From accounts of experiences provided by the students and following Brislin's
(1986) concept of 'critical incident', members of The Interculture Project team
have reconstructed a number of scenarios involving various forms of cultural
'misunderstandings'. 'Intercultural incidents' lend themselves to a number of
learning activities designed to raise students' levels of intercultural knowledge
and awareness, ranging from role plays to structured discussion and creative
See also Data Gathering and the
for visual interpretations of some interculturally puzzling situations based
on students' accounts of their experiences.
Teachers will find a wealth of original resource material for constructing their own
Intercultural Incidents in the SARA and
STEFE databases. We encourage you
to let us know of developmental work you do that could be referenced on this
website and help to enrich it as a resource. Get in touch with us at
Below are examples of Intercultural Incidents, created by David Steel, Lancaster
University for The Interculture Project from original accounts by students.
1. PHONETIC DIVIDE
An English Language Assistant in Austria, Jane was working with the
teacher Hans in his class. Every week they’d practice a different sound with
the pupils; this week it was ‘u’ as in cup, gull, hut.
After Jane had read the first couple of examples Hans stopped her, asked the
group how she was reading and agreed with them her accent was Northern. He asked
if she would mind using a Southern pronunciation. 'Yes she bloody well would'-
she thought! The more she thought about it the more annoyed she was. Hans said
‘They will copy you. They repeat what they hear’. Jane knew her accent wasn’t
too strong. She resolved that in future she would not be bullied into altering
her accent. Hans could find another method if he wanted.
WAS JANE RIGHT OR WRONG?
2. BILBAO BARS
Claire, Emma, Michelle and Tom are four British students in Spain for
the year. They decide to spend the evening in a bar or two. Not knowing Bilbao
very well yet they get a bit lost and stop to consult a town plan. They are
pleased when a young inhabitant approaches and offers to show them a few bars.
They chat and he wants to know where the four come from. Tom is Irish and the
women English. Tom and the Spanish man walk ahead of the women and and the
Spanish man begins to talk politics and compare the situation in the Basque
country with the situation in Northern Ireland and then asks Tom why he is with
English women. Claire, Emma and Michelle are right behind and don’t know what’s
going on. Suddenly Tom turns round to them and says ‘Right, let’s drop him
WOULD YOU HAVE DONE WHAT TOM DID OR NOT? WHY?
3. BILINGUAL FLAT
Heidi is a Lancaster student abroad who has been invited to share a flat in
Valencia with a Spanish friend she has made, Mercedes, and her brother
Carlos. They usually speak Spanish in the flat, but when Mercedes’ and Carlos’
friends come round they all speak Valencian. Although Mercedes asks them to
speak Spanish for Heidi’s sake, they are very reluctant to do so because they
feel Spanish is not their language and they are less comfortable speaking it.
Heidi feels uncomfortable too and thinks she must move out so as to ease the
SHOULD HEIDI MOVE? WHY?
Elizabeth Windsor, a British student, has been
living in a flat in Naples since October and has soon got to know her
neighbours. Anna, the middle-aged woman next door is very friendly and has been
promising to make Liz try the famous pastiera, a traditional Neapolitan
Easter cake. On Good Friday, in the morning, Anna informs Elizabeth that she'll
go and see her at about 7.00 that evening and bring the cake. Liz starts
panicking, unsure of what might be expected of her.
WHAT SORT OF THINGS MIGHT BE WORRYING LIZ?
5. ROMAN AGE
Steve is on an 8-month work-placement in Italy. He gets on well with
his colleagues and they go out for a drink in the evening. Getting to know one
another they begin to talk of themselves. Steve explains he comes from a typical
British family. His father works in an office and his mother is a home-help. His
sister goes to a comprehensive school. They all live together in a semi-detached
house. He mentions that his grandparents are in an old people’s home. Suddenly
there are funny looks and the conversation seems to run into the buffers.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED?
6. GOOD-TIME GIRLS
Karen and Beth are two lively British students, English Language Assistants
in a small town in France. They share a flat with Eva, a German Language
Assistant. To celebrate Eva's birthday, they invite Nathalie, a younger French
student who lives with her family across the landing, out to a bar for the
evening. They say they'll be home by about 11.00 pm. Nathalie hesitates, but
agrees. In the bar Nathalie drinks mainly fruit-juice. The others share a bottle
of wine, sample an intriguing French liqueur or two, get rather over-happy, make
a bit of noise. They persuade Nathalie to stay longer and walking home Caroline
and Eva link arms and sing English pop songs. Nathalie doesn't get home until
past midnight. When they next invite her out Nathalie declines and seems less
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THE COOLING OF THE RELATIONSHIP?
With Nancy, an American student, Anna, Ruth and Catherine are three British
students spending 9 months as English Language Assistants in France at
Chateauroux. They make friends with BTS students at the lycée where Catherine
works. After going out as a group for some months Anna decides she likes one of
the French students, Manu, a lot. She wants to send him a Valentine card and
give him a present of flowers, as she would have in England. Nancy, Ruth and
Catherine agree it’s a good idea and Ruth and Catherine also decide to send
cards to the boys they like. Nancy says she’ll
send cards to the three girls because in the States everyone sends cards to
their friends to thank them for being friends. Still, Anna wonders about Manu’s
response and asks Pascal, a French student friend of Manu, who is very shocked
at the idea and says she shouldn’t send Manu anything.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
8. POLITICS AT HOME
Daniel is an English Language Assistant in Germany, living with a
lively German family where there is free talk about everything. Heiki, the
mother, is a Sozi whereas Daniel supports William Hague. During a
discussion he says that a vote for Blair is a vote for Europe and that in
Germany a vote for the centre - left is a nationalist vote and not a vote for
Europe. Heiki gets angry and doesn’t give Daniel a chance to explain further
what he means.
WHY HAS FREE SPEECH BROKEN DOWN?
9. FISH IN TUNISIA
Patricia is a British student on a work-placement in Tunisia. She
lives with her employer and his family in the town of Sfax. The family is nice
and meals together are an important aspect of family life. One evening fish is
served. Patricia picks up her knife and fork and begins to eat. It’s not easy
but she carries on. Suddenly she looks up, sees that all the family are watching
her strangely and feels she has committed a faux-pas.
WHAT HAS SHE DONE WRONG?
10. BARBER-SHOP POLITICS
Robert is a Scottish student on a nine-month work-placement in a town on the
south coast of France near Cannes. There are local elections pending.
The Front National and the Communists are both quite strong forces locally.
At his home university he has been told that the French talk a lot about politics.
Needing a haircut Robert goes to the hairdresser’s, which is quite busy. By way of
making conversation while in the chair he asks the coiffeur what he thinks the
results of the elections might be. The hairdresser looks surprised, side-steps the
issue and begins to talk about something else. Robert gets the distinct feeling qu’ il
a gaffé, i.e. made a false move.
HOW COULD THIS BE INTERPRETED?
11. BODY LANGUAGE
Margaret Jones is a British university student who has been working as an English
Language Assistant in an Italian school for a month. She has already met most of her
colleagues. They are all very nice and friendly, but Mario Rossi the P.E. teacher, a
young man in his late twenties, seems to make a point of talking to her in the
corridor and often puts a hand on her arm or shoulder while doing so. She finds this
slightly disturbing and does not feel completely at ease.
HOW COULD THIS BE INTERPRETED?
12. FOREIGN POLICY DISCUSSIONS
Never much interested in newspaper reading or in current events, Betty Bradley from
Exeter had still done quite well in her undergraduate studies in anthropology and
won a scholarship for overseas study in Germany. Again reflecting her academic
abilities, she was quite fluent in German, having studied it both in high school
and college. Upon arrival in Germany, she settled in well and began her graduate
studies. During four or five informal gatherings of students at the local beer hall,
German colleagues asked her about U.S policy on nuclear arms in Europe, the
president’s seeming unsureness in foreign policy, and recent trade agreements
between the United States and the Soviet Union. Betty was unprepared for such
questions, had little to say, and as such was not so frequently included in the beer
hall gatherings later on during her sojourn. Betty was puzzled at her non-inclusion.
HOW COULD THIS BE INTERPRETED?