8 behaviors to interpret – know your response based from your culture, beliefs and perceptions

in Culture, Intercultural Marriage, Interracial Marriage


Clash of cultures in Venice (IMG_9576a)
“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.

My interpretation:

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.

My interpretation:

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.

My interpretation:

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.

My interpretation:

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.

My interpretation:

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.

My interpretation:

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.

My interpretation:

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.

My interpretation:

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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Ann Kroeker

I really appreciate learning about these different ways to process a behavior given one’s cultural background!

I’m a white, Christian female living in a middle American suburb. In my culture, late is late (half an hour is really late, but maybe the person had car trouble, wrote down the wrong time, or got caught in traffic), dogs should be cared for unless they are charging you or someone you need to protect, people ought not belch after meals, and the OK gestures is A-okay. I wouldn’t mind someone helping me carry something–I would help a man if he were loaded down, and I would accept help from a man if I were loaded down. Helping carry dirty dishes is a nice gesture from a male or female. Kissing on a park bench would be totally normal, though I personally prefer not to see it (that’s just me, not a cultural me). And copying is cheating (though I hear that many, many young people do this and don’t see it as cheating, so I wonder how much is generational, as well?).

I wonder how well I represent my demographic?


Hi Ann! Thank you so much for letting us have a peak on how you process these given behaviors. Even if I’m an Asian and I bear a “lateness” defect, I don’t see it as a good culture. I always strive to beat it and whenever I’m late I feel very guilty and ashamed, however, it’s not easy to battle such system because it’s always easy to switch back to default. I have to work more on this. I admire westerners’ culture of being on time.

Of course you’ve represented your demographic well (but again, that’s by how I see it) because I agree to almost all of your interpretation. Regarding with “copying” in exams as generational, that’s actually a good point. Almost everything nowadays are handed down to our young on a wide plate and spoon, thanks to the internet and electronics, they need not sweat like we used to. For example, if students are given a difficult Maths homework, they can easily go online and ask Mr. Math how to solve it or post the question in yahoo answers or other forums and they’d get solutions and answers in seconds. How does that differ to someone who doesn’t do his homework (in case he doesn’t get internet connection?) at home but only copies his classmates hw when he gets to school?

White Bhabi

I was raised southern American in a traditional fashion, not modern American feminist…I still believe in traditional male/female roles…not that I always live by that. 😉 I’ve been modernized by my own experiences and education.

1. A person comes to a meeting half an hour after the stated starting time.
– If he’s let in the door to attend the meeting, he’s gonna need some serious catch up so I would share my notes to catch him up because the meeting leader will not be doing so.

2. Someone kicks a dog.
– Not a fan of animal abuse, even if it’s expected to be rabid. Nothing is going to make a dog attack faster than being attacked. The smart move is remain calm and go around. Now if it’s too dogs fight and that’s the only way to break them up so you can get them apart, unfortunately I think I would support that.

3. At the end of a meal, people belch audibly.
– Dang…the kids are trying to see who’s louder again? Ugh..boys! At least they aren’t bragging about who’s breath now smells the worst after that last Monster soda lol.

4. Someone makes the OK gesture at you.
-Um ok…that was weird. I don’t think I need approval but it’s nice to know you think so.

5. A woman carries a heavy pile of wood on her back while her husband walks in front of her carrying nothing.
– wow…why is that woman doing the hard work? That’s supposed to be a mans job! And they say women are the weaker sex…this would be proof that women are not (which I always knew, lol).

6. A male guest helps a hostess carry dirty dishes into the kitchen.
-my grandma would roll over in her grave! Heaven forbid a guest touch the dishes or clean up. Those can wait till the evening is over. (Secretly, I would let him because it would be disrespectful to turn down his offer of hospitality.)

7. A young man and a young woman are kissing each other while seated on a park bench.
I don’t really want to see anyone making out, no matter what. However, as an intelligent woman I can turn my head. My life doesn’t revolve around what other people are choosing to do with their life. I have more important things to concern myself with and drama just isn’t on my priority list.

8. While taking an exam, a student copies from the paper of another student.
Not my problem once again. If he gets busted for cheating that’s his problem. They could have worked out this arrangement ahead of time. Maybe it only looked like he was cheating and he really wasn’t. How am I to know, was an investigation done? Were the answers compared strictly and then checked with the the supposedly cheating suspect knew previously? There’s just not enough evidence available for me to get bothered. Besides, I gotta finish my own test because if I start watching everyone else I might not get my own answers correct and I don’t value goofing things up because I can’t focus. 😀


Hey White Bhabi, you interpret these behaviors like you’re a real criminal investigator. lol, okay I get that, and really, you’re right in so many ways. We may think that we saw something and our mind hurries to interpret the behavior but in fact, we didn’t really see the exact thing/action, but instead we assumed that we have seen. A simple example is reading misspelled words. Our mind quickly assign meaning based from its established learning. “srmat peolpe” can quickly be processed by the mind even if the eyes see the not correctly spelled words.

Thank you for letting us see how you process these behaviors.

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