Soft Skills: Who Picks up the Bill?

We often think of bargaining language as confined to situations like a garage sale or to the purchase of larger items like cars or homes. One of the most common negotiations most people will engage in at some point is who will pay the bill in a restaurant. Not only are there language and soft skills specific to this situation, many cultural assumptions are thrown into the mix. Countries, as well as the cultures within them, differ in their norms about who should pick up the tab and when. Learning the related idioms and other bargaining language but not cracking this cultural code and developing the soft skills to successfully navigate this interaction can lead to social awkwardness as exemplified in the story below. 

Adapted from Callan’s Contemporary Jigsaws 2, I have changed the story from a jigsaw to a simple intermediate reading. Read what happens below when Bo tries to pay for lunch. Click on the image to download the reading and questions that follow.

Bo had different cultural norms around paying the bill. In some countries, such as Australia or Guatemala, it is customary for diners to split the bill evenly. In others, such as Switzerland or Canada, diners pay only for what they have eaten. In perhaps most countries of the world, one person offers to pay. I’ve created a chart to list some of these differences below. Please let me know if there is anything I’ve missed or gotten wrong. Click on the chart to download it.

Finding out it is the norm for one person to pay is not where it ends, though. It’s unfortunately more complicated than that! Even in cultures where it is customary for diners to go dutch, one person might still offer to pay. How should you respond? In some cultures, such as in Vietnam or Iran, when your companion offers to pay, you should not argue and simply accept politely. In others, such as in China or Korea, you should argue and insist you will pay.

How many times should you offer to pay? In North America, just as with offering second helpings of food, it’s customary to offer once, follow up with an “Are you sure?” and then drop it. In other cultures, this might leave a bad impression, as if you made no real effort to pay! If you followed this North American custom with Chinese hosts, they might wonder why you didn’t try to shove the money in their pocket or say you were going to the washroom and discretely pay the server. 

So, how can you acquire the soft skills to successfully navigate these cultural differences without causing offence? Do you have to memorize the chart above?

How do you think the scenario with Bo would have played out if James and Ken had simply shared that when they go out for lunch with coworkers, they always “go dutch” and asked Bo about his customs? What might have happened if Bo, as the newcomer, had said something like, “I’m happy to pay if we are taking turns. What’s customary for you two?”

Perhaps the best soft skill to acquire is the habit of sharing openly about your traditions and politely offering others the opportunity to share about theirs. 

For teachers of beginner levels who wish they could find something on this topic for their own level, consider Callan’s Contemporary Jigsaws 1. The same story exists at a lower level in jigsaw format. For teachers of intermediate levels, the same story exists in a shorter jigsaw format in Callan’s Contemporary Jigsaws 2. Both books have a listening cloze that accompanies the story. 

Soft Skills: Cultural Differences in Gift Giving

One of the most important things we can do as ESL teachers is help our students crack the cultural code. Gift giving has a lot of unspoken rules which may seem inscrutable to newcomers. Unconvinced? See if you were aware of these cultural attitudes to gift giving in other cultures:

  • In Japan, red cards are associated with death notices.
  • In Saudi Arabia, perfume can only be given to a woman by another woman or a close relative. 
  • In Thailand and many other cultures, giving a knife signifies the intention to sever the relationship.
  • In China, giving a clock symbolizes death. 
  • In Egypt, giving flowers is confined to funerals and weddings only.
  • In Hindu culture, a gift made from leather or anything from a cow, which is considered sacred, would be inappropriate.
  • In Indonesia, giving food may signify that you feel the recipient’s hospitality is lacking. 
  • In some cultures, giving an umbrella is thought to bring misfortune. 
  • In some cultures, giving a gift to your boss is expected. 
  • Gifts of towels and handkerchiefs are associated with funerals in many cultures.
  • White flowers are associated with mourning in many cultures. 

So, what about here? Is it just the thought that counts or do we also have unspoken rules about which gifts are considered appropriate

Take a look at this picture below from Callan’s Holiday Jigsaws and Callan’s American Holiday Jigsaws. This mother does not look very happy about the gift she just received. Any idea why that might be? 

Some mothers don’t like to be reminded of their assumed role as the family maid and prefer instead a more personal gift. Others might be pleased. Gift giving is not an exact science. It is as important to understand the recipient as it is the culture.

Generally speaking, in North America, it isn’t considered appropriate to give a gift to your boss, as it may be perceived as an attempted bribe. Gifts of clothing and perfume are generally considered highly personal gifts only appropriate for people who are closely related or in a romantic relationship. However, clothing below the elbow or knee, such as gloves or socks or tights, is often acceptable from anyone. Less personal gifts, such as wine or stationery, are often considered appropriate for people with whom you have a professional relationship.

The following discussion worksheet on this soft skill of culturally sensitive gift giving includes a clock, a knife, an umbrella, clothing, and perfume as a springboard to discussion on cross cultural differences. Geared to mid-beginner to upper intermediate, the discussion can be used in a class on intercultural competence, or in a Christmas unit. or business English class. Click on the image below to download.

Regarding question #2, another teacher and I each received a sexy bra and underwear set from a student in different years. Hers was from a male student and mine from a female student.

Let me know how the activity works in your class.

Soft Skills: Small Talk About the Weather

I’ve had numerous students tell me they’ve been turned down after job interviews because they lacked local experience. If having worked locally were a prerequisite for the job, would their resumés not have precluded them from even getting the interview? More likely the experience referred to is related not to quantifiable hard skills or experience but rather to more intangible soft skills that enable a person to “fit in”, such as the ability to engage in small talk. 

Coffee shops are great places for field research on soft skills. What do baristas say to customers when they come into the shop? My own research suggests personal questions are not popular. The most popular topic by far is the weather, followed by a comment or compliment about something the customer is wearing or holding. Religion and politics don’t tend to find their way into small talk. 

Soft skills need to be part of the English language curriculum. Being able to talk about the weather is an essential skill and reading weather forecasts is a great start. The following intermediate ESL worksheet uses images from my favourite weather site, The Weather Nework. It that can be used as a spring board for creating weather conversations. You’re welcome to download it for use in your own class with your students by clicking on the image below. Check out http://www.theweathernetwork.com for more great resources. 

Soft Skills: Top 12 Tips for Gift Giving in English Cultures

Cross cultural differences in gift giving pose challenges for immigrants and visitors with their unspoken rules of etiquette. Students can develop their soft skills by cracking this sometimes inscrutable cultural code with the help of this online true or false quiz. Or download the exercise that follows for use in a high beginner or intermediate classroom. The answers can be downloaded following the quiz. 

Answer TRUE or FALSE. Check your answers below. 

1. Chocolates are an appropriate gift for a boss or supervisor. TRUE or FALSE.

2. An expensive kitchen knife is an appropriate gift for a good friend. TRUE or FALSE.

3. Wine is an appropriate gift for neighbours. TRUE or FALSE.

4. A fancy bra is an appropriate gift for a coworker, provided the gift giver and recipient are both women. TRUE or FALSE.

5. A beautiful blouse is an appropriate gift for a female teacher. TRUE or FALSE.

6. A vacuum cleaner is an appropriate gift for a wife or mother. TRUE or FALSE.

7. White flowers are an appropriate gift to take to a dinner party. TRUE or FALSE.

8. A clock is an appropriate gift for a mother-in-law. TRUE or FALSE.

9. A cute stuffed animal is an appropriate gift for a female coworker. TRUE or FALSE.

10. A leather belt is an appropriate gift for a male relative. TRUE or FALSE.

11. A gift card for a favourite store is an appropriate gift for a friend or relative. TRUE or FALSE.

12. A beautiful umbrella is an appropriate gift for a female friend. TRUE or FALSE.

Click the image below to view or download the Gift Giving Quiz Answers.

You can also download a free two-page gift giving exercise for classroom use by clicking on the image below.

Let me know how it goes.

Soft Skills: Introducing Yourself and Others

What’s in a Name?

Asian students often choose to take on an English name that is more easily pronounced by Westerners. Fine if it’s their choice, but I’m a big fan of learning how to pronounce my students’ real names (it’s not that hard!) and the story behind them. 

I’ve created an Introduce Your Partner exercise to learn about students’ given names, surnames and nicknames names for an intermediate class. Students can also practice the important soft skill of introducing themselves and others. You can click on either image to download it and use it in your own class.

Here is what the final task will look like:

And here below are the questions that lead up to the task. Students are to first answer the questions about themselves, in preparation for asking and answering the questions with a partner. 

Soft Skills: Bargaining

Bargaining (or haggling) takes place all over the world. North Americans often think of it as restricted to places like flea markets or garage sales, when in fact bargaining takes place in a wide variety of business transactions. Think of the negotiation involved in the purchase of expensive items, such as cars or real estate.

One of the challenges in adjusting to a new culture is cracking the cultural code on when and how, or often how soon, to bargain. This topic is rife with opportunities to teach soft skills, the skills beyond language that are so needed for successful social interactions in a culture.

Students from other cultures often overlook the importance in North America of the brief exchange of pleasantries before launching into negotiations. This kind of language exchange is referred to as the phatic function. Phatic language doesn’t really convey any information. Its function is social. In a garage sale setting, it might involve talking about the weather. In a more hectic setting, it might be reduced simply to saying “hi”, but without it, in North America, the transaction is less likely to satisfy both parties and may result in negative first impressions.

Another notable difference between North America and some other countries seems to be in the way North Americans will often start the “creating value” stage of the transaction. Take a look at this interaction from the excellent video Linc 2:19 Buying a Used Bicycle:

Notice how Tasha begins the creating value stage of the transaction by complimenting Luigi on the bike. Over the years, I’ve had so many students tell me how different this is from their own cultures where a criticism of the item would more likely be the way to start negotiations.

Staging a garage sale in your classroom is a great way to practice the idioms related to haggling as well as important soft skills.

Smiling Man and Woman at Yard Sale

This dialog sheet for conversation practice uses a variety of common bargaining idioms. You are welcome to download this free handout for use in your own classroom. Clicking on the image below will enable you to view the PDF large on your screen and then print it out.