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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Paisley

Navigating the international classroom -when being open shuts doors

I have worked in India on and off for about 10 years. In this time, I have learned so much and I am truly grateful for the insights I have gained and the communicative repertoire I have grown.

As a lecturer and trainer in Intercultural Communication I like to create a learning space where students and professionals can explore their own culture and other cultures. Respect and tolerance form the baseline of my work. I encourage learners to embrace my sessions with curiosity and openness.

Openness? Does this exist in every culture? Is it possible for all learners in the international classroom to be open? In front of people they barely know? Of course, this isn’t possible so why did it take me so long to realise that I can’t expect all Indians to be “open” in the Austrian sense of the word? Even if my subject is Intercultural Communication and I am promoting working across cultures, I still had to learn to realise that there were topics that I cannot address openly in this space. Being able to flex our teaching style is a competence all interculturalists need to address. I learned the hard way!

What am I talking about here?

I cofacilitate a program called “Xplore India”, accompanying Austrian students to New Delhi where they work together for 2 weeks on a joint topic and gain first-hand knowledge about cross-cultural teamwork. The topic is the point of convergence and enables the study groups to focus on goals. But the real magic takes place in the group – in the communication and working styles of the students, all communicating in English.

My cultural blooper

One of the topics that comes up in these sessions is arranged marriages. In my early days as a lecturer on this program, many Austrian students wanted to know more about whether arranged marriages existed or not. In front of the whole group, I asked the Indian students and received an indirect, high-context answer. The Austrian students looked puzzled so I asked one girl more directly, “Are you going to have an arranged marriage?”. Oh dear - I received an “I can’t answer that Ma’am” and I realised I had overstepped a boundary. I wasn’t happy with myself at all. Even though I had been indirect in my asking of the question, the topic was not something to be talked about explicitly in front of a group of 20 people.

What did I learn from this blooper?

Even if I work in a field where the exchange of ideas is invaluable, some topics are a no-no.

It’s okay to talk about taboo topics in smaller groups (this is what the exchange program allows). You must build trust to talk about such matters in India. Trust is not a foregone conclusion like in Austria/UK. I have learned much about relationships, time and work styles, hierarchy working in India. I love the stories, I love Jugaad (Hindi word for a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way), and I love the hospitality.

Being a British lecturer on this program is a true privilege as I sit between Austria and India in terms of communication styles. I feel the pain of the Indians when the German speakers are direct to the Indians, and I feel the confusion of the Austrians when the Indians talk in analogies and anecdotes! And as the two weeks unfold, I observe the groups come together, flex their communication styles, and produce some amazing work and - more importantly - lifelong relationships.


Vanessa Paisley (Paisley Communication) is a trainer and lecturer in Cross-cultural Communication and Teaching English as a Second Language. Now back in the UK, she lived in Austria for 23 years and sees herself as a cultural bridge person. Find out more on her website.

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