Embracing Cultural Diversity Online

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Have you ever received an email or a message online and you found it insulting, even rude? Have you ever sent a message to someone, only to learn that you have offended someone—unintentionally? Have you thought about the role culture—and cultural diversity—plays in our online interactions?

As we spend more and more of our time online, the importance of effective, clear communication is becoming increasingly important. With over 300 online courses here at UBC (and many more that have both a face-to-face and online component), students from around the world are participating in many courses. This brings a richness of experience to everyone’s educational experience; it also has the potential to create conflict, anxiety, misunderstanding and missed opportunities. UBC has a commitment to fostering global citizenship.

An integral part of this is developing sensitivity and respect for all cultures. But online interactions present some unique challenges in this regard. These include a lack of physical presence, not sharing popular culture experiences, and superficially acquired cultural stereotypes.


In face to face experiences, we have the benefit of presence. We have multiple senses to inform our interactions. We often can see a person’s intent through their facial or body expressions. We all use changes in the tone of our voice to convey emotions. We can sense more easily things like irony, sarcasm and satire. And we usually can establish empathy with one another pretty quickly. Empathy is what builds community and understanding.

The same interaction online though lacks presences—or at least presence in the way most of us are used to it. We are reading text mostly, which means no tone or facial or body expressions.

Let’s start with an example. Recently one of our colleagues called about an email exchange that we had been copied into (“cc’d”). The receiver was shocked by the “rude” and “disrespectful” message. Knowing well the person who sent the message, we had interpreted the message totally differently, and didn’t find it rude or disrespectful at all.

A mitigating factor here was culture: the person who sent the message had a different cultural background than the person who received it. The sender’s culture embraced the idea of forthright requests for things; the receiver’s viewed such requests as demands. We tried to explain this to the receiver, which helped manage a potential conflict. But what if the receiver hadn’t called?

(Un) Popular Culture

Other instances of cultural clashes happen in online classrooms. Often in an online course, someone will use anecdotes, expressions, or quotes from aspects of popular culture. While one reason students from outside Canada gravitate towards UBC is to experience aspects of our culture, using cultural references as the basis of discussion, email or assessment contributions can be problematic. Many who don’t “get” references to the Simpsons, Don Cherry, or the Tragically Hip are wary of highlighting their lack of knowledge—lack of exposure, really—in such circumstances.

Sometimes the reference can be deleted without changing the message. But if you want to integrate these sorts of cultural references, explain them a bit, parenthetically or create a glossary. Instead of saying “the author’s argument was as subtle as Don Cherry,” perhaps “the author’s argument was as subtle as Don Cherry (a Canadian hockey TV commentator, notorious for his strong opinions).” An extra 10 words for you can save one of your peers a fair bit of time trying to figure out the reference—and make them feel their peers are making an effort to include them.


Have you been in an online course where a student with an uncommon name posted a very different idea in a discussion topic and was challenged by others? Or been in a group where one student seemed to be bossy—uncomfortably so—or very quiet? Have you even experienced these sorts of things and seen others attribute these individual personality traits to the cultures these students are members of? Perhaps you’ve done so yourself…

In every culture there is a broad spectrum of personalities, communication styles, and work ethics. In some instances we have a close understanding with another culture: through our own families, or our having spent extended periods of time living within them. But often our notions of other cultures come from what we read, hear and see here, a relatively superficial understanding, in many instances.

Interpreting one person’s individual actions as evidence of their culture is both inaccurate and unfair. More importantly, if anyone’s conduct in an online learning environment is problematic, their conduct—not their culture—needs to be addressed. Being different doesn’t mean being wrong. Be open to new ideas/cultures and respect others’ contribution. Ask for clarification. Often a few straightforward and collegial words or a few questions from a peer are all that’s needed. But there’s also always your instructor or teaching assistant to give you advice on how to handle such instances. They may also step in themselves to help work things through.

Across Cultures

These are all coming from differences in our cultures—including Canadian culture. The following are some tip to minimize these sorts of challenges:

1. Be open to new ideas and experiences 2. Be respectful to others 3. Ask questions when the message is not clear 4. Share glossaries and resources, when using local terms among international students 5. Introduce highlight of our cultures to others in a group

With the best of intentions and attention, we all still get it wrong sometimes. Be patient with others, as well as yourself. Try to interpret people’s contributions in their most positive light. And don’t be afraid to backtrack, tidying things up, and make them right.

We’re only human!