Learning About Culture Through Observation

One of the things David Livermore of Cultural Intelligence recommends you do is similar to what naturalists and scientists do- and that is observe, just sit back quietly and observe as much as you can. There’s really no detail to insignificant. Notice everything, down to details like what utensils are used, how are they used, how do people seat themselves at a restaurant, how is the food served, what pictures are on the walls, what other decorations are there, what happens when somebody sneezes or coughs or drops something, what happens when they buy something at the store, what interactions occur, who says what to whom, how do they pay, when they beckon somebody, what does that look like, adn if they count out points on their fingers do they start with the pinky or the forefinger? The thumb? How do they gesture for a cab? What happens when they laugh? Just spend a of time in a new culture immersed in all kinds of attentive watching of as much detail as possible.

Once you have collected those detailed observations, you will draw some conclusions.
Tentative conclusions, held to lightly, with care. In fact, he even says it’s better not to draw any at all for a long time, but this is hard for human beings to do. We are designed to look for patterns, to draw conclusions based on what we see. But you have to be super cautious about that, because trying to draw conclusions from your observations is very likely going to be fraught with error. Even the actual observations you make can be ‘wrong,’ because the very things you notice or overlook will be influenced by who you are, where you come from, your culture, the assumptions you bring that you don’t even know you have. So many of your conclusions are going to be wrong, or at best, incomplete. Your conclusions will certainly be filtered through your own culture.

A Korean friend noted that when Koreans pull out money from their wallets they sort of hunker over it, keeping the wallet tightly closed so nobody can see what’s in it. Americans mostly, in her opinion (and, she said other people’s opinions, too) were flambouyant about, flaunting the contents of their wallet, opening it wide, showing off what they had. SHe and other Koreans thought it was part of the pride that seems to central to American culture to her.

I am not even sure she believed me when I told her that no, if an American ever opened his wallet in front of her by acting secretive about its contents, that was a sign that the American didn’t trust her or the environment. It was not pride, but trust, a sign that the wallet holder believes the people around are honest.

I didn’t tell her, but I had assumed the close, tight way Koreans opened their wallets to pay at a restaurant was because they didn’t trust people, and assumed theives were around looking to see how much they had to take advantage of them or commit a crime.

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