Module 3: Developing Your Intercultural Skills


Learning to observe is another key skill that you will need to purposefully develop as you focus on developing intercultural competencies. Being a good observer does not mean you stare or look intently to understand what is happening. Instead, it means learning to detach yourself from personal feelings, judgements, and biases to appreciate what is happening from a more objective perspective. In other words, you want to be aware of yourself so that you can leave emotions and preconceptions aside and focus on what is unravelling in front of your eyes.

Activity: Observing in a different way

Imagine you are an observer in each of the following five situations. Take a moment to look at each photo and then spend between half a minute to a minute with each image to write down everything you can think of as you look at it. Do not worry about “getting it right;” this exercise is just for you to be aware of what is it that you notice and what each situation expresses from your own perspective: Who are the people? What is happening? Are you aware of your immediate feelings and reactions?

You will now see each image again, but this time choose the option that better describes what is happening.

Did any of the explanations for each situation reflect what you first observed? If you did not get all the answers correctly, it is not a problem! This simply demonstrates that one cannot rely on a single image to understand what is really happening. Even if you got all the answers right, it may also be that you knew or understood more of the content to create meaning. Another way to understand this is by imagining you start a movie for the first time at its halfway point. The plot probably would not make sense to you until you learn more about the characters, the background, their motivations, the tone, the story, and so on.

Objective observation is the ability to use our senses to describe what we notice as spectators, eyewitnesses, or participants in the world around us. It involves describing behaviour by noticing details while taking in new information and explaining it without judgement drawn from emotional reactions and value systems.

To make fair observations, we need to understand the context of the situation and the intention around it. This understanding applies to what you may notice while shopping at the grocers, a reaction you caught from a peer while in class, something you saw in passing while driving, an image shown on TV, or an action or custom you observed while travelling. Lacking information about what we observe can create confusion, misunderstanding, or even elicit undesirable reactions from people. Pay attention and always leave room for interpretation. Ask when you are not sure of something and avoid making assumptions that may turn into stereotypes or misjudgements of others.

Takeaway points

  • Observation skills are important when we look at images as well as when we are immersed as participant observers in a situation.
  • The most important thing to remember is that things may not be what they seem. We may be looking at one angle, one perspective, without really understanding the background or the whole story.
  • As you try to make sense of things from your own perspective, ensure you are also leaving room for interpretation and learning to have a greater, better-informed picture of what you perceive.

Try these strategies

  • Start by making a pause to think and understand your own positioning in each situation: Are you participating or are you external to the interaction? Is this something you have observed before or is this the first time?
  • Consider the context (e.g., place, time, relationship of the people involved, culture) where the situation takes place.
  • Be aware of how the biases and stereotypes you carry may affect how you perceive a situation. Focus on what is happening in an objective way. It is normal to have a reaction such as surprise or confusion, but do not allow that to become your only understanding of the situation. Instead, try to learn more about the background of the situation or event.
  • Try to observe without staring to avoid making people uncomfortable. Remember, there is a difference between staring (fixating on something or someone) and observing (paying attention to notice things).
  • Allow yourself to notice things, but ensure you do not judge as you observe.
  • Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal communication, but always leave room for an alternative interpretation. Remind yourself that the real explanation may be something you have not considered.
  • Be patient and do not jump to conclusions; you may be using your cultural lenses to interpret what you see, and you may not understand the whole picture.