Module 3: Developing Your Intercultural Skills

 Critical Thinking

Critical thinking in intercultural interactions is a valuable skill that involves addressing a problem by first being aware of your own cultural reality when considering different perspectives, when you seek to understand through your own cultural lenses, and when your intention is to approach a careful explanation of what happens around you. This skill requires a conscious effort to train yourself to avoid relying on biases, stereotypes, and your own opinions as you consider a situation. Critical thinking is transferable across all contexts (e.g., at university, work, or complex situations) and it is a crucial skill in intercultural development because it allows you to stop, think, and find a way to interpret and explain issues based on your listening and observation skills, your intercultural experience, and the use of resources.

Critical thinking refers to the ability to analyze behaviours, events, and observations to understand, relate to, create meaning, address an issue, or find solutions. It requires you to be objective as you seek to understand different perspectives and then reflect on them in relation to your own experience.

Activity: Critical Incident

Read the following narrative (also known as a critical incident) describing a misunderstanding between people from different backgrounds. What you will read is based on real observations from the perspective of a Hong Kong Chinese student (Jackson, 2002). Critical incident, questions, and feedback responses adapted from Jackson, 2002.
Man Wearing Black Adidas Jacket Sitting on Chair Near Another Man Wearing Blue Jacket

An interrupted lesson

Last year, I took Professor Lo’s class on Ecological Environment of China at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. My classmates were all local, except for a few exchange students who were seated together. On the first day of class, the lesson started smoothly, all students were quiet while listening to the lecture. Half an hour into Professor Lo’s lecture, Natalie, an exchange student, suddenly raised her hand. The professor was focused on his lesson and he was not aware someone of Natalie’s raised hand; he probably did not expect any questions from students, as is usual. When other local students sitting behind the exchange students saw the raised hand, their first reaction was of surprise because students rarely ask questions during lessons. After a while, Professor Lo saw Natalie’s raised hand and she started asking her question, which was related to what he had just explained. Professor Lo smiled, nodded, and provided an answer.

We thought that the rest of the class would continue in silence. However, Natalie and the other exchange students took turns to raise their hands and ask questions. I exchanged concerned looks with the classmate sitting next to me. Other local students also looked at each other, half surprised and half confused. The exchange students were eager to ask questions, and Professor Lo also started to look uncomfortable. Particularly when some exchange students did not agree with Professor Lo’s point of view. At this point, Alison, another exchange student, started to debate with the professor.

As students, we listen to our professors’ views and then we try to think about our own perspectives, on our own, or may discuss them with fellow students. We do not openly disagree or contradict the professor. However, this exchange student was debating with Professor Lo during the class, in front of other students. The atmosphere was strange and tense. Other local students were also startled. Some students even frowned and showed an embarrassed expression. I thought: “How come a student challenges a professor and doesn’t give him face (respect)?” Luckily, the lesson ended, and the exchange students hurried to get to their next lessons as if nothing happened. At that moment, Professor Lo sighed and seemed relieved, just like the local students.

Think about this

  • In the situation above, you looked at the issue from the perspective of Hong Kong students. How does this look from your own perspective as a current or past student? How different or similar are the roles and expectations? Did you ever feel confused or at loss? Why?
  • Consider a similar situation in the workplace, how different do you think this form of interaction between an authority figure and subordinates would be? In your own experience, are you expected to openly interact with your boss during a meeting? Can you raise concerns, questions, and perhaps explain if you disagree with something?

Whether you are living abroad or in Canada, it is important to pay attention to behaviours (in the case above, ways to show respect and relate to authority figures) and any other instance associated with cultural values that may create misunderstandings. What can you do to learn about these unwritten rules?

Takeaway points

  • All of us have experienced being in a situation that was confusing or made us think that other people are “wrong.”
  • Making a pause to think about issues instead of immediately reacting or making assumptions makes all the difference when interacting interculturally, at home or abroad.
  • It is not always easy to stop, breathe, and think, but the more you try to look at a problem using a critical thinking perspective, the better you will be at adapting to, understanding, and even explaining a situation to others.

Try these strategies

When you are in a situation where something seems amiss, where people’s actions or attitudes seem wrong, take a step back and take time to:

  • Describe the problem or issue: From an objective point of view, what is happening?
  • Recognize the influence of the context: Who is involved? When or where is this happening?
  • Consider all perspectives: What do you know about the other person’s culture? What role could personal or cultural values be playing? Could this respond to cultural tendencies, or is it an issue involving personality? What are you assuming about the other person?
  • Check your bias and stereotypes: Are you making assumptions before gaining a better understanding of what is happening? Are you allowing preconceptions to create meaning for you?
  • Ask questions: Whenever possible, approach other people to gain clarity, learn about how things are done, come from a place of curiosity, be mindful, and listen.
  • Decide how you can follow up: Can you have a conversation with the person? Do you need to learn more and come back to them? What could you try to clarify, moderate, explain, or help?