It was break time in a multicultural class in Newcastle. I was marking writing while sitting at a table at the front of the room. A Saudi lady in my class came to look over my shoulder at her work as I checked it. She leaned against me and I felt myself being pushed forward. I didn’t say anything straight away, as I couldn’t work out exactly what was happening or why she was doing it – I though that perhaps she just couldn’t see very well, and didn’t realize she was pushing me. As I finished checking her work, she continued to push me forwards. I turned to her and said that although I didn’t mind that much – she’d been in my class for about four weeks and we knew each other fairly well by this point – most other British people would find this behaviour very strange. I told her that we generally prefer to have more personal space, and it’s very unusual for even close friends and family to touch each other, much less lean on each other in the way that she had been doing. She was very surprised at this, and told me that in Saudi Arabia, it was completely normal for women who knew each other to lean in this way. She said it was a sign of trust and friendship. I was flattered that she felt she could trust me like this, but repeated that it was unusual for British people, men or women, to do this.
After a couple of minutes of going back and forth with me, the lady then spoke in Arabic to the three Saudi men in the group, clearly explaining what had just happened and expressing surprise at the whole situation. They had a little chat in Arabic amongst themselves, then switched to English to check that I really had said leaning on people and even pushing them forward was not culturally standard behaviour in the UK, even among people of the same gender who trust each other. This conversation then brought the rest of the group into the discussion, as they wanted to know what was going on. What ensued was an hour-long discussion with an intermediate group made up of (if I remember correctly) four Saudi students, one Czech, one Turk, three Brazilians and a Spaniard, ranging in age from 18 to mid-40s. We covered the norms of personal space in our cultures, whether touching while talking was considered normal and who it was acceptable to touch, where and when (for example, Brazilians touching people on the arm while talking to them), when and why it was normal to tell people you love them, and who amongst us didn’t match up with the national stereotypes of people from our cultures.
To this day, it’s still one of the best discussions I’ve ever had. All of us, including me, were learning about the cultures of those in the room. It’s one of those moments when you realize that we’re not just teaching English, we’re helping people to be tolerant of and understanding towards people from other cultures around the world. The lesson plan went entirely out of the window – I can’t even remember what it was supposed to be. But what we all learnt was far richer: an understanding of some of the deep personal features of the cultures of the people we shared a class with. And that’s a lesson that can never be forgotten.