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Awaken Cultural Awareness with a Quirky Card Game

When international business students played a game with new rules and no speaking, they realized why cultural and language barriers impact workplace deals.


Albert Yu, PhD, MBA

Instructor and Hospitality Coordinator, Business Department, Santa Rosa Junior College

PhD in Leadership with emphasis in Business, MBA in Chinese International Business, BS in Hotel Administration

Albert Yu (aka the Hospitality Guy) has traveled all over the world, working for hotel and resorts giants including Four Seasons, Hyatt, Starwood, Crowne Plaza, and Fairmont. Earning an MBA in China and a PhD in leadership with an emphasis on business further broadened his horizons. He is passionate about business, travel, and the nuances of making connections with people from a variety of places. But it took just one night in a community college in Silicon Valley for Yu to discover a new passion: education. In 2008, he began teaching a once-a-week course and “fell in love with it.” Soon, he had a teaching certificate on his resume, and he has been offering students his expertise in international business ever since.

Yu has made it his mission to wake up these future businesspeople and help them represent their business and their country more respectfully on the world stage. He knows that not only is this good for his business students’ future success but it may also be good for the global community as a whole.

Challenge: A lack of cultural awareness

Even college students who have traveled abroad may not realize how little they know about other cultures—and how much culture matters in international business. A behavior that is the norm in America may be downright offensive elsewhere, and vice versa. “It’s not that these students have encountered the problem and are asking for help with it,” says Yu. “They have no clue that there are even going to be issues.”

For example, in America, it is considered a bribe if you give a cash gift to someone you do business with, but in China, Yu explains, it is a 2,000-year-old custom at Chinese New Year. “If you’re an American going to do business in China, you may have difficulty playing by their rules,” he notes. “You have to adjust quickly. Certainly, in this class, most students have no idea what a big barrier communication can be, no matter how almighty they may feel as Americans traveling around the world.”

Traditional classroom lecture alone does not fully expose students to these realities, says Yu. He wanted to create an activity that would serve as a wake-up call and help them understand that not only is culture variable but that a lack of cultural awareness can impact confidence, communication, and almost every aspect of human interaction.

Innovation: Simulating the challenges of international business 

Yu is a strong believer in experiential learning, particularly for international business students. He feels that American rules and norms are inevitably challenged when students go overseas in a business role. There they must deal with partners, colleagues, suppliers, and customers under unfamiliar conditions. This can be even more complicated when there is a language barrier. The nature of that challenge is difficult to put into words, says Yu.

So, in order to provide students with a hands-on simulation of frustration and confusion, Yu invented a quirky card game. Simply put, students are dealt a hand, but they do not know what to do with it. Only the dealer knows the rules, and no one is allowed to speak. This forces players to devise methods of nonverbal communication to figure out how the game works. As in life, those who do this most quickly are most successful. It is an object lesson, Yu feels, in the stresses and pitfalls of navigating the business climate in an unfamiliar market.

“Living internationally in China inspired me to incorporate this activity into my American Business in Its Global Context class,” he declares. He hopes that, even in some small way, the exercise can prepare students for some of the unsettling emotions that can come from being in an unfamiliar situation and context.


“This is an introductory business course with a focus on finance and financial markets, and how that ties into personal financial responsibility. The focus is on international business. It’s a constantly evolving class, tying in current events and practical experience. It’s articulated with the University of California, Berkeley’s business curriculum and is geared to students who are likely to transfer to four-year colleges on an academic track.”

— Albert Yu, PhD, MBA

Course: BAD 10 American Business in Its Global Context

Frequency: Two 90-minute class meetings per week

Course description: American business as both institution and organization considered in its natural, social, and global economic environments. An overview of the principal functions of business firm: business goals and strategy; financial management and institutions; organization structure and management; marketing; computing technologies, telecommunications, and information sciences; social, legal and regulatory responsibilities; described within the emerging global business context. Emphasis on concepts and terminology relevant to the new global business environment.

BAD 10 American Business in Its Global Context

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Lesson: Learning how to play (cards) by different rules

Yu’s quirky card game requires a few decks of ordinary playing cards and is similar to the game of bridge. “The students play rounds and win hands,” he says. “[This type of game is] familiar to most people. But it is a useful way to simulate the experience of doing business internationally because we take away the ability to communicate verbally.”

Here, Yu shares how this simple game can result in some serious revelations:

Divide the class into groups

First, Yu creates groups of 4 or 5 students, then he assigns one to be the dealer. At the beginning of play, the dealer is the only one who knows the rules of the game, and he or she must teach the rules to the other members of the group.

Take away the ability to talk

Here is the catch: Students, including the dealer, are not allowed to use words to communicate at any point in the game. The intent is to simulate the experience of being in a country whose language they do not speak or understand.

Yu does allow them to write numbers and use hand gestures, and they may place the cards on the table, for example, to show the order of rank. Students must get creative about how they convey what they know, using mostly physical cues and improvised sign language.

Give each group a different set of rules

To simulate the fact that different countries have different rules and norms, Yu has each table playing a slightly different game. In one group, for instance, clubs may rank higher than spades, while another may have hearts as trump. The point rank of individual cards differs, too: For instance, the ace is not the high card at every table.

Make group members travel to other tables

Eventually, one or two students from each group must rotate to a different group, while their original dealer stays put. As the “traveling” group members realize that the rules for each group are different, they quickly defer to the dealer and to the “original” group members for help. Students soon learn that if they make assumptions, they will experience immediate consequences by losing the hand or possibly the game—even if they did well with their first group.

Place “winning” into perspective

Students keep track of how many hands they have won, but winning the game is not the point of the exercise. “This is to show students that, when we do business in other countries, we must defer to the rules of our hosts,” Yu says.

The students succeed not by winning the game but by embracing the communication experience at each table. In a subsequent class discussion, Yu hosts a class discussion in which students share their insights so the instructor will know if they got the message “loud and clear” (so to speak).


Though Yu has taught this course for five years, this card game exercise is new. In future sessions, Yu plans to simplify the rules to make the exercise easier and less time-consuming to conduct. However, he is confident that most of his students have experienced the awakening he hoped for.

Student response, he says, has been enthusiastic, and the lessons learned have already been put into play.

“I had one student whose family is from Mexico,” Yu recalls. “He has experienced bartering with street vendors there and having to use hand gestures because of his limited Spanish language. This exercise inspired the student to improve his Spanish, which will likely improve his future career opportunities.”

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