Cross-Cultural Dialogues
To illustrate how cultural differences create misunderstandings in communication
Individuals who must communicate with people in or from other countries or cultures. This
activity works ideally for groups of 20, at the most.
35 minutes
Copies of Handouts 1 – 5: “The Five Dialogues,” for each participant
1. Briefly explain what a dialogue is:
“A dialogue is a brief conversation between two speakers. One or more cultural differ-
ences can cause a misunderstanding. These dialogues will show how cultural differences
interfere with and often prevent successful communication, and why learning about other
cultures is, therefore, so important.
“A dialogue is not merely an example or illustration of a cultural difference (though it is
that, too): It is also a kind of puzzle, written in such a way that the misunderstanding is
not readily apparent to the reader and is usually not apparent to the speakers. In most
cases, the conversation seems completely innocuous; reading between the lines provides
some indication of misunderstanding.”
This feature makes dialogue especially useful in training, because participants are usually
quite eager to “crack” the dialogue and figure out what actually occurred.
2. Go over one of the dialogues together so that participants will understand how they work
and what they should be looking for. Select one and assign two people to read the two
parts. Then ask them what they saw or what they think was going on. If they don’t
uncover the cultural difference, then supply it for them. (5 minutes)
3. Divide participants into small groups and ask them to read the rest of the dialogues and
try to identify the misunderstanding and the cultural difference that leads to it (about
10 minutes).
4. Go through the dialogues one at a time, assigning roles to play them out and then discuss-
ing each dialogue. You may have to role play them more than once. (15 minutes)
Ask people if they have ever engaged in a “dialogue.” If so, ask volunteers to share their
insights with the group. Your concluding remarks should emphasize how easy it is to misun-
derstand people in cross-cultural situations; remind the audience that misunderstanding is just
the tip of the iceberg—it leads to misinterpretation, to inaccurate judgments, and to mistaken
conclusions and inappropriate actions. (5 minutes)
Additional notes for the trainer: The dialogues exercise usually goes quite smoothly. Dia-
logues intrigue participants as soon as they read them, and they will be eager to see if they
can unravel the dialogue’s meaning—to solve the puzzle.
People will often see different things than what the dialogue was designed to illustrate. You
can accept all such explanations, of course, but make sure that you or someone else also
comments on the main cultural point that is contained in the Five Dialogues: Trainer Analy-
sis that follows the handouts (this analysis is for the trainer’s use only, not to be handed out).
Some of the other explanations that participants make, incidentally, will not be about cultural
differences. This is why the trainer should be sure to make the cultural point, as well as
acknowledge that other things might be going on “within” the dialogue.
Five Dialogues:
1. Moving Up
We’ve been wondering about your next position.
Moving up, you mean?
You’ve certainly learned a lot this year.
Your colleagues say you’re very easy to work with.
I try to get along with people.
You have a lot of enthusiasm and make a lot of effort.
Well, I just like to see results, that’s all.
Yes, results. How do you see your results this year?
Five Dialogues:
2. A Confusing Drawing
I didn’t understand this drawing.
Can I explain it to you?
Did you do this one yourself or was it done by one of your team?
As department head, I reviewed it for accuracy, but it was done by Elena.
Let’s call her in. Maybe she can explain it to us.

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