“The explanation of the most fundamental of all cross-cultural problems is the fact that two people look upon the same reality, the same example of behavior, and see two entirely different things.”
We all heard about this saying that two people can look at the same thing but see and interpret differently, and by this, we subconsciously think of them as people with at least the same race or ethnicity. One explanation of this concept is that it’s creativity which is unique in each individual that triggers different interpretation and application of the same observation. If two people of the same background see things differently, how much differences are there for people with very different backgrounds?
When the eyes see something, the mind is responsible in interpreting and giving it meaning. When the meaning is assigned, it is when we actually have seen something. However, more than the creativity, the meaning and interpretation that the mind assigns to whatever the eyes see are influenced largely by an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are established and accepted in one’s society otherwise called culture.
There are two ways to interpret any behavior observed:
- the meaning given to it by the person who does the action, and
- the meaning given to it by the person who observes the action
In chapter 1 of a workbook designed for Understanding Culture exercise 1.9 titled “In the mind of the beholder”, there are eight instances of behavior given which a trainee (someone who aims to understand others’ culture) can interpret or respond upon based from his/her own cultural values, beliefs, or perception.
I decided to respond to them and there are two parts of it. First, the way I see the action and second, what I imagine to be the interpretations of someone from a different culture.
Bear with me as I complete this exercise because after I’m done, it will be your turn.
1. A person comes to a meeting half an hour after the stated starting time.
This person is late and made me wait but I can’t demand apology because I too, in several occasions, am late. (Note: I’m Asian)
By someone from a culture where people always arrive half an hour after the stated starting time. Interpretation:
It’s a norm for my people to come late, it’s culture. Others will understand.
By someone from a culture where meetings never start until at least an hour after the stated time.Interpretation:
It’s wise to come half an hour late, just like everyone does, so I can make use of that time productively instead of just waiting.
2. Someone kicks a dog.
It’s cruel. The dog has feelings too. Maybe it’s hungry and it needs food, people can just care less.
Someone from a country where dogs always carry disease. Interpretation:
Dogs that potentially carry diseases must be driven away. It’s important to take care of people’s health first than stray dogs.
By someone from a country where most dogs are wild and vicious. Interpretation:
I’m not letting you get a flesh of me you vicious dog, anti-rabies injections aren’t part of my budget!
3. At the end of a meal, people belch audibly.
He must have enjoyed the food, he’s full. But he needs to say “excuse me” after belching.
By someone from a culture where belching is after food is not acceptable. Interpretation:
This guy has to learn some table manners.
4. Someone makes the OK gesture at you.
He feels comfortable using some body language towards me. He supports my accomplishments.
By someone in whose culture this gesture is obscene. Interpretation:
He’s furious of me because he’s showing me ok gesture without smiling. And he wants me to know about it! (Note: If I’m Thai)
5. A woman carries a heavy pile of wood on her back while her husband walks in front of her carrying nothing.
Very ungentlemanly. I would never marry such a man! Isn’t he supposed to be the protector?
By someone from a culture where women are proud of their strength and ability to work hard. Interpretation:
In this era, even women find their own pair of balls. They’re strong enough to protect themselves and intelligent enough to be self-sufficient. They aren’t damsels in distress and they don’t always need a knight.
6. A male guest helps a hostess carry dirty dishes into the kitchen.
He feels welcomed and at home. He’ll make a good friend.
By men from a culture where men never clean up after a meal. Interpretation:
That’s a face off! A treachery to male’s domination. Dishes are only for women.
By the hostess from that same culture. Interpretation:
He doesn’t trust me to handle all these efficiently?
7. A young man and a young woman are kissing each other while seated on a park bench.
I don’t mind. It’s a park and there’s just so much space where other people can turn to if they don’t wish to see such display. But if it’s in a sky way train where passengers stand face to face, then I’d take offense.
By someone from a culture where men and women never touch in public. Interpretation:
Such immorals! Why can’t they do that behind close doors?
8. While taking an exam, a student copies from the paper of another student.
Cheater. He doesn’t cheat anyone but himself. Getting a good grade without working hard for it and without learning will affect him in the long run, if he won’t pass the licensure exam, such a shame.
By someone from a culture where it is shameful not to help your friend if you are able to. Interpretation:
Helping a friend is more important than being honest in a test. Grade is just a grade but a friend is much more valuable.
Okay, so that’s how I interpret those behaviors. Now it’s your turn. Tell me how you see these behaviors by leaving a comment below this post.
A given behavior has no built-in meaning; it means whatever the observer decides it means. ~ iNSIGHT
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