1.3.2 - In the Mind of the Beholder
|In the Mind of
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.
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.
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.
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.
behavior observed across the cultural divide, therefore, has to be interpreted
in two ways:
meaning given to it by the person who does the action
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.
Mind of the Beholder Exercise
|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.
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.