What is Cultural Exchange in the Classroom?

Online Teachers are at the forefront of cultural exchange, but what does that even mean?

Cultural exchange (or “cross-cultural communication” if you’re feeling fancy) is one of those terms we hear a lot, assume is a good thing, but don’t always know what it truly means. Like poly-unsaturated fats, high dividend yields or stickers on apples. Yet, as an online teacher interacting with students on the other side of the planet, you are on the very front line of this exchange.

Cultural exchange is not merely your ability to eat with chopsticks and your student’s ability to recognize Cap’n Crunch (although that is part of it). Instead, it is a critical part of any two cultures’ ability to collaborate in all manner of ways. And why is this so important? Because in this moment in time, cultures collaborate in ways most people cannot even imagine. Did you know that after the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011, the U.S has relied solely on Russia to send its astronauts to space? Or that Uzbekistan provides us with more cotton than Mexico and Australia combined?

The link to the online classroom then becomes very apparent. Language is the most basic element for developing effective cross-cultural exchange and understanding. After all, if you can’t even ask for milk in your coffee, you’re going to have one whale of a time trying to get your head around a Sateré-Mawé initiation ritual. So, language becomes the starting point.

Which is where you come in.

At this point you may think your contribution to cultural exchange stops at the subordinate clause. But you actually engage in a far deeper, and subtler exchange of cultural information. As your students learn more about Western culture, traditions and norms, so too do you get new insight into their lives, habits and traditions. These exchanges can be hilarious, unnerving, or even shocking at times, and your existing experience has probably already seen that adjustments and concessions are made on both sides of the camera to increase your ability to work together.

Cultural differences between Eastern and Western cultures are the most talked about. Since that’s you and your students, here are two common cultural differences that you may have even noticed in your classrooms.


This is most commonly defined as a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. In practice, it’s the difference between “getting right to the point” and talking around the topic with the assumption that everyone more or less ends up on the same page. Western cultures tend to prefer very direct communication, and look for black and white answers, while many Eastern cultures prefer a more ambiguous, loose approach.

Yang Liu, a German artist originally from Beijing, illustrates this difference in a clever way in her book East meets West:

Yang Liu: East Meets West


If you have ever travelled to the East, one thing you realize very quickly is how close people stand to each other. Whereas in the West, personal space infringement starts at about 10 feet, making Starbucks lines and subways particularly volatile places.

A Westerner may find it impossible to understand how parents can stick so close to their children at every chance they get. While an Easterner may find it equally impossible to understand how we wouldn’t feel lonely without our parents around.

Again, Yang Liu has her own witty interpretation individualism and collectivism in action: 

Yang Liu: East Meets West

As the world changes and becomes more globalized, these differences will become more nuanced and diluted, and certainly not everyone you meet will fit within the expected cultural norms they are part of. However, whenever you do come across an odd situation in the classroom, it’s always worthwhile to take a step back and think a little bit about what cultural differences could be playing a role.