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Different Cultures and Languages

Use model reference behaviors to overcome barriers.

Communicating with All Patrons

     Show concern for the patrons of different cultures by letting them know you are trying to help. Methods for communicating with patrons from other cultures or those who speak another language include the following:

  • Speak in brief, simple sentences rather than long, compound or complex ones. Try not to use library jargon.
  • If you don't understand, ask questions; but keep questions short.
  • Don't ask "either/or" questions; pose two questions instead.
  • Don't ask negative questions which can be misinterpreted easily; for example, "Don't you like mysteries?"
  • Speak slowly and distinctly.
  • Avoid idioms and metaphors, e.g., "That's cool."

Things to Try

  • If necessary, write the question down or ask the patron to write it down. However, be especially sensitive to patrons who may not be able to write in English yet.
  • If the patron does not understand you, try different words or phrases. The ones you used first may not have been mastered yet.
  • Don't be afraid to use a dictionary.
  • If you see that a patron has misunderstood your direction after the person has left your station, don't assume that the patron will eventually discover the error. Follow through with whatever assistance you can give.

Different Customs

  • Recognize that people from some cultures are not demonstrative. Smiling may hide emotions such as frustration or confusion.
  • From patrons of some cultures, silence should not be construed as misunderstanding or rudeness. Some other possible reasons are (1) respect for your authority, (2) full agreement with what you are saying or doing, or (3) fear of being judged by how he or she speaks English.
  • Don't expect verbal reinforcement such as "I see" or "Uh-huh" when you are explaining something to a patron. Watch for non-verbal communication. If you want an acknowledgment, ask "Do you understand?" or watch for a nod.
  • Remember that in some cultures it is considered polite to avoid eye contact.
  • Realize that name order may be different for some cultures. Ask for "family name" instead of "last name." Women from some cultures may retain their maiden names after marriage, e.g., Vietnamese.

Positive Attitude

  • Remember that saving face is important in many cultures. Your attitude is very important. Always show respect.
  • Allow time for the patron to translate mentally what you have said.
  • Be patient.
  • Keep smiling.
  • Don't raise your voice; this may be perceived as anger.
  • Allow time for patrons to accomplish what they came for, even when you are busy.

Get Help

  • Remember that word of mouth is more important than the written word when people are new to this country.
  • When possible, get help to complete a communication transaction. Use contacts who understand the language when possible, and encourage personal contact.
  • Know and use the expertise of staff members in your library or library system who can help translate. Identify other patrons in your community who may be willing to help translate.
[Prepared by the Sunnyvale Public Library staff, April 1985. From: Liu, Grace. Promoting Library Awareness in Ethnic Communities: Based on the Experiences of the South Bay Cooperative Library System, 1984-1985. 1985.]

Major Point: Concern for the individual can help overcome cultural barriers.


  1. Locate statistics (library statistics, census information, demographics from local Chamber of Commerce, etc.) on the percentage of people in your town from a different culture, or ESL (English as a Second Language) patrons.

Answer Key

Telephone reference


What's new in reference?

Working with Diverse Groups to Promote Reference Services

Photo: globe on stand surrounded by library bookshelves

The ALA Office for Diversity has a Library Diversity wiki.

Serving Non-English Speakers in U.S. Public Libraries, March 2008, ALA report about library services and programs for non-English speakers, covers effectiveness of services, barriers to library use, most frequently used services and most successful programs by language served (which were English as a Second Language, language-specific materials and collections, computer use and computer classes, story time and special programs).

Updated guidelines: Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Multilingual Collections and Services 2007 from Library Services to the Spanish-Speaking Committee and Guidelines for Library Services to Spanish-Speaking Library Users (2007) from Reference and User Services Association, American Library Association.

Concern for the individual can help overcome cultural barriers.

Ohio Libraries

Many kinds of cultural barriers! London Public Library

There are many kinds of cultural barriers!

Web Links

The Library of Congress' Market Segmentation guide has, "books and other resources that discuss marketing to particular segments of the population along with other sources that are important in determining the size and power of a particular market segment." It includes generational, ethnic, geographic and other segments.

OLC's Diversity Awareness and Resources Committee provides links, news, resources, training, speakers, workshops, and publications that address diversity aspects including age, disability, gender, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

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