What Happened and Why ?? Learning from Critical Incidents!!


Throughout the first six sections of this guide you will find samples of what are often called critical incidents under the title What Happened and Why? A critical incident is an occurrence that in some way raises questions and leads the participants to wonder “What just happened?” and “Why?” Everyone who goes abroad is, eventually and inevitably, faced with some kind of a situation we could call a critical incident, even if s/he is unaware of them at the time or can’t figure out what was going on immediately. Such encounters illustrate the tricky nature of interpreting everyday events in a different culture.

Critical incidents often revolve around a misunderstanding, a dispute, a linguistic error, or some other kind of cultural faux pas. They are the sorts of events that highlight different cultural assumptions and behaviors. They are about attitudes and behaviors that might (read “probably will”) be interpreted in different ways by different people, particularly when people from different cultural backgrounds interact. Thus, they help illustrate why you need to be aware of multiple cultural contexts in order to make sense of what happens between people when something goes wrong cross-culturally. Often what we consider "common sense" is seen in other cultures as neither common nor making much sense! And “just acting naturally” is seldom good enough or effective for very long as an adjustment strategy.

At the School of International Studies, University of the Pacific, we have been gathering critical incidents for nearly a decade from our students as they return from overseas study in one (or more) of our two hundred programs in sixty-five countries. As part of our Reentry Seminar, each student contributes two "critical incidents" for class discussion. Pacific now has some five hundred examples from which we have selected to include a few.

Some of them are funny and some of them were decidedly not amusing at the time they happened. But they are all instructive. They represent concrete examples of what can occur when study abroad students, operating with the best of intentions, find out that cultures can indeed be very different and that different rules often apply overseas. You can’t expect to figure out in advance all the kinds of interesting things that might happen when you are overseas. That is impossible. But understanding the concepts in the following sections, and gaining an awareness of yourself as a cultural being, will give you the tools to make sense of future situations abroad that may seem, at first, to be very odd indeed.

Figuring out how to "figure out" these kinds of things before one goes abroad will go a long way to help you determine “what just happened” and, more importantly, understand the “why.” It won’t prevent critical incidents from occurring, but it will allow you to laugh about most of them when you come home. We hope you enjoy and profit from our students’ critical incidents from their overseas adventures.