What is culture? 5 ways people from different countries learn differently (& 5 ways we all learn the same)

There will always misinterpretations of culture (like the photo above).

I’ve done training & development work in Canada, the U.S., India, the Philippines, the Arctic, Japan, Mexico, Kenya, Saskatchewan, Uganda, Tanzania, Brazil, Spain, France, China and soon, Egypt with workshop participants from more than 80 countries. Currently I’m living & working in Kenya.

As a result I get asked about culture, about whether people from different countries learn differently (or something similar) fairly often.

I thought it was high time I answered in a blog post.

My answer?  Yes … and … no.

Yes, people from different countries learn differently.  Culture is a what makes us human & what makes training & development so interesting.  Ignore cultural differences at your peril.  You’ll end up in a pickle pdq if you do.

Here are 5 factors that my antennae are attuned to when I’m in a different cultural context than my own (note, this includes diverse organizational cultures, not just diversity related to race and/or ethnicity).

  • gender – I look for how gender issues are addressed, what’s on people’s radars & what’s not.
  • environment – I notice how participants relate to their physical environment, including how they relate to each other.  For example how close are they to each other when they talk/sit/interact?
  • power – is power actively shared or are systems more hierarchical?  How do decisions get made?  I look to see how power issues affect how people work & learn.
  • authority – how do people respond to authority?  This is often evident regarding how participants see me as the trainer – am I accepted carte blanche simply because I’m the trainer (at least on the surface) or will people engage & challenge me?
  • formal / informal – I can often tell how formal or informal a workplace or training situation is by how people are dressed, the kind of language they use,


No, people from different countries don’t learn differently.  I’ve found that no matter where in the world I am working,  participants respond positively to & learn best through these 5 factors:

  • the strategic (note strategic is emphasized) use of humour
  • training processes that tweak their curiousity
  • teaching styles that are engaging
  • material that is relevant
  • having opportunities to practice (transfer learning to the workplace)

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5 Responses to “What is culture? 5 ways people from different countries learn differently (& 5 ways we all learn the same)”

  1. Shana Montesol Johnson Says:
    January 18th, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Great post on a fascinating topic, Lee-Anne!

    I especially like your list of 5 factors you tune into when in a different cultural context. I find these are similar to the things I encounter when I am coaching someone of a different nationality or cultural background.

    I chuckled over the photo you used to illustrate your point. Where is it from? Any background info that would explain the misunderstanding?

  2. Amelia Chan Says:
    March 30th, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    I just discovered this post Lee-Anne and I really like the points you make. In my work in global mobility, understanding cultural sensitivities helps to facilitate a successful relocation. What a difference it makes to understand first my client’s perspective before moving forward.

    To be effective, communication should be applied within the appropriate context and multifaceted enough to be inclusive. In my experience, the key to connecting is to communicate as fellow humans first.

  3. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    March 30th, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Hi Amelia- thanks for your insightful comment. Yes, perspective is everything. I find it helpful to look through different ‘lenses’ (I designed an assessment called Life Lenses™) – which gives me insight into different worldviews / perspectives. It’s also helpful to try to tease out what I call the ICU – the individual, the cultural & the universal, for each of those ‘lenses’ looks vastly different too & brings new insight.

  4. Kellie Auld Says:
    March 31st, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Great post Lee-Anne and I love the 5 points as well. Culture is such an interesting topic and you’ve presented some excellent considerations.

  5. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    April 4th, 2014 at 12:08 am

    Thanks Kellie. Do you have any to add? Would love to hear if so.

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