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6 careers for foreign language speakers

Students will discover that cultural norms heavily influence how we communicate.

Language is one of the most obvious and one of the most complicated defining features of a culture. And language—vocabulary, syntax, intonation—is but one aspect of the complex communication patterns that groups use to share meaning and experience. Kristyn Leftridge served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco from 1991 to 1992. In this example from the Peace Corps' collection of "Hello Data," she describes the difficulty of a simple greeting.
In Moroccan Arabic the standard basic greeting is "Salam oo-alley koom." It translates literally to "Peace be unto you." The appropriate response is "Oo-alley koom salam," meaning "And unto you peace." But knowing the words is not enough. Greetings in Morocco will go on for many minutes—sometimes up to half an hour—as the parties ask about each other's health, faith in Allah, families, work, etc. Moroccans will shake hands when greeting, touching the heart immediately after the handshake to show that the greeting is sincere. Sometimes instead of touching the heart, they will kiss their own hand after the handshake as a sign of particular esteem or affection. In the case of family or close friends, women greeting women and men greeting men will kiss each other's cheeks back and forth a few times. In the north, it's right cheek–left cheek–left cheek. In other parts of the country, it could be right–left–right, or right–left only. How much you kiss cheeks also depends on how much you like the person, or how long it's been since you've seen the person. The longer it's been, the more kisses are exchanged. Women and men who are not related never kiss.
"Chatter" is a simulation game that asks players to pay attention to the subtleties of communication and to discuss how these influence our perceptions of individuals and groups.


  • A whistle and a timer to help you pace the game 
  • Etiqette sheets


Print the etiquette sheets (see attachment) and cut them into strips.

  1. Move the classroom furniture to the sides of the room so that the players have plenty of room to move around.
  2. Help the students organize themselves into groups of four to six members. Select another group of three to four students to act as observers.
  3. Shuffle the etiquette sheets and give one to each student. Ask the students to keep their sheets hidden from each other and to study them carefully.
  4. Explain that they will be attending a party with guests from many different cultures. The etiquette sheets define the roles that students will play as they make small talk at the party. The observers will look for behaviors indicating frustration or special efforts participants make to understand the "rules" of communication.
  5. Ask the members of each small group to talk with each other using the conversational rules described on their etiquette sheets. Students should not divulge the contents of their sheets. The teacher and the student observers should watch the groups as they converse, looking for behaviors to discuss during the debriefing.
  6. Blow a whistle after seven to 10 minutes and ask the students to form themselves into new groups.
  7. These groups should start a new conversation, with the students continuing to follow the instructions on their etiquette sheets. Again, the teacher and observers should watch the groups as they converse, looking for changes that might occur between the two sessions.
  8. Blow the whistle again after another seven to 10 minutes and ask the students to stop talking.
  9. Tell them that there are 12 different etiquette sheets and that it is possible for more than one person in each group to have the same sheet. Ask the students to think back silently about their conversations and to guess what instructions each player had on his or her sheet. After a brief pause, ask the participants to take turns telling their guesses to the rest of the groups. However, no student should confirm or deny anyone's guesses at this time.
  10. Tell the participants that some etiquette sheets said, "Be yourself." Ask the students to try to guess if any member of the group was acting as himself or herself.
  11. Ask the students to tell one another what their etiquette sheet said. Were the students' guesses accurate?

Use questions such as the following to guide discussion about the challenges of cross-cultural communication. Be sure to ask the student observers to share their observations of group and individual behavior to help give participants a broader view of the activity.

  1. How did you feel about this exercise? Were you relieved or disappointed when it came to an end? Why?
  2. What happened during the simulation? Did any of you feel embarrassed or frustrated during the conversations? What made you feel that way? Was it the way your etiquette sheet asked you to behave? Or the way someone else was instructed to behave? Why do you think you reacted the way you did?
  3. Did you consider any of the behavior patterns in this exercise rude or offensive? If so, was it one of your behaviors or someone else's? Why did this behavior bother you?
  4. What were the differences between your conversations in the first group and in the second group? Why do you think these differences occurred? Does this happen in real-life situations?
  5. Did you correctly guess the etiquette-sheet behaviors at the conclusion of the activity?
  6. Discuss the following statements. Ask students whether they agree or disagree with each statement. Ask them to use examples of their experiences from the game and from real life to support their opinions.
    • There is more to a conversation than just the words and sentences.
    • We tend to judge other people based on what we think is "normal."
    • Behaviors that we consider to be bizarre or rude may be acceptable or polite in other cultures.
    • Sometimes you may feel negative about another person because his or her conversational style seems strange.
    • After time, people get used to unusual behaviors and begin paying more attention to the topic of the conversation.

7. What real-world situations are represented in this game? What do the etiquette sheets represent?

8. Can you think of any conversational behaviors you exhibit that others might find distracting or strange? (Hint: Do teenagers have ways of communicating that adults don't understand?)

9. What might have happened if the conversations had lasted for 45 minutes instead of 10?

10. What would have happened if you had been asked to solve a homework problem with the other members of your group?

11. What advice would you give a friend who is about to participate in this activity for the first time?

12. What if you were to visit a foreign country? Based on your experiences during this activity, what are some things you could do to make communication easier?