Where do you stand – should we use ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ to be more culturally sensitive at this time of year? The idea of cultural engagement and inclusivity is a hot topic at the best of times, and at this time of year it raises debates as to how we should meet the multi-cultural environments we now live and work in. 

Regardless of where you land on that debate, most of us in the learning industry agree that a comfortable learner is far more likely to be a successful learner.  Being culturally sensitive in your learning design will make learners feel comfortable and welcome, and it helps them get the most out of their interaction with your content.  

Here is our take on four simple ways you can boost cultural engagement, with a specific lens on the learning industry. None of these tips are revolutionary, reactionary, nor are they going to world-shatteringly change the way you operate, but they will all go a long way in ensuring you achieve the widest reach to effectively engage with as many people as possible. 

1:   Identify your audience

The first tip to ensure you are being responsible in your cultural engagement is to be aware of the audience you are engaging with. In the general context of a ‘New Zealand audience’, writing in a mixture of English and te reo Māori may be the most culturally appropriate way to construct your text. For example, you could open the lesson with ‘Kia ora and welcome!’, bearing in mind that most New Zealanders are familiar with simple Māori terms like ‘Kia ora’, but not necessarily anything more complex.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use more complex terminology if it seems appropriate but remember to explain words that may not be immediately clear.

It is important to note that a ‘New Zealand audience’ may not always be who you are addressing. Imagine you are constructing a lesson for a company who regularly employs people working in New Zealand but come from overseas and for whom English is already challenge, let alone having a grasp on te reo Māori. A simple and direct English approach would be much more appropriate for this demographic, to maximise their understanding of the content.

Being culturally engaging doesn’t mean you have to pack as much diversity into each and everything you make, it is about knowing when, how and where to include different cultural practices in appropriate ways.

2:   Watch out for the little things 

This may seem basic, but make sure you get your spelling correct. This doesn’t just mean that vowels and consonants go in the right places, but that accents are correctly applied. English is a language where accents aren’t used, so it can be easy to ignore their importance. However, neglecting to include accents not only changes the meanings of words, but it is also disrespectful. By taking the time to figure out the correct accents, you are showing that you genuinely care about being inclusive and respectful of different cultures.

Similarly, different languages and cultures have varying degrees of formality associated with different words. In the same way that an English speaker would say ‘Good afternoon’ rather than ‘What’s up’ in a formal situation, different cultures use different words depending on the situation. While this may seem intuitive to some, it is worth taking the time to think about which culture you are engaging with before you decide on which greeting to use.

For example, ‘Konnichiwa’ is a Japanese greeting you may be familiar with; however, you may not realise it is most often used for those you are already familiar with. A term like ‘Yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ is better when introducing yourself in a formal setting, or when you are greeting a group of people. By arming yourself with the knowledge of both, you are better equipped to use the most appropriate terminology in any given setting.

Paying attention to what may seem like subtle differences like this goes a long way in showing a genuine engagement with a culture, rather than a superficial desire to appear culturally sensitive. 

3:   Be flexible for the big things 

You need to step into other people’s shoes! You can’t assume that everyone has the same lived experience as you and that they can learn the same way you do. Designing learning experiences based on an assumption that everyone has equal access to the internet or has similar amounts of spare time ignores crucial differences in the way people live. For some people, their 9-5 may be the only time they can access the tools needed to complete online learning, so designing their learning with the expectation of completing work at home is unfair.

Likewise, different times of year mean different cultural and religious holidays for different people, and knowing how to account for these differences gives a stronger sense of cultural awareness. For instance, asking a Ruth, who follows the Jewish religion, to complete their assignments on Shabbat may go against her religious practices, putting her in an uncomfortable position. This isn’t to say that a learning designer needs to be aware of every single cultural or religious practice and holiday, it simply means they need to be flexible. We need to acknowledge and adjust timeframes or work requirements to meet the needs of different cultures. For Ruth, simply moving the assessment to another day would likely eliminate any issues. 

Always keep the communication channels open between designers and learners, giving learners the opportunity to say when they are uncomfortable, and allowing them to have an input on how the problem could be solved.

4:   Mean what you say 

Finally, the most important aspect of cultural engagement is to really mean it. There is no point trying to be culturally inclusive if all you are doing is trying to tick boxes, which only leads to ‘tokenism’ – the practice of making symbolic yet empty gestures of inclusiveness.

Imagine you are crafting a sales scenario for a liquor store retail assistants and you need someone to role play a customer. ‘Tokenism’ would be when you select someone who ‘looked’ overtly Muslim in the belief that this is being inclusive.
However, because the drinking of alcohol is generally considered haram in Islam, the resulting scenario could easily be interpreted as more offensive than simply not having a Muslim character at all. If you choose to be diverse because you really mean it, you determine who the customer is based on audience and appropriateness, perhaps even deciding to simply label them as a generic customer rather than applying anything specific to them.

Our final thoughts

If you take anything away from this article, let it be the need to be open-minded if you want to genuinely engage with multiculturalism. Think about who you are writing for, be aware of both the subtle things and the big things, avoid tokenism and when in doubt, communicate. 

There is no shame in asking for help from experts or getting constructive feedback, so grow and become a more culturally inclusive learning designer.

Eketone, A., Walker, S. (2015). Bicultural Practice: Beyond Mere Tokenism. In: van Heugten, K., Gibbs, A. (eds) Social Work for Sociologists. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137389688_7 




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If you have an engagement or learning challenge in your industry that needs a culturally sensitive approach, get in touch.