A way of thinking about culture: an exercise

"Edward Hall has described culture as a selective screen through which you see the world. You could also think of culture as a set of tinted contact lenses through which you view the world around you. But these lenses were put on you so soon after you were born by your parents and shaped by your circumstances, that you were never aware that you'd had them fitted. If you are American, for example, maybe your lenses are tinted red or blue - so the world looks a particular way to you.

Japanese, on the other hand, was fitted with another colour - so even though the world she looks at is the same as yours, she doesn't see it the same as you do. It is important to recognise you are wearing cultural contact lenses and that you begin to learn the way they affect your perceptions. If you learn enough about your lenses, you may even learn to take them off for short periods of time - and maybe even try on somebody else's to see how the world looks. That's cross cultural empathy".
Charlene Schmult, University of Michigan

An exercise in self-awareness...

You can begin to know what your own "rules" are by noticing when you are surprised by others' behaviour. Often, these surprises also feel strange or "wrong".

Here are some things I have noticed that felt strange. For each one, what might my "rule" be?

Communication style

  • Spaniards on the bus talking loudly
  • Americans sending Christmas letters boasting about their children
  • Tourists not saying "please" and "thank you" in shops
  • Noticing which sounds better: Give me your book OR Can I just have a peek at your book?
  • Ghanaians greeting me (an acquaintance) by shouting "Ehhh", clapping hands and smiling broadly
  • British people saying, "It seemed to go ok" when they are actually very pleased

Non-verbal communication

  • South East Asians not looking at me when they speak or when I speak
  • Jamaicans never looking away when they speak - especially when they are annoyed
  • Swedes taking my joking comments as if they are serious and asking me to explain
  • Greeks sitting down within 4 feet of me on an otherwise empty beach
  • Nigerians continuing to hold my hand after shaking it
  • Ivorians making clicking and tongue-sucking noises to show they are listening
  • Japanese people smiling and laughing at everything I say
  • Greeks beginning to speak before I have finished what I am saying
  • Javanese people sitting in silence at a social gathering when there is a lull in the talk
  • British people in lifts staring straight ahead in silence

Now you try the same exercise for one of these:

  • Attitudes towards commitments
  • Attitudes towards planning
  • Ways of building rapport
  • Tempo of work
  • Pace of moving from formal to informal

For each item, first think of times when others have behaved in ways that surprised or annoyed you. Then think: What might have been the "rule" they were following? What might be your "rule"?

Jude Carroll, OCSLD, 2000