Building Cultural Awareness with CIEs

Critical Incident Exercises (CIEs) are an interesting tool to help build your students’ cultural awareness. Through the analysis of situations in which cultural challenges occur, students can develop a deeper level of empathy and reflect on their own cultural perspectives. CIEs work to put the student in the shoes of another culture in order to introduce new cultural concepts, help students become aware of their own cultural mores and behavior, and even prepare students for an interaction with people from another culture.

There are two main types of CIEs: cultural assimilators and encounter exercises. A culture assimilator consists of a story, a question, 3-4 possible explanations and an answer key. There is only 1 “right” answer. An encounter exercise is a bit more advanced. It has a story and a question just like a cultural assimilator, but the answer is open-ended. The learners have to generate interpretations and discuss which ones they think are more likely from the points of view of the ‘local’ and the ‘foreigner’.

I would choose which type of CIE to use in class based on your students’ English level and comfort level talking about and analyzing culture. Cultural assimilators have more support and the answer options can guide your students’ interpretations. Therefore, these can be suitable for a variety of language levels. Encounter exercises will require a higher level of English as students will need the language level to create their own interpretations of the cultural situation. You can find cultural assimilators in books (and online) and you can easily make them encounter exercises by removing the 3-4 possible explanations. You can also create your own CIEs based on your experiences traveling or living abroad. Also, if your students feel ready, have them create their own CIEs based on their personal experiences. This provides a very powerful opportunity for reflection!

Here are two examples to give you a clearer idea of what CIEs look like:

Cultural Assimilator Example: (Adapted from The Culture Puzzle, Levine, Baxter & McNulty, 1987)


Situation: An American woman received a letter from a Japanese friend who had just gotten married. The Japanese woman wrote: “My husband is not very handsome. Your husband is much more handsome than mine.”

Question: The American was surprised by what her friend wrote. Why?

Possible Explanations:

  1. A) The American saw a picture of her friend’s husband and thought that he was very handsome.
  2. B) The American didn’t think her own husband was handsome.
  3. C) In the US it is disrespectful to say that your husband is not handsome.


  1. A) No. Even if this were true, she wouldn’t have expected a wife to say this about her husband.
  2. B) No. Even if this were true, she wouldn’t expect such a negative statement from the Japanese woman.
  3. C) Yes. A statement like this about one’s spouse would be considered disrespectful. If an American woman said this about her husband, people might think they didn’t have a good relationship.

Encounter Exercise Example: (Developed by Don Snow)

Situation: Xiao Li has become friends with a group of Western students at his school in China, and one day they invite him to go out to a bar at a Western-style hotel. Xiao Li willingly accepts the invitation. When they first get to the bar, some of the students talk to Xiao Li, asking him what he thinks of the fancy hotel and bar. However, soon they begin talking just to each other, making jokes Xiao Li doesn’t understand and speaking English so quickly that Xiao Li can’t follow the conversation. For a long time Xiao Li just sits there silently. Finally, Xiao Li tells the group he needs to get back to school and then leaves.

Question: Why didn’t the Western students make more of an effort to include Xiao Li in their conversation? (Explain the behavior of the Western students – not why Xiao Li had trouble understanding.)

Now that you have seen a few examples, I would like to give you a possible lesson structure for using them in class:

  1. Present the situation and have students read the encounter exercise or the cultural assimilator alone.
  2. In small groups, have the learners discuss which interpretation they feel is correct (for a cultural assimilator) or create multiple interpretations for the situation (for an encounter exercise).
  3. Each group reports their findings to the whole class. If you have time, have the groups share with another group before the whole class share.
  4. Have a whole class discussion on the interpretations. Here are some examples of questions you can discuss: Do you agree or disagree with the most appropriate interpretation? How likely are the interpretations everyone came up with? Are they overly generous to one group (the native or the foreigner)? Are they overly negative (to the native or the foreigner)?
  5. Feedback: At this point students should share their own stories or discuss the likely hood of encountering this situation and what they would do. They should discuss what this situation has taught them about the new culture and about their own culture.

So, try them out! If you have an interesting CIE to share or would like to let me know how it goes, please leave a comment!

These ideas have been adapted from the following sessions from the 2014 TESOL convention in Portland, Oregon:

  • How do critical incident exercises build intercultural competence? Don Snow, Shantou University
  • Intercultural Skills Building Activities for the English Language Classroom, Yoshi Grote, Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan and Jen Jordan, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan

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