Module 2: Expanding Your Intercultural Knowledge

Values as Cultural Lenses

We start learning values from childhood and, as we grow into adulthood, values continue to pervade our lives and create meaning in different contexts. For example, as children, we may learn to respect our parents. As teenagers, we learn rules about what is appropriate when interacting with friends. Then, as adults, we learn about levels of formality and expectations from us as employees.

Cultural values are deeply held beliefs that we rely on to determine what is “good, right, acceptable, and desirable” and what is “bad, wrong, inacceptable, and undesirable.”

We constantly see what is around us (e.g., events, behaviours, attitudes, actions, reactions, and values) through our own cultural lenses; this is what makes sense for us. However, when we notice a different way of doing things outside of what we know to be correct, we often interpret the behaviour as wrong, inappropriate, or offensive. If we take the time to “change” our cultural lenses and view things from the perspective of other people or groups, we will realize that they are also following the rules of what is considered right through their own cultural lenses.

Trendy sunglasses placed on wooden table

As we interact with people, we have opportunities to expand our knowledge and gain an understanding of others’ outlooks and ways of being. We can then use what we have learned to try to see things through other people’s cultural perspectives. It is important to remember that the different lenses you use are not limited to people from a different culture, this is also applicable to understand values, history, and experiences of people around you, including second generation immigrants, Indigenous groups, racialized individuals, as well as Black, White, Asian people, and so on. In addition, we make further adjustments to our lenses when we consider the intersectionality of our identities, including socioeconomic background, education, gender, and sexual orientation, among others, where we belong to different subgroups that make up who we are as individuals. Being able to change our perspectives across intercultural and intersectional lines allows us to develop a better understanding of perspectives from our own and other people’s standpoints, further paving the way to gain knowledge about complex issues.

Activity: Adjusting Cultural Lenses

Round Mirror

Watch the TED talk by Julien S. Bourrelle: Learn a new culture (13’19”). Bourrelle is a Canadian engineer who learned to adjust his cultural lenses as he interacted with people in the countries where he lived. As you watch, think about your own experiences in situations where you did not understand what happened—where people reacted in a way you did not expect—and how you can adapt your own perspective to gain knowledge while engaging more successfully with others. You are encouraged to take notes you can later refer to, or simply focus on listening to the speaker while thinking about how the content applies to you.

Based on Bourrelle’s talk, select the best answer to the question:

Think about this

  • Why is it important for us to learn how to adapt to different situations?
  • Based on your own experience, when would things have gone better if you had taken the time to adjust your cultural lenses? Why? What happened?
  • What about looking from a different cultural perspective? When do you think it would have been better if someone treated you differently or understood you in a different way?
  • What happens when you only look at other people through your own lenses? What are you missing out on? What problems may arise?

Values are complex and differ from one culture to another within groups, organizations, universities, towns, neighbourhoods, and so on. At any one time, we follow several sets of values that reflect who we are as cultural beings and as members of a society. In addition, people also hold a set of personal values that drive their thinking and way of being. It is important to distinguish between cultural values, based on group tendencies, and personal values, based on what is important to you and what drives or influences your decisions.

Activity: Your Value Orientations

Are you aware of your value orientations? Read the following statements and reflect on your own upbringing and what you learned from, for example, your parents, grandparents, and teachers. Which of the options better reflects what you were taught as you were growing up? Note that there are no right or wrong answers; this activity is intended to help you reflect on your values and what is important to you before you seek to better understand other people’s value orientations.

[Adapted from Stringer, D., & Cassiday, P. (2003). 52 activities for exploring values differences. Intercultural Press. pp. 35-36, 43.]

Think About This

  • Where did these values or ways of thinking come from?
  • Are they common within your cultural group? Are they common in the place where you study or work? Are they personal values?
  • If more than one option makes sense to you, could it be that you are coming from a bi- or multicultural background?
  • Reflecting back on what you were taught, how is that different from the way you think and feel now? Why is that?

The values by which we live are not limited to what we learned as part of our cultural socialization. They also include organizational (e.g., university or workplace) and personal values. Although culture is the driving factor for our behaviours, remember that personality, experiences, and the context of situations also play an important role in our interactions and ways of being.

Takeaway points

  • Cultural values reflect what we have learned since childhood that determines our understanding of right and wrong.
  • Cultural values are better appreciated if we use different lenses—if we try to make sense of the world by looking at things from a different perspective. Consider an example where a man kisses a woman twice on the cheeks to greet her. Depending on the cultural lenses we wear, this could be considered the right and expected thing to do (from the man’s cultural perspective, this may be the common form of greeting), or it could seem inappropriate (if this is not part of the woman’s cultural background, she may feel her space has been invaded or she may feel uncomfortable with a touching behaviour not permitted for religious reasons).
  • We belong to many different groups simultaneously, and we have a set of values that reflect our intersectional identities.

Try These Strategies

  • Pay attention to people around you, in particular when you are in an intercultural, diverse, or international context. Focus on developing your observation skills anywhere and at any time. Consider how people act and react, for example, when others buy coffee, stand in line, walk on the street, or greet each other.
  • Try to be objective instead of judging what you see: Describe before you interpret. Remember, you are looking at actions through your own cultural lenses. Consider how things may look from another person’s perspective. Put yourself in their place.
  • Always leave room for interpretation: Could the values at hand reflect a cultural group, an organization, the person’s own values?