English Blog

How to Teach Students to Become Interculturally Sensitive: Simulate a Cultural Clash

*This is a longer version of what I submitted to TSL Education Ltd. I appreciate they asked me to contribute to their website in my own expertise.

1. Introduction

What we don’t want to miss in intercultural workshop is to let students experience how they feel in cultural gaps. I usually start my intercultural workshop with one or two games so that they can actually feel and experience what they are going to learn.

In this limited space, I would like to introduce a brief exercise I usually do in the beginning of my intercultural workshop. 


2. Ninja Chopsticks Training: Create Gaps between People 

a) The Purpose of the Game

The purpose of the game is to let students experience and realize the reality that we all think and behave based on different paradigms in thinking.

People gradually form their beliefs and thoughts through their daily life in varieties of cultures. In an intercultural setting, communications often don’t go smoothly because people don’t pay enough attention to cultural varieties through which they form their common sense . 

In this game, we intentionally create interpersonal gaps between students by secretly giving different instructions. This creates awkwardness between players generating different hidden expectations and assumptions to each other.


b) What We Prepare for the Game

Prepare 4-6 different sizes and colors of beads, enough pairs of chopsticks and plates to each team. Let’s say the colors are red, yellow, blue and white in this example, and red is the biggest and white the smallest. Pick really big ones for red and really small ones for white in order to make it hard for players to pick them up with chopsticks.


c) How the Game Goes

We set points to each color such as 1, 2, 3, 4 point(s), and put many beads of different colors in plates. Players try to pick them up from the plates and convey the beads to empty plates in one minute, and players with more points after one minute win the battle.

I call the game “Ninja Chopsticks Training.” I usually tell students to consider this as a ninja practice to train them to quickly focus, think and move in harmony, and lead them to think this is fun and they have to be quick.

The game sounds simple, but it becomes confusing for players when we secretly give different instructions to them.

Let’s say we have 10 students and have two teams in this example. We tell the student players that this is a team battle and divide them into two, inviting the same team members to sit together. Then we tell them they are not allowed to speak during the game but they can communicate with body language.

After some QA time, we start the game. The first thing we have to do is to distribute different written instructions to each team pretending they are exactly same.

Most part of the written instructions are the same, but not about how they count the points. For one team, we write red has 4, yellow 3, blue 2 and white 1 point(s), and for the other, we instruct red has 1, yellow 2, blue 3 and white 4 point(s). We also tell only one team that they can double the total points when they collect 5 blue beads.

Giving them enough time to read and understand all the instructions, we invite each team to pick two brave solders to go to the other team’s base and have battles there while we tell the other three who remain in the home base to beat the two opponents coming to take over their home base. 

This is a knock-out stage of one-on-one battle. One round continues until the two players defeat the three opponents and take over the other base, or the remained three defeat the two coming opponents to defend their own base. In the first battle, one player in the home base has to time a match with a stop-watch and this role is assigned later to a defeated one in the first battle. Players have several rounds – let’s say 5 rounds- picking different players to go to the other base each time. The team which takes over the opponent’s base more win the game. 

This game creates awkwardness and often frustration among players because they don’t agree with how many points they get. They can’t set this straight because they are not allowed to verbally communicate to figure out what is going on.

3. Sharing Time

After the game, we give them a permission to speak and have sharing time together. Ask them questions focusing on how the game went, how they felt, how they reacted in the game, etc. 

Some might have thought there were people who didn’t do the simple math, didn’t understand the rules or intentionally ignored them to win. Some others might have tried to teach others the “right way” to count the points with some gestures of frustration, which I often see in my workshops.

Then we explain what was really happening in the game. Tell them we gave different instructions and each team played the game under different rules. 

We make sure that they realize nobody was wrong in the game although they might have felt some people didn’t play the game right or didn’t do the math right.


4. Reflection Time: External Culture and Internal Culture

We can now tell them that the game is for examining how we typically think and behave when we encounter different internal cultures.

Internal culture is not a familiar term for many students, so we explain what it is in comparison to external culture. 

External culture is often described as iceberg above the water. Many of them are visible and people can recognize them easily. It’s a conscious part of culture, such as widely acknowledged beliefs, arts, food, cloths, etc. When we go to multicultural fairs, what we usually enjoy is varieties of external culture.  

Internal culture is, on the other hand, iceberg under the water. Internal culture is unconscious part of culture, such as hidden beliefs and hidden patterns of thought which we usually don’t learn in school. They are often not visible and we often don’t notice the differences of internal culture among people. Not many people pay attention to internal culture when we encounter others from different countries and societies. This is a major reason why communication errors occur in an intercultural setting.

We all live in this world with different internal cultures inside just like they were playing on the same game with different rules. Encourage students to list “Dos and Don’ts” in intercultural communication, such as “Don’t thoughtlessly impose your beliefs on others assuming yours are the right ones.”, “Don’t haste to become judgmental on others assuming they are acting in a wrong way.”, “We need to be careful enough to respect what hidden beliefs others have behind what they do.”, etc.


6. Conclusion

We close this exercise session introducing the “Platinum Rule” instead of the famous “Golden Rule.” 

The Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and this is quite a wonderful traditional wisdom. But this sometimes doesn’t dance well in intercultural relationships because people from different cultures often expect different things. What they would like you to do unto them is sometimes not what you would like them to do unto you. 

In an intercultural setting, we need to be culturally-sensitive and invite them to follow the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would be done by.” The point is to focus on internal cultures of others and not to automatically assume theirs are the same as ours.

You can use what’s written here as a basic guideline and develop other learning focuses as well. For example, conveying beads with chopsticks can be used as a metaphor of speaking a foreign language too. Students can experience and understand how difficult for foreigners to convey what they want to say in an unfamiliar second language. Make any arrangement and enjoy being a facilitator for intercultural studies.


Good Friends Japan CEO. We aspire to offer opportunities of international education especially to unprivileged young adults. ヨーロッパと台湾で仕事をする北海道育ち。大学をアメリカ、大学院をカナダで修了。リベラルアーツ教育、宗教教育修士。