Should adult ESL teachers spend time on etiquette and manners? YES!
As an adult ESL teacher, you know the importance of building strong communication skills in your students. But we need to go beyond the basics of grammar and vocabulary because our students aren’t just learning a language; they’re learning how to fit into a new culture. Teaching etiquette and manners can help your students navigate social situations confidently and competently. Let’s explore why etiquette and manners are important for adult ESL learners. I’ll share some fun activities to incorporate into your lesson plans and talk a little bit about how cultural differences in etiquette and manners can be addressed in the classroom.
Why is Teaching Etiquette and Manners Important for Adult ESL Learners?
Have you ever inadvertently thoroughly disgusted someone because you didn’t know that your everyday action was rude and, well, gross? I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll never be able to forget the look of shocked disgust on the faces of a classroom full of kindergarteners because I blew my nose. Yeah, don’t do that in Korea. Hard (and juicy-sounding) sniffs are better tolerated than a loud (and juicy-sounding) blow into a tissue.
Now that you’ve got that sound stuck in your head (I’m so sorry!) think about it from your students’ side. They may miss out on opportunities because someone is judging them on their manners and etiquette. Good manners and etiquette are crucial for building positive relationships and making a good impression in social and professional settings. Your adult ESL learners are navigating unfamiliar cultural norms and expectations, and they need your help beyond irregular verbs. Cluing them in on some common things in your area but that your students might be horrified by is equally important. They don’t necessarily have to adopt those actions themselves, but they need to know why condemning it might not go over so well.
When you teach etiquette and manners in your adult ESL classroom, you’ll help your students feel more confident and comfortable in social situations. Your more introverted students who may be shy or hesitant to engage in social interactions will greatly benefit. When they understand proper etiquette, you’ve given them a context to work within, some boundaries to feel cozy within–tools they need to navigate unfamiliar situations easily.
But you won’t only be helping your students feel more confident. Teaching etiquette and manners can also help your students build stronger relationships with their peers and community members. By understanding and following social norms, your students can demonstrate respect and consideration for others, and that will help foster positive and productive relationships. In turn, those relationships will give your students more authentic settings to practice their English.
Teaching etiquette and manners can also be beneficial for helping students understand and navigate cultural differences. This is necessary in culturally diverse classrooms as well as the world outside the four walls. Many social norms and customs vary from culture to culture, and understanding these differences among their classmates, neighbors, and co-workers can help students avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications. I’ve seen firsthand how etiquette and manners affect how classmates of different cultures view a class member who doesn’t conform to their idea of politeness.
“Student A” had a habit of belching loudly whenever he felt the need–as was acceptable in his culture but not in his classmates’ cultures. Once I made him aware of the difference, and he began not to be so free with burps, he was able to develop a better relationship with his previously disdainful classmates. Then, after a lesson on etiquette and manners, his classmates came to the uncomfortable realization that they, too, had done things that are viewed as rude in another culture (specifically, as it happened, Student A’s).
So, as you can see, teaching etiquette and manners can help students make a positive impression in their personal and professional lives. And that’s crucial because we want them to enjoy success outside our class, not just within it. Whether in a job interview, a social gathering, or a business meeting, good manners and etiquette will help your students present themselves positively and professionally.
Overstating the importance of teaching etiquette and manners in the adult ESL classroom is impossible because our students have rich lives outside our classrooms, and we don’t want them to miss out on anything. Help your students feel more confident, build stronger relationships, understand cultural differences in etiquette and manners, and make a positive impression when you add etiquette and manners to your lesson plan.
Fun Activities for Teaching Etiquette and Manners in the Adult ESL Classroom
So how do you add etiquette and manners to your lessons? Well, here are a few ideas for fun and interactive activities that can help your students practice and learn about etiquette and manners:
Role-Playing: A Fun and Interactive Way to Practice Etiquette and Manners
I LOVED using role-playing activities in my classes, as shown by the many role play resources I’ve created. Role-playing is a fabulous activity for helping students practice and improve their etiquette and manners in social situations without the risk of being judged. With their affective filter lowered by being in the safety of your welcoming classroom, students will feel comfortable putting themselves in different scenarios. They’ll gain valuable experience and can get some timely peer and teacher feedback on navigating unfamiliar situations with confidence and competence.
So how do you do it? With low beginners, you can have students practice different social situations, such as greeting someone, making small talk, or introducing themselves. Such short situations will closely mimic what they will frequently do in real-life. Encourage your students to pay attention to body language, the tone of their voice, and other nonverbal cues while they are practicing these interactions.
Students can practice shaking hands and making eye contact when greeting someone. If their main language is a tonal one, you might need to give them some extra pointers on what a friendly tone of voice sounds like in your area. Encourage them to think of themselves as actors if they don’t feel comfortable. The more they practice, the more it’ll feel natural to them.
Also, demonstrate appropriate body language when making small talk. They might enjoy it if you show them some obviously inappropriate body language as well (breaks the ice), but first, be sure that you aren’t accidentally making fun of what’s appropriate in another culture. Have them practice speaking clearly and confidently when introducing themselves. Be certain to be culturally sensitive and don’t require students to shake hands if touching another person is not permissible in their culture. Many Saudi women, for example, will not be comfortable shaking hands with a male who is not a family member.
Role-playing provides your students with a wonderful opportunity to practice their language skills in a more natural and interactive way while still feeling safe, thanks to your inclusive and friendly classroom. Encourage them to use the vocabulary and grammar they have learned, and don’t forget to give them feedback on their language use, etiquette, and manners. Then, armed with that feedback and all that practice, they’ll be ready to try out their new skills outside your classroom.
I’m sure you agree that role-playing is a fun and interactive way to help students practice and improve their etiquette and manners in social situations. When we encourage our students to pay attention to body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues, we help them develop the skills they need to navigate unfamiliar situations confidently and competently.
Manners Matter: The Hunt for Please and Thank You
With this interactive activity, your students will identify common manners as seen in their everyday lives. They’ll need writing materials (like a pen and paper, a laptop, etc.) and smartphones to film some short re-enactments.
Begin by discussing with your students the importance of good manners in society. Explain that manners are a way of showing respect to others and making them feel comfortable, and have your students share how someone showing good manners to them made them feel at ease.
Next, instruct your students to think about common manners they encounter in their daily lives. If they need a little prompting, provide some examples, such as saying “please” and “thank you,” holding the door open for someone, or covering their mouth when they cough.
Now comes the fun part. Your students have two options to demonstrate their understanding of good manners. They can shoot a video of a short re-enactment of some common manners they’ve observed in their everyday lives using their classmates, friends, or family members, or they can write a short description of some good manners they’ve observed in their everyday lives. Remember: some students may not feel comfortable being filmed. That’s why offering the writing alternative is important.
Finally, after coming back together again as a class, watch the videos students created and have students read what they wrote to review the different manners the students observed. Discuss again the importance of showing respect to others through good manners. Encourage students to continue paying attention to common manners in their everyday lives and practicing good manners themselves.
Elbows Off the Table: Dining Etiquette
A potluck dinner is a great opportunity for students to learn about dining etiquette in a relaxed and social setting. During the potluck, you can demonstrate proper etiquette for your region, such as the appropriate way to use utensils, how to signal that you are finished eating, and how to engage in conversation during the meal. Consider also encouraging your students to share etiquette rules from their own culture.
Here are some additional ideas for incorporating dining etiquette into a potluck dinner activity:
- Set the table in advance and show students where to place their utensils, glasses, and napkins.
- Discuss appropriate table conversation and remind students to respect others’ opinions and viewpoints.
- Encourage students to try new foods and show appreciation for the dishes brought to the potluck.
- Demonstrate proper table manners, such as using utensils correctly and not talking with food in your mouth. You might also tell them not to ask a question of someone who has just taken a bite.
- Remind students to thank the host or hostess for the meal and offer to help clean up afterward.
Etiquette and Manners in American Culture vs. Other Countries
While some universal manners are common across cultures, there can also be significant differences in how people greet each other, make small talk, and behave in social situations. Here are some examples to share with your students to get the discussion ball rolling:
- In some cultures, it is customary to greet someone with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. In American culture, it is more common to shake hands or, if at a distance, give a wave.
- In many Asian cultures, making direct eye contact with someone while speaking to them is considered impolite. In American culture, making eye contact is generally seen as a sign of respect and attentiveness.
- Removing your shoes when entering someone’s home is common in some cultures. In American culture, you are generally expected to keep your shoes on, but checking for shoes near the door can hint at the host’s preference.
- In some cultures, using titles (such as “Mr.” or “Mrs.”) is customary when addressing someone, even if you are well acquainted with them. In American culture, using first names is more common unless there is a specific reason to use a title (such as in a professional setting).
- In some cultures, refusing food or drink that is offered to you is considered impolite, but in American culture, politely declining if you don’t want something is generally acceptable. If sharing this with students, you might also want to share some easy outs they can use, such as, “I’m full. I just ate,” or “I’m watching my (sugar/gluten/protein/etc.) intake.”
- In some cultures, slurping soup or making noise while eating is a common sign of enjoyment, but in American culture, the same would be considered impolite.
- In some cultures, giving money is customary when attending a wedding or other special occasion. In American culture, guests are generally expected to bring a gift or send a card to express their congratulations or well wishes.
- In the United States, asking a direct question about someone’s age is rude, especially to a woman. However, in other cultures, such as Korean culture, asking someone’s age is one of the first questions commonly asked as it helps establish a social hierarchy.
Regional Differences in Etiquette and Manners Within the United States
The United States is a big country, and significant regional differences abound like in other countries. Likewise, common forms of etiquette and manners vary within the United States. For example:
- The South: Saying “yes ma’am” or “no sir” is a sign of respect, but this is much less common in other parts of the country.
- The Midwest: Holding the door open for others is a sign of politeness. This gesture is less common in some other parts of the country. Explain to students that while such a gesture was reserved for men to show women in the past, it is now a polite gesture for anyone to show anyone else, especially someone carrying a heavy or unwieldy load, dealing with young children, or with mobility challenges.
- In some parts of the country, dressing more formally for work or special occasions is common, but in other parts of the country, such as the hot and dry Southwest, people may be more casual and not wear suits or dresses as often.
Be aware of regional differences in etiquette and manners because your students may come from different parts of the country or world and may not be familiar with their new community’s norms. Encouraging your students to ask questions and seek clarification on unfamiliar customs can help them feel more comfortable and confident in their new surroundings.
Well, I’m sure if you weren’t already, you are now convinced that teaching etiquette and manners in the adult ESL classroom can be a valuable addition to your lesson plans. It doesn’t just help students feel more confident and comfortable in social situations. Etiquette and manners help them navigate cultural differences and make a positive impression in their personal and professional lives. When you incorporate fun activities and address cultural and regional differences, you help your students develop these important skills with ease.
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