Culture at Work Home Page

Culture at Work

Communicating Across Cultures

Our Services
Negotiation & Conflict
Culture at Work
Pages in this series:
» List of Exercises
» #1 Interpreting X-C Incidents
» #1 Sample Observations
» #2 Silent Day
» #3 Work Interview
» #4 Culture "embodied"

What Just Happened?  

Interpreting Cross-Cultural Incidents

From the moment we take in information about the world, it becomes infused with our evaluations, guesses, judgments, comparisons. While objectivity--description of fact completely divorced from interpretation--is impossible, the goal in observation is to become more aware of when and how your own interpretations influence what you see, what you remember, what you report, and what you think it means.

In cross-cultural interactions, your customary evaluations and interpretations are more likely to be off-base, because you have less shared meaning and experience to draw on. For this reason, the following steps are useful to follow whenever a cross-cultural incident puzzles you.

  Notice that you are encountering cultural differences, below-the-waterline-assumptions.

  What did you see and hear? Be as literal as possible--(She left, closing the door loudly. Rather than "she got mad and banged the door as she stomped out.)

  Spell out what your cultural intepretations and emotional reactions to the situation are.

  Imagine what possible interpretations the others involved in the situation might have. If you can, ask someone more familiar with that cultural group what these interpretations might be. Or check it out with the people directly. While one never knows for sure what is going on in another person's mind, with experience and study you can make more informed guesses.

 Only now are you ready to analyze (if you are doing research) or evaluate and act (if this situation happens in the "real world").

Cross-Cultural Observation Exercise

  1. Keep your eyes out for a cross-cultural situation, especially one that you have an emotional response to. Concentrate on an interaction that lasts 5 minutes or less. Sample situations.
  2. Once you have a cross-cultural situation, use the four steps to assess the situation: Describe, Your Interpretation, Their Possible Interpretation, Evaluation.
  3. Test the accuracy of your observations and conclusions with the persons involved or with some other source who has relevant cultural knowledge. How did you do?
  4. If you are doing this exercise for research purposes or as a classroom exercise, it can be useful to write it up in an organized form. Two samples of real-life incidents that were written up following the four step format.

  1. To increase your awareness of how many cross-cultural interactions happen in your daily life
  2. To strengthen your observation skills
  3. To see where judgments and assumptions can distort your observations.
If you do this for a few days, you'll start noticing cross-cultural situations everywhere!
« Return to List of Exercises

Our Services
Negotiation & Conflict
Culture at Work
© 1997-2003 Jennifer E. Beer Fair use policy

»» Interpreting Cross-Cultural Incidents