The Ultimate Multicultural icebreaker for nursing

Update August 17, 2015. This blog entry has had 1985 views. If you used this after finding it here, please post a comment to let us know how it went. inquiring minds want to know!

also: I have worked in many settings where I was the only outsider and there was a distinct cultural identity of the group, including trips to Nepal to teach nursing to batches of Nepali nursing students. To read about that experience go to Amazon and buy The Hospital at the End of the World, (my first book), or else buy one of my books. Browse my blogroll.

Honolulu Hawaii is the most minority-majority city in the US. Our classrooms in Honolulu reflect this.  You would think that inclusiveness and respect for multiculturalism is ingrained, but it is not… Even here, there is no guarantee that the subgroups within a class or cohort will mix unless we actively promote the idea. Frankly, we always have a subgroup of European descended students from Da Mainland, who start off by sticking to themselves. They need to get hip in a hurry. My goal has always been to prevent any group from forming cliques that don’t mix with the other subgroups. I’m pleased to report that by the end of the time here, these students have become culturally sophisticated. That’s what you want for a nurse!

And of course in nursing, you need to be comfortable with care delivery across a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It is not unusual for me to have a clinical group in which there are no “Howlies” or be caring for a patient group in which everybody is from one Asian culture or another. It’ s something I love about Hawaii.

What is an icebreaker?

It’s an exercise used when a group is forming their identity, designed to get them members to mingle and learn about people in the group they might otherwise not interact with. We do this particular icebreaker on Day One of nursing school.

Disclaimer: this one is best when there is a high number of English-as-Second-Language students in the group.

How I came up with this: it is probably not new to me. The first time I ever used it was in Maine. At a nursing school there, the population of faculty and students was mostly Mainers; but we also had a dozen or so RN-to-BSN students who were Korean nationals with limited English skills. They  did not mix and it was painful to watch. So we organized a “tea.” At the tea, the Americans sat on one side and the Koreans on the other, each uncomfortable as to how to get started.

It was like a Junior High Dance, all over again…..then…. I did this icebreaker. Magic happens.


everyone  stands up and stretches.

then, those who only speak English are told to sit down.

Announce: “one of the great things about nursing is the opportunity to meet people from different cultures and to learn from each other. I love the idea of feeling at home no matter where you may be in the world”

“if you only speak English, you are at a cultural disadvantage, and we need to address that. Those who speak more than one language are waaaaay ahead of you.” ( usually people are surprised by this)

The multilingual persons are then dispersed around the room. The English-only students grab a pen and scrap paper, and divide up in to small groups, each led by one of the multi-lingual students. In Hawaii we usually have students that speak: Hawaiian, Ilokano, Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Samoan, and Thai. We also get a smattering of European languages as well. The more languages, the better this one works. One of the memorable ones was from South Africa who taught us something in Zulu. wicked cool!

Next, each group has five minutes in which the leader teaches a phrase in their language, to the English-only students. chosen by the multilingual person. doesn’t need to be long.

then the large group reconvenes and each group recites. we go around the room.

During the recitation, I am usually pretty theatrical, seeking ways to get the larger group engaged. I use all the skills I perfected back along when I was the front man for a polka band that played a lot of wedding receptions.

serendipity happens:

one time a German-speaker taught a beer-drinking song. I got the entire group to stand and wave their arm to-and-fro as if hoisting a mug.

a male  Ilokano-speaking student recited a love poem in Ilokano – the class was in stitches

we teach people the proper way to bow when with a Japanese person.

We teach about eye contact in Asian Cultures, using a specific game. students pair off, holding hands. if one of the pair looks away, smiles, or laughs, they must sit down. I once did this with Japanese students and they all sat down within five seconds; an American pair can last for two minutes.

If somebody writes using a foreign alphabet ( such as Japanese or Chinese) we ask them to write it on the board and everyone copies it.

We had a student who was fluent in signing for the deaf and taught the gestures to accompany the chosen phrase.

we did once get an Aussie student who taught some Aussie slang ( sort of cheating but it was funny).

There are an infinite number of variations. there are a million ways to use this; With an Italian speaker, for example, you can include hand gestures.

Success depends on the verbal quickness and eclecticism of the moderator. You can convey a sense of inclusion and fun.

Evaluations for this have been overwhelmingly positive, esp from among our English-as-a-Second-Language students. often, these persons get socially isolated due to language insecurity. Weeks or months later, some of these persons will take me aside and thank me for helping them by doing this.

in Maine? back to the original group in Maine – the Koreans and the Mainers.

All the Americans learned a phrase in Korean and found a way to remember the Koreans as people, not simply “Koreans.” I was instantly famous.

Here is a video of an icebreaker that was a dismal failure.

On the evaluations, I did have a person write “I have always disliked forced socialization exercises” – I think it was from a European-descended individual from a very reserved culture. There is always somebody at the back of the classroom who displays the haughty ennui of having done this too many times. Cut them some slack. You can’t please everybody, and obviously, the exercise was not designed for her.

This is my gift to you

Nowadays nursing schools everywhere are more likely to have students from diverse backgrounds that are breathtakingly representative of the whole world. If you teach in a multicultural classroom, you are invited to use this icebreaker. let me know how it works for you!



Filed under nursing education

5 responses to “The Ultimate Multicultural icebreaker for nursing

  1. John Casken

    Cultural icebreakers are always fun. txs for sharing this one.

  2. Joan Dallas

    I’ve been meaning to write and thank you for all the great articles on your blog. Have really enjoyed it and benefited from all your articles. I am in the process (as a Mature Student) getting my RN to BSN online with Chamberlain College of Nursing. One class at a time, will probably take a couple of years. I am presently taking a Soc. class on Cultural Diversity. Last week I forwarded your link to the entire class with the connection to your Cultural Diversity Article, it was great!
    Hopefully some of the class will also start to follow your link.

    Thanks Again,

    Joan Dallas

    • Thank you for this. As I wrote in the blog, Honololu is the most diverse place in the USA, but that doesn’t mean that people automatically know how to deal with it. There is a saying “the fish can’t see the glass of the bowl it is in” – which applies.

      On my other blog, you will find an articel I wrote for NSNA titled “Twelve Steps to Prepare yourself for Global Nursing”

      and your class may like that one. You can be a person who appreciates diversity even if you never leave home. Feel free to share that one.

      Be advised, I woudl be happy to Skype with your class – or to serve as a resource. you know where to find me :-)

  3. Rebekah

    I remember having a large population of Nigerian women in my nursing program. Several were there to become nurses in order to go back to Nigeria and provide care. Others were in the U.S. to stay. It is interesting that our nursing programs are truly multicultural. As a nurse educator, I am seeing more and more cultural diversity amongst my students. I love the tea party idea and intend to try it. Thanks for sharing your insight.

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