Immigrants have been given help to crack Australia’s cultural code so they can better fit into their new country.

According to Griffith University intercultural expert Professor Michelle Barker, immigrants need to learn the cultural ‘map’ for adjusting successfully to life in Australia.

“Despite some migrants being highly proficient in English, cultural differences can hinder their effective participation at work or educational settings, contributing to perceived and real issues in social integration,” Professor Barker said.

In conjunction with Australian and Canadian psychologists, Professor Barker developed the international award-winning EXCELL Intercultural Skills Program that offers practical tools for immigrants.

“The program aims to develop people’s intercultural social competence and enhance intercultural relations without compromising the immigrants’ original cultural identity,” Professor Barker said.

“It builds on the skills they bring to Australia and it ‘cracks the code’ for them by making explicit, the cultural norms and rules taken for granted by locals.

“These include norms about treating others as equals, speaking up and giving an opinion in a group, using first names with employers, smiling and saying ‘please and thank-you’ no matter who they’re interacting with.”

She says English fluency alone is not the whole answer.

“Immigrants also need to understand what Australian employers consider appropriate behaviour in the workplace (“the way we do things around here”).

“Similarly, employers need to appreciate that workplaces and communities can benefit from understanding something about the cultural background of workers on ‘457 temporary business visas’ from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD).

“A little mutual cultural understanding can go a long way,” Professor Barker said.

The EXCELL Progam teaches six core competencies and skills that are needed for social, educational and workplace success in Australia are:

– Seeking help or information

– Making social contact and conversation in the new culture,

– Participating in a group,

– Expressing disagreement,

– Refusing a request and

– Giving feedback.

The EXCELL program was initially offered to international students in Canada, Australia and the UK and the group program has since been introduced to The Netherlands and New Zealand.

It has also been used with international and immigrant students and workers originally from non-English speaking backgrounds, as well as mixed groups of locals and ethnic minorities.

“When used in ‘mixed groups’ (locals and newcomers), locals develop more cultural awareness and understanding of the newcomers as individuals and the challenges they encounter in adjusting to life, study or work in Australia,” Professor Barker said.

Griffith University was awarded national teaching awards for introducing the program with international and Australian students in 2003.

Professor Barker won national teaching awards in 2005 and an Australian Endeavour Award in 2011 for outstanding contribution to developing intercultural skills and international education.

She has 20 years of professional practice as a social worker in international development aid and refugee and migrant settlement prior to moving to academia. She is Honorary Fellow of the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research, Victoria University of Wellington, and Leeds Metropolitan University.