Play Ball! Discussion as Bowling, Rugby, Basketball

14 Nov

by Colleen Meyers – Center for Teaching and Learning Education Specialist,
Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey

As educators we realize that students vary in their willingness and ability to participate in discussions – whether those discussions happen in small groups or within the larger class context.  Extroverts tend to participate actively while introverts need some coaching.  Majors tend to have more to say than those fulfilling a degree requirement.  The more we know about our students the better able we are to facilitate student participation.  But these factors may not tell the “whole story.”

When dealing with a group of students from different cultural backgrounds, we may also need to consider another layer, ask another question:

When it comes to discussions, are our students coming from a bowling, rugby, or basketball culture?

Bowling cultures, briefly, are generally hierarchical, those in which participants defer to those in authority and wait until others have completely finished.  This type of “game” is characterized by long pauses between speakers, a low key attitude – low volume and a somewhat slow pace – and a consensus-building goal.  Speaking out of turn is seen as “considerably rude and likely to negatively impact the communications.”¹  According to research by linguist Deborah Tannen, this “high considerate” speaking style is most common in the cultures of East Asia and Switzerland.

Rugby cultures are characterized by common patterns of verbal and non-verbal interruptions or overlapping speech, a quick change of speakers and topics, and a louder volume in comparison to the other sports-based discussion analogies.  “In this style, active involvement is key, and interruptions are just par for the course.”²  The cultures generalized to this pattern include the Middle East, Latin America, Russia, and Mediterranean cultures, such as Greece, and some African countries.

Basketball cultures, characterized by the style most common in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia, are characterized by short pauses between speakers and strategies such as “dribbling the ball” to hold the floor, e.g., “There are two points I’d like to make here.”  Pursuing this analogy, “Hesitations and pauses indicate an opportunity for the listener to take the speaking role” – to take or steal the ball – “in which case, interruption is not seen as rude, but rather a way to keep the ‘game’ moving forward.”³

As teachers in classrooms with multicultural participants, we can assist our students in comfortably participating in discussions – and even in actively taking on multiple styles, multiple cultural approaches – by implementing some of the following strategies:

For all styles – setting expectations

  • At the beginning of the semester, briefly discuss the 3 styles and introduce the “default” style of your classroom.  A fairly typical interactive lecture class, for example, may follow more of a “bowling” style but may venture into basketball styles in problem-based discussions.  Once students understand practices and usefulness of these patterns, it may allow all students to better understand their own styles and be less judgmental of those with a different style, e.g., the “How rude!” thought at someone wanting to interject a point might be tempered by wanting to know what a classmate will say.
  • Even after students are aware of the patterns, acknowledge that change – in both trying out and accepting another pattern – takes time.  Model respect for other styles through your own actions.  For instance, those who don’t always actively speak up in class may not necessarily be passive students.  If they come from a “bowling” culture and the class is operating under “basketball” rules, then they may not pick up on the cues that allow basketball players to participate in the game – so point out the cues by passing the conversation on to students who look about to speak, who appear to be trying to enter the conversation.

For students with “bowling” styles

  • Put students into smaller groups to discuss the topic for a time before expecting them to speak up in a larger group.  Rather than letting students choose who will be the reporter, you can choose a person from a “bowling” background to summarize the group’s findings.  (Of course, let everyone know in advance that it is your plan to select the reporter!)
  •  “Bowling” participants may feel more comfortable if you pose questions related to sharing or describing something which they are familiar with and perhaps even an ‘expert,’ e.g., how members of their culture celebrate a particular holiday.   Expressing opinions or feelings—especially those that are in opposition to the instructor or other students– may be difficult for them.

For students with “rugby” styles

  • Be sensitive to “rugby” players’ feelings.  When a “rugby” player tends to dominate, rather than publicly saying, “Jose, you’ve shared your opinions today.  Let’s give someone else a chance,” it might be better not to focus on the “rugby” players by name.  Instead, you might say, “Let’s hear from the students in the back/front/left side/right side.”

Remember that these sports analogies are generalizations.  Even though they have some basis in reality, your students are still individuals who may or may not fit their own cultural pattern.  It’s hypothesized that even parts of the US fall under different styles, e.g., the Northeast is more of a “rugby” culture while the Midwest is more of a “basketball” culture. These strategies are designed to provide a sense of academic success and a sense of “community” for all your students as they listen for, learn from, test out new ways of participating in discussions.


Susan Steinbach, University of California at Davis.  “Wordmaster: The Sport of Conversation,” a webcast.

Shelley Wallace, Xavier College Associate Director of the Intercultural Communication Group, “Playing the Communication Game, a blog post providing an overview of these analogies.

Deborah TannenYou Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2001.


Photo Credits
Bowling –
Rugby –
Basketball –



One Response to “Play Ball! Discussion as Bowling, Rugby, Basketball”

  1. Cristina Costa 18 November 2011 at 8:41 am #

    Thnak you so much for this post. I had never thought about this in this way – great tips there. Sometimes I use similar strategies to let other people also chime in… but from now on I will be picturing them with their sport uniforms – Kiddin’ but this actually helps me a lot re: our to clearly identify the different types of participation.

    Thanks for sharing

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