Personalizing Culture

If you’re familiar with materials from National Geographic Learning you’ll know that they include a lot of images, texts, and topics about people and places from different countries. For this reason, you can often use the cross-cultural aspects of the material to help your students build their intercultural awareness alongside their language learning.

When thinking about how to approach culture in the classroom, it’s worth noting an observation made by the social psychologist Peter Adler on the subject of learning about culture and intercultural communication: [It] ‘begins as a journey into another culture and ends as a journey into one’s own culture.’ (Adler, 1975). So when you introduce the topic of another culture into a lesson, use it as an opportunity for students to reflect on their own culture – in other words, to personalize it. Let’s explore this at a practical level by categorizing culture in ways: objects, behavior, and ideas (Robinson, 1985).


Showing symbols and objects of a culture is often the easiest way into the topic of cultural differences. The drawback is that it can also result in narrow stereotyping; for example, showing students a British man wearing a bowler hat suggests that every male in Britain still wears them. On the other hand, the idea of cultural stereotypes can also provide an interesting route into the lesson. For example, show these five hats to your students and ask them to discuss these questions:

  • Which countries do you associate these hats with?
  • What types of objects are often used to represent your country?
  • Do you think these kinds of representations are positive or negative? Why?

Challenging cultural perceptions in this way can be highly generative for classroom discussion and cultural awareness; in fact, at the end of this blog post you can see that these images accompany a reading text (from Life Intermediate Second Edition) called, ‘How we see other cultures’ which looks at the way we automatically form opinions of other cultural groups through objects.


The topic of behavior – or the way we do things – is naturally suited to the language classroom as a topic because if you have students who are learning English for travel or work then they will come into contact with people from various different cultures. Whilst they might discover that they communicate with the universal language of English, they will also find that their behavior can differ greatly. You could use quizzes like the extract shown below where students have to guess answers about social behavior in different countries.

1 Bangkok

Don’t forget to remove your __________ when you visit someone’s house.

A shoes            B socks             C belt

2 Rio

When you arrive for dinner, you greet your host by ____________.

A kissing one cheek       B kissing both cheeks    C kissing their hand


At a restaurant, you normally tip the waiter __________ .

A 5-9%              B 10-14%          C 15-20%

As with ‘objects’, there is a danger that this kind of quiz suggests all people in one country all behave the same way, so always be open to students disagreeing with such a quiz. Furthermore, let students personalize the content by having them write three pieces of advice for a visitor to their country or culture. Scaffold this activity on the board by writing these sentences for giving advice and student complete them in their own words (or alternatively creating their own culture quiz):

1 Don’t forget to ….when you visit someone’s house.

2 When you arrive for dinner, you greet your host by….

3 At a restaurant, you normally tip the waiter…


This final aspect of culture is more abstract than the previous two categories because it involves thinking about our values and cultural associations. However, it’s the very ambiguity of ‘cultural ideas’ as a topic which can make it engaging for students.

Here’s an activity based around a listening text in a course book on the subject of culture and colors. Write the colors red, yellow, orange, blue, green on the board. Ask the class what the color ‘red’ can represent or symbolize in their culture. Answers may vary and include stop, danger, anger, love, luck, wealth and even bravery. Then put students into groups and have them discuss the meaning of the other colors in their own culture. Finally, show them this summary table for comparison:

Culture and colors

Color Place Meaning
Red Western cultures

Easter cultures

Love, anger

Luck, bravery

Yellow India




Orange Japan Happiness
Blue Mexico Death
Green International



Envy, jealousy

(Adapted from Life Intermediate Unit 1)

And if any of your students are from these countries and start disagreeing with what’s written in the table – that’s fine, culture is personal!



Adler, P. S. (1975) “The transitional experience: An alternative view of culture shock,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 15, 13-23.

Robinson, G. (1985) Cross-cultural Understanding Prentice Hall 1985

Text taken from Life Intermediate Second Edition Unit 1

Life Intermediate Second Edition Unit 1

Author: John Hughes

John Hughes is a teacher, teacher trainer and course book author. He currently combines a variety of roles including part-time teaching, running online training courses, and lecturing on ELT methodology at Oxford University. He is an author of many National Geographic Learning titles including Life, a six-level general English course, Spotlight on First, Practical Grammar, Total Business, Success with BEC Vantage, and Aspire. He lives near Oxford, United Kingdom.


  1. It is very useful cross culture reference the topic with the hats, I mean, gives way to discussion. For example many youngsters wear baseball caps which can mean a kind of “being part of a group”, sometimes depending on the pattern which is on the cap even nowadays, even among the students we discuss with. The bowler hat is recognized from films in our parts; that kind of straw hat is not only Vietnamese, but Asian according to the students; younger pupils as well recognize the sombrero as a specific Mexican hat (from cartoons); – but the bush hat usually needs to be introduced, only some of them know or have in their mind Australia as a referential point. Not far into discussions about stereotypes on several occasions it is raised the question (speaking of self-reflection!) why does the world knows about us that we are from “Dracula country” when we mention that we are from Transylvania, Romania? Then the opinions swarm around this topic until the discussion is ended by the teacher or the bell. That’s a straight proof of the intended topic and personalizing culture, isn’t it? Thank you.

    By the way, is it ‘behavior’ or ‘behaviour’ and ‘color’ or ‘colour’ in British English? (Oh, well, both words have to be added to the spell-checker – they were underlined even now.) Or is this a personal preference (and easier to put on the blog – or in the blog, for that matter, because this is the new vocabulary, and me, as not a native speaker…) All right, culture is personal, as you stated above, but is spelling so? I always mention the differences between British and American English to students, but when they come with the huge mistakes from the Internet, or they write ‘I’ with small ‘i’ – where should a teacher draw the line?…

    I am grateful for your ideas.
    Yours faithfully,
    Tünde Hedvig Juhász-Boylan

  2. Hi Tünde
    Thanks for your interest in the topic. I also agree that culture is often a good topic to get students talking. When handled correctly it’s like holding up a mirror to a student and saying ‘you’ve read about one culture, now think about how it applies to yours’.

    The spelling issues are to do with British English (behaviour, colour) and American English (behavior and color). Because this blog is visited by teachers from all over the world we tend to choose one of them – though normally I’d write in British English. My general rule for students is to write in either but be consistent – don’t mix them.

    Hope you keep visiting Infocus!

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