Being Culturally Sensitive

Terrell Smith



  1. A meeting for international students has been scheduled, and you wish to invite international students to attend. You go door to door in a dorm, passing out invitations. There are only a few people on your team, but you hope to invite as many as possible of the many internationals living there. After a short time, you're invited by a student into his room for tea. What do you say?
  2. Imagine you've invited some students from the Philippines to your place for dinner. They arrive; you greet them, invite them in, and offer them chairs. But before your guests sit down, each takes a handkerchief from his pocket, wipes the chair and then spreads the cloth on the chair. Before the meal, your guests take the table napkins, and wipe the plates and silverware. What are you thinking as they do this?
  3. You've become friends with a student from Zimbabwe, and he invites you to his room for a meal. You accept, and have a nice evening together. You may have stayed too long though, because when you leave, he also leaves, and walks your direction for a little while, before heading off in another direction. You wish to deepen the friendship, so a few days later you invite him to join you for dinner. He accepts, and after a nice evening together you help your guest with his jacket, thank him for coming, and say good-bye. The next day you meet him and in talking with each other it seems there's a coldness in the conversation. What happened?
  4. During the morning, at different times, you meet two international students with whom you're acquainted, an African, and a German. During conversation with each of them you say, "Maybe I'll have a bit of time this afternoon, but I'm not sure. If it works out, I'll stop by and visit you." Whom will you find at home, if you do go to visit?
  5. You are a missionary in an Arabic country and happen to meet an acquaintance on the sidewalk in front of your house. What do you do?
    1. You greet him and continue what you were doing
    2. You greet him and take time for a long conversation
    3. You invite him into your home
    4. You do nothing
  6. You're proud of your new dress, and ask an international student in your group, "How do you like my new dress? Do you think it makes me look too fat?" He answers, "It's not the dress, my dear, you are fat!" How do you feel?

A Simplistic Contrast

Some of the differences in value, worth and custom of the "western" and "middle-eastern" world-views:

Western Culture

Middle-Eastern Culture


family oriented

what you do

whom you know

man centered

God centered


small, intimate family

extended (relatives included)

retirement home

aged stay with family

the old are separated

the old are respected

children leave early

children stay until married


sexes equal

sexes separated

time oriented relationships (work, free time)

person oriented relationships (hospitality)


performance oriented

experience oriented

little rote memory

much memorization




dichotomized (spiritual and secular)

integrated (religion, family and culture)

Often international students are expecting cultural differences in major areas, such as with food or language, but aren't thinking of differences in areas such as how people interact with each other, or how long a person looks at another person in the eye, or how we show affection toward a member of the opposite sex. It's in these unexpected areas of difference that international students often become confused, or even sometimes deeply hurt or angry. It's when someone is not expecting a difference that the difference can be so dramatic.

It's important to remember that your international friend's culture isn't more primitive or better or worse than our own, it's simply different. As you learn about these differences, you'll understand your international friend more and more, and especially be able to give practical help when he struggles to fit into our culture during this time of study here.

Look and Learn

How to See: Look - Look - Look

When you visit your international friend, what do your eyes see? Notice the furnishings and objects in the room, the prayer rug, stereo, art objects, posters on the door and walls, pictures, photos, books on the bookshelf, map on the wall. This will show you something about what your friend considers important.

What is your friend wearing? Not wearing? Are there shoes outside the door? (Did you walk into the clean room without taking off your shoes!?)

What do you see in your friend's facial expressions? Is he or she puzzled, confused, frustrated, distant, uneasy, angry?

Ask and Listen

Your ears will teach you much about your friend's culture. You can ask questions such as, "What do you find interesting (strange, comical, different) about life here?" "How are families here different?" "How are studies different?" Answers to questions such as these will give you great insight.


As mentioned earlier, books about your friend's culture and country are helpful. Also the internet, newspapers and magazines are a good source of information.


  1. If you refuse the invitation because of time, you've just missed an opportunity to get to know someone who might have come to your meeting with you, and instead you've passed out many almost worthless invitations. Most international students won't come based on an invitation from a total stranger, but after a personal conversation the probability of attending is higher. You must plan, at the minimum, half an hour's visit for such an invitation.
  2. You are insulted and think your guests think little of your cleanliness? Their actions have nothing to do with your poor housekeeping, but are part of creating a warm atmosphere in some parts of the Philippines. If you become angry, you're only pronouncing judgment based on your own cultural background, and haven't yet understood the culture of your guests.
  3. In some tribes of Zimbabwe it's a sign of friendship to walk with your guest part of his or her way home. How far you walk together is a sign of how deep the friendship is. He walked with you part way home, but you took him only to the door.
  4. The African is glad you'll visit him, and waits at home until you come, even if he had something else to do. The German won't be at home, unless he didn't have anything else to do, since your statement was so vague. What would you have done?
  5. a) and d) are very impolite. b) Only dogs talk with each other on the street. c) is the correct way to treat someone.
  6. In the culture of your friend's African tribe, you've just received a friendly compliment, which says, "You look wonderful, healthy, and well cared for!"
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