1.3.2 - In the Mind of the Beholder

 

In the Mind of the Beholder

 

Another way to understand why making cultural distinctions is useful in figuring out "what something means" in another culture, is to acknowledge that what we call "reality" may have more than one meaning or interpretation, often vastly different. Most human beings have a tendency to believe that what they see is "real," and assume anyone observing or experiencing the same situation would "naturally" describe, react to, or characterize the event in the same way they do.

Anthropologists call this propensity "naive realism," or the belief that everyone sees the world in the same way you do. A corollary is that most human beings also assume that there is only one reasonable way to look at the world. However, psychologists and interculturalists have shown that the world rarely looks the same to everyone, and that the culture you are raised in will strongly influence how you will view even the most simple behavior.

The Mind of the Beholder Exercise that follows will help you see how this works in everyday situations. It will also give you some idea of how seemingly ordinary activities can have very different meanings depending on whether you are the person who does the behavior or the person who observes (and judges) the behavior.

In this activity, you are being asked to consider the phenomenon of perception. We all believe that we observe reality, things as they are, but what actually happens is that the mind interprets what the eyes see and gives it meaning. It is only at this point, when meaning is assigned, that we can truly say we have seen something. In other words, what we see is as much in the mind as it is in reality.

If you consider that the mind of a person from one culture is going to be different in many ways from the mind of a person from another culture, then you have the explanation for that most fundamental of all cross-cultural problems: the fact that two people look upon the same reality, the same example of behavior, and see two entirely different things.

Any behavior observed across the cultural divide, therefore, has to be interpreted in two ways:

  • the meaning given to it by the person who does the action
  • the meaning given to it by the person who observes the action

Only when these two meanings are the same do we have successful communication, successful in the sense that the meaning that was intended by the doer is the one that was understood by the observer. 

 

In the Mind of the Beholder Exercise 

Part One

In the first part of this exercise, read the description of the eight instances of behavior given below and write down your immediate response to or interpretation of that behavior in terms of your own cultural values, beliefs, or perception. The first one has been done for you. 

 

  1. A person comes to a meeting half an hour after the stated starting time.

    This person is late and should at least apologize or give an explanation.  

  2. Someone kicks a dog.



  3. At the end of a meal, people belch audibly.



  4. Someone makes the OK gesture at you.



  5. A woman carries a heavy pile of wood on her back while her husband walks in front of her carrying nothing.



  6. A male guest helps a hostess carry dirty dishes into the kitchen.



  7. A young man and young woman are kissing each other while seated on a park bench.



  8. While taking an exam, a student copies from the paper of another student.


 

Let's go to the second part of the exercise ... 

 

In this second part of the activity, you are asked to imagine how these same eight behaviors would be perceived or interpreted by someone from a culture different from your own. (The particular cultural difference is described in each case.) Read each behavior and the description of the culture, and then write in the space provided how you think a person from such a culture would interpret that behavior. 

 

1. A person comes to a meeting half an hour after the stated starting time. How would this act be interpreted;

  • by someone from a culture where people always arrive half an hour after the stated starting time?


  • by someone from a culture where meetings never start until at least an hour after the stated time?


2. Someone kicks a dog. How would this act be interpreted;

  • by someone from a country where dogs always carry disease?


  • by someone from a country where most dogs are wild and vicious?


3. At the end of a meal, people belch audibly. How would this be interpreted;

  • by someone from a culture where belching is the normal way to compliment the cook?


4. Someone makes the OK gesture at you. How would this be interpreted;

  • by someone in whose culture this gesture is obscene?



  • by someone in whose culture this gesture has romantic connotations?


5. A woman carries a heavy pile of wood on her back while her husband walks in front of her carrying nothing. How would this be interpreted;

  • by someone from a culture where carrying wood is never done by men?


6. A male guest helps a hostess carry dirty dishes into the kitchen. How would this act be interpreted

  • by someone from a culture where men never clean up after a meal?


  • by the hostess from that same culture?


7. A young man and young woman are kissing each other while seated on a park bench. How would this act be interpreted;

  • by someone from a culture where men and women never touch in public?


8. While taking an exam, a student copies from the paper of another student. How would this act be interpreted;

  • by someone from a culture where exams are not fair and are designed to eliminate students at various stages of the educational system?


  • by someone from a culture where it is shameful not to help your friend if you can do so?

 

 

 

  DISCUSSION    

In the first set of answers you were asked to give your immediate reactions to the scenarios. We assume you did so and that they likely reflected your US-American culture to some extent. For example, your response to #4, "Someone makes an OK gesture to you," probably was that they were trying to tell you something like "things were going well" or that they were all right. That gesture works for most US-Americans. However, if you used that gesture in much of Latin America or other places in the world, it would have distinctly different meanings, mostly of a sexual or aggressive nature. The only reason it "works" for us is that it has the same meaning for the person who does the action as it does for the person who observes it. If the meaning being inferred changes then communication breaks down, often badly.

When you filled out the second part of the exercise, which specified certain differences as they were perceived or interpreted by someone in another culture, it became clearer why the same action can be construed as having radically different "meanings." This is what makes some aspects of crossing cultural boundaries so tricky. Overseas, an apparently innocent remark or careless gesture on your part can occasionally result in a breakdown of communication, a misperception of your intent, and a negative impression—or possibly all three when you don’t understand the other culture’s norms!

For instance, in another culture burping (which adults always told you was gross) might turn out to be a regular part of post-meal etiquette and it might be considered a breech of manners and impolite not to! 

To avoid making unnecessary mistakes, it is useful to remember, as the second part of the exercise shows, that seemingly simple everyday events may be interpreted quite differently when observed by people from different cultures. So, while you are a guest in another country you should take special care not make snap judgments about people and situations before you know the background and examine the reasons why they might be behaving and reacting differently than you normally would. Once you can see another (or multiple) reason for a specific human cultural behavior, you will be on your way to being able to interact and communicate more effectively with the local population.

 



.. Memories ..

 


 

  

Tales from the.. 

 

 

Learning from Cultural Encounters !!

 


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