Module 3: Developing Your Intercultural Skills


Evaluating behaviour and observations in intercultural contexts involves exploring and considering various explanations for what is new or different to us and deciding on the best way to interpret them. It is part of a process that may require gathering more information to create a meaning we can understand without relying on assumptions, stereotypes, or pre-judgements.

Interpretation and evaluation skills involve carefully formulating alternative explanations for what we listen to and observe. To do this, you need to go through a process that helps you move beyond assumptions and judgemental reactions. The OSEE tool developed by Darla Deardorff (2012) will help you practise this process; it involves the following steps:

O – Observe (and listen to) what is happening
S – State objectively what is happening
E – Explore different explanations for what is happening
E – Evaluate which explanation(s) is the most likely one(s)

The tool provides a way to respond more objectively in intercultural situations. In the process, you observe or listen to what is happening, training yourself to keep a neutral attitude and preventing your judgement from influencing you, which is a skill you develop through practice. As you interpret meaning, it is important to consider that culture is not the only factor involved; there are values and personalities, background information, as well as environmental factors that affect our views, outlook, and how we understand our surroundings.

Activity: Immersing yourself in the context

  1. Watch Thrones of Semana Santa video (7’24”) and think about what is happening.
  2. As you watch, avoid saying or thinking, “That’s weird,” “That’s insane,” “That doesn’t make sense,” because that shows you are making a judgement.
  3. Train yourself to think: “That’s different,” “I didn’t know that,” “I wonder what that is or why they do that,” which recognizes differences and encourages inquisitiveness and curiosity. By doing this, you will concentrate on finding and understanding alternative explanations for what you observe.
  4. After watching the video, think about or select a single scene you watched and answer the questions in the Immersing Yourself in the Context handout, a fillable word document that downloads automatically, as in the example provided in the handout. Doing so will help you practice observing, formulating objective descriptions, and considering different alternatives to explain what you see and hear.

Notice how the different parts of this process are interconnected: You need to observe, listen, and pay attention in order to describe what is happening. Stating objectively requires you to think and consciously separate what is a description from an explanation. As you explore different ways to explain what you observe, you practice being open to more than one way to interpret what you see or hear without committing to a single explanation. Finally, when you evaluate, you are bringing together different cognitive and attitudinal skills by taking into consideration what you observe and then formulating a description stripped of assumptions and judgement, helping you consider alternatives and decide on the best way to interpret the event.

We can add another step to this process to confirm your understanding, wherein you talk to others or use other means to check if you reached the correct interpretation. Being able to confirm your understanding is an important part of the process to ensure that the knowledge you gain is consistent with the understanding and interpretations of the rest of the group. In the example above, if you are walking on the street and see men in a truck spreading grass, perhaps you can ask one of the people around why this is done, instead of assuming that your interpretation must be correct. The reason why you go through the process is to help you get used to suspending judgement, which often affects our interactions with people. By training yourself to withhold assumptions and criticism, you are in a better position to understand others’ actions and reactions, to be more objective when you witness behaviour that is new to you, and to engage more fully as a participant in an event. You can develop the different skills involved in the process by being purposeful about how you observe, by understanding your reaction, and by being open to look for and consider more than one explanation.

Activity: Further application of the OSEE tool

Watch the following video from minute 12’ to 14’ and follow the process of the OSEE tool, but this time you will have the opportunity to confirm your understanding and incorporate your thoughts about how the event or observation could be misinterpreted by others. See the example provided:

You should be aware of potential causes for misinterpretation in any observation or intercultural event. If you can identify them, you can then work to gain a better understanding of the situation, event, or behaviour, as you did in the activity above. The same strategy applies to intercultural interactions, whether you are a participant or an observer. For example, in a conversation, there may be topics, expressions, or behaviours that are misinterpreted, and this can happen even with people of your same cultural group. Pay attention to those elements in intercultural exchanges to ensure that the intended message and intention are clear, from your own and the other person’s positioning. In other words, be mindful and practise recognizing potential sources of misinterpretation.

Every person will generally have a reaction to what they observe, particularly if it is something they do not understand or is a new experience. In some instances, they may also have a strong opinion about an observation if it relates to a debatable topic. Regardless of personal views, it is important to identify unfair observations and find ways to express your reaction that do not carry judgment, which you can do by carefully choosing your words, as you will practise in the following activity.

Activity: Evaluating responses

Explore the following video stills and turn the card to read the reactions provided. In the box under each still, reformulate the reactions so they do not carry judgement while still conveying the original idea. You may watch part of the video for further context. The location of the still within the video is indicated at the front of the card.

Think about this

In this section, you have practised suspending judgement through different strategies including observation, articulating objective descriptions, considering different alternatives for interpreting behaviour, and carefully formulating responses. Think about how repeating this process, even in your mind, on the spot, whenever you have the opportunity, can help you avoid judging behaviour on the basis of your own knowledge and perceptions. What is the importance of pausing before reacting? Why is it necessary to be objective? How does developing these skills help you in different situations, formal or informal, at home or abroad, with your family, at university or at work, when watching the news or a TV show? Make sure to reflect on these questions so you help yourself internalize this process.

Takeaway points

  • What you think you see does not always mean what you think it means.
  • Whether at home or abroad, using the OSEE tool can help you develop observation and listening skills, which will be crucial for a more objective interpretation of what happens in front of or around you.
  • Do not underestimate the importance of these skills; they are intended to help you suspend judgement to allow yourself to consider the context and people involved so that you can create meaning and interpret what you see.
  • Observation, paying careful attention, describing and reacting withholding judgement, and considering different alternatives to explain behaviour and events are all transferable skills applicable across professional, familial, and informal contexts.

Try these strategies

  • Make it a habit to pause and make objective observations and guesses without jumping to conclusions. Try doing this while watching a movie from Sweden, Pakistan, Angola, Iran, Serbia, or any country different from your own. You can also try this while sitting at the university quad, waiting for a taxi, or in any public place. Make sure to try observing people from the same and other cultures.
  • Attend multicultural festivals, as they provide a great opportunity to explore cultures with the senses. Take the opportunity to observe and chat with people informally. Ask questions, be open to learning, and allow yourself to take in new information, cultural expressions, and ways of thinking and being.
  • Whenever possible, try to find out if your inferences or evaluations were right. People feel appreciated if you show interest in them, this goes both ways. You can learn more about your own culture while you explore others’.