Working in Unfamiliar
This exercise will help participants understand what it is like to work in another culture, think
in a second language, or start a new job where the rules are unfamiliar. It also creates aware-
ness for coworkers as to what it is like to work in or learn a second language.
This activity targets anybody who works or studies in another country, works with people
from different countries or cultures, or is preparing to start a new job or career.
15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the group. This activity can also be used as an
Stopwatch or watch with second hand
A copy of Handout 1, “Working in Unfamiliar Surroundings: Quiz,” for each participant
Pencils or pens
Overhead projector and transparency or flipchart with correct answers. If you have several
small groups, make copies of Handout 2, “Answers and Discussion Questions for Small
Groups,” for each participant.
A small prize for the winner (optional)
1. Distribute Handout 1 face-down and tell participants not to turn it over until you say,
Start now.
2. Explain the activity. Read the directions as listed on Handout 1. (When you have done this
activity a few times, you can tell them what the best performance time from previous
groups has been, and challenge them to beat it.) Remind them to hold up a hand when they
are finished. Tell them that there will be a prize for the first person to correctly complete
the quiz (optional).
3. Tell them to begin and start marking time.
4. Stop the watch as soon as the first person holds up his or her hand.
5. Show the correct answers and debrief the whole group. (If you work in small groups, dis-
tribute the answer sheet handout and have participants discuss the exercise and then share
their answers with the larger group.) If there is a prize, award it to the first person to have
all correct answers.
6. Summarize the learnings and the experience.
Depending on your audience and the purpose for doing the exercise, you might want to split
the group in half:
Half the group does the exercises without “translations” (not changing the signs).
The other half has to “translate” into the new symbols (create an answer sheet with the
“untranslated” version).
Ask them to reflect on the experience, and ask such questions as:
1. You were asked not to write the symbols on the paper. Who wrote them anyway, and
why or why not? Look for different answers from different cultures:
“Timing was important and I am competitive.”
“I usually follow instructions. It was too hard otherwise.”
“It was all a mental job, it was tiring, and I was getting frustrated because I had to con-
stantly go back and forth.”
2. How did you finish so quickly? Did you have a strategy?
“I did all the ones with the same symbols first.”
“We worked in a team. Mary did all the +, Joe did all the ×, etc.”
3. How did you feel when you were doing the exercise? (Look for frustrated, rushed, anx-
ious, etc.)
4. What experiences similar to this have you had in the workplace?
5. What implications does this have for both old-timers and newcomers in a work environ-
6. What did you learn from this exercise?
“We have to operate on a conscious level. Nothing comes automatically. We have to
think about what we are doing. If we behave in our old way, the results will be wrong.”
“It made me aware how difficult it must be for people from different countries to work
Since timing was important, what could you have done to get to the answers quicker?
Hopefully, you get to the point where they say, “We could have split up the work and worked
as a team,” or “Nobody told us we could work as a team. It was not part of my mental

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