How Does a Behavior Mean? People are in the habit of thinking that behavior has inherent meaning, something attached to the behavior that enables people to understand it, that somehow makes it mean this and not that. In fact, for all practical purposes, an instance of behavior has no particular meaning other than what the people who witness that behavior assign to it. In short, behavior means what we decide it means—and very often it means nothing at all. The truth of this is easy enough to demonstrate. Take a simple gesture, such as the American okay sign: the thumb and forefinger meet to make a circle and the remaining three fingers are held aloft. In the United States this behavior means okay or all right (and also designates zero). In parts of the Mediterranean and Latin America, it is an obscene gesture. In Japan it designates coins (as opposed to paper money). And there are no doubt many places where it has other meanings or even no meaning at all. This gesture or piece of behavior does not somehow carry its meaning within it; meaning is imposed on it (or not) by those who observe it. When the people attaching meaning to a behavior are from the same culture, they are likely to attach the same meaning, resulting in successful communication. But when they are from different cultures, they may take the same behavior to mean very different things. This phenomenon, different people assigning different meanings to the same behavior, is at the heart of most cross-cultural misunderstandings. The exercise which follows illustrates how this can happen. Exercise 2.1 Part 1 Read the description of the eight instances of behavior given below and write down your immediate response to or interpretation of that behavior (what meaning you would assign to the behavior). The first one has been done for you. 1. A person comes to a meeting half an hour after the stated starting time. Your interpretation: This person is late and should at least apologize or give an explanation. 2. Someone kicks a dog. Your interpretation: _______________ 3. At the end of a meal, people belch audibly. Your interpretation: _______ 4. The young person you are talking to does not look you in the eye. Your interpretation: _______________ 5. A woman carries a heavy pile of wood on her back, while her husband walks in front of her carrying nothing. Your interpretation: _______________ 6. A male guest helps a hostess carry dirty dishes into the kitchen. Your interpretation: _______________ 7. A young man and a young woman are kissing on a park bench. Your interpretation: _______________ 8. While taking an exam, a student copies from the paper of another student. Your interpretation: ________________________________ Exercise 2.2 Part 2 In the second part of this activity, you will find the same eight behaviors from Part 1, but you are now being asked to imagine the meaning these behaviors would have in a culture different from your own. The particular cultural difference is described in each case. Read each behavior and the description of the culture and then write in the space provided what meaning you think a person from that culture would assign to the behavior. 1. A person comes to a meeting half an hour after the stated starting time. How would this act be interpreted by ■ someone from a culture where people always arrive half an hour after the stated starting time? Interpretation: ________________________ someone from a culture where meetings never start un til at least an hour after the stated time? Interpretation: _____________________ 2. Someone kicks a dog. How would this act be interpreted by ■ someone from a country where dogs always carry dis ease? Interpretation: _______________________ someone from a country where, dogs are not kept as pets and are usually vicious? (/• Interpretation: _____________________ 3. At the end of a meal, people belch audibly. How would this be interpreted by ■ someone from a culture where belching is the normal way to compliment the food? Interpretation: ______________________ 4. The young person you are talking to does not look you in the eye. How would this be interpreted by ■ someone in whose culture it is considered rude to make eye contact when listening to older or senior people? Interpretation: ____________, _______________ 5. A woman carries a heavy pile of wood on her back, while her husband walks in front of her carrying nothing. How would this be interpreted by ■ someone from a culture where men never carry wood? Interpretation: ______________ , ______________ 6. A male guest helps a hostess carry dirty dishes into the kitchen. How would this act be interpreted by ■ men from a culture where men never clean up after a meal? Interpretation: ____________________________ ■ the hostess from that same culture? Interpretation: ___________________ 7. A young man and a young woman are kissing on a park bench. How would this act be interpreted by ■ someone from a culture where men and women never touch in public? Interpretation: ____________________________ 8. While taking an exam, a student copies from the paper of another student. How would this act be interpreted by ■ someone from a culture where exams are not fair and are designed to eliminate students at Various stages of the education system? Interpretation: _____________________________ What have you learned from this exercise? Probably that you shouldn't be too quick to judge other people's behavior, at least not from your own point of view. The wiser course in any cross-cultural situation is to suspend interpretation or judgment, suspend the assigning of meaning until you can find out what any given behavior might signify in the other person's culture. Then you will at least be able to interpret the behavior "correctly." This does not mean, by the way, that you will necessarily like or approve of the behavior at that point; it merely means that you will probably understand what lies behind it, the logic of the behavior in that culture. In some cases, knowing why people behave in a certain way—for example, learning that people keep dogs away for fear of disease—may cause you to change your opinion of the behavior and the person. In other cases, however, knowing why people behave as they do will not change your opinion. The point is not that you should always be able to like or accept the different behaviors of people from other cultures, but only that you should reserve judgment until you have understood them. Indeed, that rule applies to any kind of interaction, whether cross-cultural or not. But once you have understood, then you are in a better position to judge. Finally, you will note that this exercise has deliberately selected behaviors that exist in two or more cultures but have different meanings—the usual suspects in cross-cultural misunderstandings. There are, however, many cross-cultural situations where the confusion is not caused by different interpretations of a shared behavior but by the fact that what is a behavior in one culture, such as a gesture, is in fact not behavior— because it has no meaning—in another culture.