to chat for the first or last few minutes of class and never minded when I was a bit late (as often happened, because I had not planned this relationship-building time into my class schedule). They brought me into
their lives, showing me their pets and inviting me for lunch. One woman in particular who loved to cook was always giving me a taste of whatever she had last made. We began to bond over cooking and discussing
local events, and soon I was chatting at the door for ages, when I could.

Meyer’s explanation of the ‘inefficiency concept’ behind scheduling, and her example of a meeting in France that started 11 minutes late with
no problem, rang very true to me. With a busy schedule, it was important to me to keep lessons running on time. But as I learned that a few minutes didn’t make any difference to my Spanish students, I felt the ease of knowing I could run a few minutes over, arriving slightly late to the next lesson, and it would be ok— I could finish the thought
we were working on. A few minutes more one time and a few less another meant that a lesson could take ‘as long as it took’ and that was just
fine.

The second year I worked with these same students, I knew not to schedule so closely together, and left a little more time open between
classes. I learned to budget flexibility into my class schedule, allowing us a few moments to wrap-up, connect, or address any issues. This was better for everyone involved: I, coming from a linear-time
culture, no longer felt concerned when my flexible-time students took a few minutes to ease in and out of class.  As I got to know my students better, they told me more about what they needed from class, and I was
able to use things they enjoyed in the lessons. There was a very tangible benefit to softening the work/play divide. Eventually, one
student and I were happily spending one class on her writing homework and another baking brownies from a recipe in English— something I previously would have been hesitant to suggest, as it didn’t seem very
serious, but which was a great learning experience as well as being fun for us both.

I won’t say that this always worked perfectly. I felt very
comfortable with one family, but didn’t feel I was making much progress with their son. One time when I expressed my concerns, the boy’s mother mentioned that her son had ADD. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t mentioned
this earlier—I could have adjusted my approach in a much more informed
way! We had a good relationship, but a failure to communicate about an
issue key to productivity.

I’m teaching again now, and my classes contain a diverse mix of students from many countries and cultures. Although I’ve left my Spanish
students behind in my return to the US, I remain in contact with several of them. My experiences have taught me that understanding a
student and building a bond can be a great foundation for learning. Thinking back, I can even say that the level of connection between myself and my students was a significant benchmark of success. If the relationship was working, then the learning would follow. When the connection was lacking, sometimes I would lose the student. In the end, I was happy working with the relationship-based approach, and reluctantly adopted the flexible-time schedule that came with it.

Perhaps students from more task-based cultures will see this relationship-building as superfluous and unnecessary to the task at hand, and spending extra effort on it will be seen as wasteful. That’s why understanding the ‘culture map’ that Meyer describes is so important. Reading this book didn’t make me want to change my way of doing things to that of another culture. Rather, it made me realize that the various approaches of different cultures should all be respected. It’s important to know where others are coming from so that we can be flexible and understanding. We can learn from other approaches, and have our own opinions, but keeping in mind potential cultural differences will help us to connect more productively with colleagues.

Elizabeth Meravi, Former LOS Consultant