Category Archives: Culture

(Some) Tales from Africa

I recently had the fantastic opportunity to visit the African continent for the first time to travel and to present at the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. South Africa definitely lived up to its name of the “Rainbow Nation” not only with its people but with its ecosystems. I highly recommend everyone to visit the beautiful city of Cape Town, the picturesque town of Stellenbosch, and to do a safari at the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in Mpumalanga!

But the tales from Africa I want to share today are actually stories from others who have visited Africa and from a student in Canada from Kenya. Both speak to the importance of being culturally sensitive and knowledgeable in successful intercultural interactions.

Tale #1: Allergies in Africa

This story comes from a management graduate student whom I met at the Cultural Intelligence Research forum at SIOP San Diego 2012. We were seated at the same table for lunch and we were discussing food allergies. As is more common in Western cultures (or at least I perceive it to be so), he has nut allergies (his background is German I believe). After the chef came out to ask him if everything was ok, the student shared with us his experience in Africa (forgot which country). Basically, he was with a tribe and they were inviting him to eat their food. He suspected that parts of the food had nuts in it and he knew that 1) people in the area do not have and would not understand nut allergies and 2) to mention his allergy or just plain refusing to eat the food would be rude to his host (i.e., his host almost “killed” him).

So this is the route he took. He explained to the host that nuts were part of his family totem. And that was all it took for him to save the host’s face in having serving him nuts and him not having to eat the nuts, because in this tribe, people don’t eat what’s on their family totem. A successful tale of someone being culturally knowledgeable and solving the problem in a culturally sensitive way.

Tale #2: Don’t look me in the eye

I recently attended an Intercultural Skills Workshop for the Graduate Studies Office led by Phyllis Powers. As part of the workshop, the facilitator invited international students to share their experiences. One of the cultural differences we discussed was the amount of eye contact; in some cultures (like North American), eye contact is a sign of attention and caring but in other cultures, eye contact could be construed as a sign of intimidation and lack of eye contact is a sign of respect.

One student from Kenya shared a very interesting story about eye contact. He mentioned that back in Kenya, he lived in a farm and they had various types of animals, and he’s learned to how handle these animals. One way to intimidate goats is to get down to their level, look them straight in the eye, and stare intensely. He explains that, in the animal kingdom, eye-locking is intimidating and challenging, and that is what he’s learned to do (or not do) with people also.

He also shared a story of someone from a Western country visiting a company in Kenya. As the Westerner was meeting a few people in the company, he noticed that most of the employees avoided his gaze and their eyes seemed shifty. The Westerner reported back to the superior of the Kenyan company that the employees there must be sketchy because their eyes were shifty. However, the superior of the Kenyan company said that the people who lock eyes were actually the sketchy ones!

Tale #3: Let’s shake hands again…and again…and again

When the same student from above first came to Canada, he would shake hands with his supervisor (who’s not from Kenya or other African countries) when he first sees the supervisor in the morning. Then repeats this every time he sees the supervisor. Eventually, the supervisor got quite uncomfortable and this became clear to the student.

He then realized that people in Canada only mainly shook hands the first time they meet and “never” again, while he was operating on the Kenyan saying and practice of “A good person is not greeted once.”

Hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about some different customs from very small parts of this large, diverse continent that is Africa!

South African Masks & Drums @ Cape Town Greenmarket Square


Leave a comment

Filed under Communication, Culture

Thoughtful Travel and Cultural Intelligence

In 2009, I had the opportunity to backpack through Europe with my sister. We didn’t really know the logistics of doing so but fortunately our cousin, who has worked and backpacked there, advised us to buy Rick Steves’ guidebook. Ever since I’ve used Rick Steves’ guidebooks for Europe, I haven’t turned back (and I have used Lonely Planet, Fodor, Frommer’s, etc. you name it). When you read his books, it’s like you have an travel guide there with you, actually talking to you and telling you to “walk past the colorful walls” and “turn left after you go down the little steps on your right” (yes, his walking guides are that detailed). I highly recommend anyone going to Europe, backpacking or not, to buy one of his books.

But beyond Rick’s books, I’ve really grown to admire his travel philosophy. Although I’m paraphrasing, Rick’s introduction in his Best of Europe book basically tries to tell his reader/fellow traveler that we’re no longer in North America (the US, specifically, where his company is based), and we can’t bring with us our North American assumptions and expectations on our journey. It is with this mindset that we’ll have a great traveling experience.

More recently, Rick gave a TEDxRainier talk on The Value of Travel, which you can find below. Rick is a great story teller and although you might or might not already enjoy traveling, you should definitely watch this video. (If you don’t have 20 mins to spare, I’ve added my favorite quotes from the talk at the end of this post). Rick stressed the point that it’s not just travel, but thoughtful travel, that “is well worth the time and the money.”

One example of a “Eureka!” moment that Rick had on his travels to Iran (Rick says, “Why am I going to Iran?…and it occurred to me I’m going there because I think it’s good character to know people before you…bomb them.”) was when he was in a cab in a traffic jam and suddenly the cab driver, who mainly only spoke Farsi yelled out, “Death to traffic!”

Rick was surprised and asked the driver, “Death to traffic? Is it not ‘Death to Israelis’ or ‘Death to the Americas’?” And the driver responded, “No, right now, death to traffic.”

The driver goes on to explain that “Here in Iran, when anything is frustrating or out of our control, we say ‘death to that’.”

And Rick realized that this was equivalent to him saying “Damn those teenagers!” when he’s back in the states, although he doesn’t wish that the teenagers burn and rot in hell for eternity.

Now, you don’t have to be a researcher in cultural intelligence (CQ)—defined as the capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity—to realize that someone like Rick would score high on CQ. To break it down into its component parts though, CQ consists of:

Metacognitive CQ = the higher order cognitive functioning that is used to acquire and understand cultural knowledge. Individuals high on this component consciously monitor and reflect upon their own cultural assumptions and their interactions with culturally different others. They are able to suspend their judgment, be mindful, and adjust their own cultural knowledge in an unfamiliar cultural situation.

Cognitive CQ = refers to the knowledge the individuals possess of cultural universals in addition to differences in cultural norms, practices, and conventions, Those are who score high on cognitive CQ have knowledge of other cultures’ economic, legal, and social systems.

Motivational CQ = is “a source of drive” which leads individuals to direct their attention and energy towards effectively functioning in situations with culturally different others. Individuals who possess high motivational CQ are confident in their abilities to do well in contexts characterized by cultural diversity and are intrinsically motivated to do so.

Behavioural CQ = reflects the capability of individuals to exhibit appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviours, such as appropriate words, tones, gestures, and facial expressions depending on the cultural context. Individuals with high behavioural CQ should possess a wide range of culturally appropriate behaviours, understand the display rules of different cultures, and be proficient at interpreting the meanings of culturally different others’ behaviours.

Now the chicken or the egg question: Did Rick Steves score high on CQ because he traveled lots? Or did he gain successful travel experiences because he already scored high on CQ?

If CQ is like (cognitive) intelligence, then it might be the latter. But actually, researchers in the field of CQ think that it’s a trainable/changeable capability.

To score high on CQ, for me, it really all comes down to being mindful, knowledgeable, motivated, and flexible.

1)      Be mindful that there are cultural differences. Reflect on your experiences and rethink your assumptions.

2)      Gain knowledge about cultural differences, either by reading about it, asking culturally different others, or traveling to another place.

3)      Motivate or push yourself to actually acquire the knowledge, talk to culturally different others, ask questions, and change yourself.

4)      Be flexible in your own behaviour so that it’s appropriate in the current culture/situation. Not only will you “fit in” more and gain trust or respect from culturally different others, it might also open your eyes to why people do things a certain way.

As our world becomes more globalized and different cultures are increasingly coming in contact due to work, leisure, curiosity, change in policies (e.g., the ASEAN’s AEC), or other necessities (i.e., home displacement due to war), perhaps waiting for someone to develop their own CQ is not enough. I think that it should almost be a necessity to incorporate diversity and cultural training into educational and training programs for both children and adults.

The world would definitely be a better place if one day, everyone becomes someone who would say something like this:

“This man is very different from us, but he’s fundamentally the same. And if we can take home that understanding, that’s the best souvenir possible. And for the rest of our lives, when we look at the rest of the world, rather than fear its diversity we can better celebrate it.” Rick Steves

 My other favorite quotes from the talk:

“Travel opens us up to the wonders of the world…It helps you appreciate nature…It connects you with culture…It connects you with people…It’s people that makes your experience vital.”

“[The American] dream is beautiful but so is theirs.”

“When we travel, we gain a better appreciation of what is the baggage that people are carrying when they respond to us.”

“My friends in Europe always remind me a society always has to make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons.”

“European example of pragmatic harm reduction when it comes to soft drugs.”

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Diversity

Culture, Indirect Communication, and Your Health

Happy New Year! I haven’t had time to think about a new year resolution yet (too many deadlines, yes, this early in the year, life as an academic…) but perhaps one should be to be more consistent with my blog and not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” (attributed to Voltaire). I have so many ideas for a blog post but keep postponing it because I want it perfect. Out goes perfect and in comes posts!


I was at the hospital with my grandmother and aunt the other day for my grandmother’s knee surgery check-up by the Physio doctor (<–if this blog post were perfect, I would’ve spent extra time to look up what they are actually called, but I’m not going to :-)). According to my aunt, sometimes when the doctor asks my grandmother if she has had any pain at home, she’ll say “No” or that she’s getting better. Also, today, when the doctor was telling my grandmother that she should start pressing on her knee (to get rid of something around the scar), my grandmother said, “Never done it.” And we all assumed that she meant she knew she’s supposed to do it but she never got around to do it at home (like when she’s supposed to do a bunch of exercises for her knees at home).

Here’s where my cultural interpretation comes in.

1) My aunt doesn’t understand why my grandmother (also my grandfather) keeps telling their doctors that they have had no pain at home or that they’re getting better even though they have been in pain and sometimes things aren’t getting better. I think it’s because, in a collectivistic culture like Thailand (yes, I am back in Thailand now, and all my family’s here), the main social goal is group-harmony, and I think that my grandparents are trying to “please” the doctors by saying something they think the doctors would like to hear and not “complain” about their situation.

However, you can see why this is a problem. Doctors need to accurately diagnose the health conditions of their patients and they can’t always use machines to probe…sometimes they rely on verbal reports from the patients. But if the patients are “eager to please” the doctors and not tell them of their actual issue, the doctors can’t help them.

Perhaps there should be a way to educate patients about how to communicate to doctors or doctors ensuring patients that they want to hear the truth because they want to heal them. Or some kind of established norm that might be different from what the patients are used to for their own good.

2) When my grandmother said “Never done it” above, my grandmother meant that the nurse who was rehabilitating her after the surgery never did this one particular knee compression move on her, and therefore she has never been taught or told to do it previously. The confusion is both her fault and the Thai language’s fault.

First, it’s the Thai language’s fault because in Thai, some sentences do not require a subject, in this case, we don’t know who’s “never done it”. Was it my grandmother who’s never done it? (like we all though) or the nurse who’s never done it? (like what my grandmother meant). I am pretty sure because of this Thai is a higher context communication language, consisting of more “implicit, indirect messages” than low context communication, where the message is directly and clearly embedded in the message sent.

Second, it’s my grandmother’s fault for not clarifying this issue at the doctor’s office; it was only revealed that it was the nurse who’s never done it after we got home and my aunt was telling my grandma to do that move. But then again, it might not be her fault as to again her motivation to not cause a problem/conflict with the doctor or the nurse (i.e. telling the doctor that the nurse has never done it could mean the doctor scolding the nurse).

In this case, perhaps the doctor could be trained to probe when there is ambiguous communication. “Who’s never done it?” would’ve clarified the situation. Also, my grandmother, again, could’ve been reassured of the need to reveal all information for the doctor to help her better, so that she is more motivated to reveal information than conceal them (again, characteristics of a collectivistic culture, whose people tend to use high context communication).

A small example of how knowing about a patient’s culture and their communication style can potentially improve their healths and even save their lives.


Filed under Communication, Culture

Diversity Issues in Assessment Centres and The Human Factor Project in Nuclear Facilities

Yes long time no post, but I was busy with finishing my Master’s thesis and looking for an internship. Both a success because my thesis has been approved by the Graduate Studies Office of the University of Waterloo (if anyone cares, a copy can be found here:, and I’m now an intern at the Talent Development Service of GDF SUEZ in Paris, France!

I’ll do a “What I’ve learned from my internship” post at the end of my internship in October, but I learned 2 things today that is quite relevant to the IO field that I thought I really should post.

1) Diversity Issues in Assessment Centres

GDF SUEZ is a large, multinational company and hires external consultants for assessment centres (AC). Although my team mainly focuses on developing the talent after they have already been identified as such, my bosses still attend the AC sometimes or at least meet the candidates beforehand. The interesting practice GDF SUEZ does is that they give AC to different groups based on nationalities. For example, Northern Europeans (mainly Scandinavians or Dutch, etc.) would all be in one AC session while an American would only have interviews because if they put the American in the Northern European group and they have to do the AC in English, there is unfair advantage for the American person. So on the one hand, I think it makes sense with the language issue (the Northern Europeans also get to do the AC in French I believe) but the weird thing is, if the American person does pass the test and starts working for the Group, he/she will be working in a culturally diverse (but mainly French) company, so his/her experience with only English interviews do not reflect the real work environment, whereas the Northern Europeans would’ve had been tested in a situation that has higher fidelity to the real working environment. So there could still be an issue of fairness there. For example, if the Northern European in the group AC did poorly, could they argue that they were not given a fair opportunity because an American got “private” treatment for the selection process?

Side funny European cultural thing: if there is one French person in the Northern European AC, the Northern European complains because the French person (from the “South”) would talk too much. LOL.

The weirder/even funnier thing is regarding gender diversity. They try to set up 50% males and females in the group AC. However, there was a particular incident that 2 of the males did not show up. Turns out one male complained that he couldn’t perform well because there were too many females! Now that is a first (for me). My reaction when I heard this was, “Wow, so we know who’s not making it far in [the working] life.” Reality is that there are some industries or departments or teams with more or less males/females and one would just have to adapt to that. But on the other hand, if a female were to complain that there were too many males and she can’t perform well, perhaps that would be viewed differently, for example, “Yes, she has a point, we need to be fair to the woman.” So perhaps this is my own personal bias and that males have the right to complain that way, but it’s still strange to use that as an excuse for one’s poor performance in an AC.

2) The Human Factor Project in Nuclear Facilities

One of my bosses got sent a video that she couldn’t view and because I’m more tech savvy (it’s funny because I’ve helped 2 people with “how to watch a video that was sent to me” already!) I figured out how to watch it (I’m actually surprised at how quick I can solve these problems, too, because I’ve never encountered watching a video through a security-enabled ftp site before). Anyway, the video was about safety at a nuclear power plant in Russia. The video started with “errare humanum est” (“to err is human”) and they talk about how people make mistakes, but with a culture of punishment from management, employees would hide their mistakes and it could lead to disastrous consequences, especially in a nuclear power plant. So this particular plant started implementing a Human Factors Project (originating in Belgium) where they want to change the culture of the organization so that employees would report their mistakes and there would be an investigation board to help prevent the problem in the future and not punish or blame the individual who made mistakes. The point was that progress could not be made if people keep hiding mistakes. Someone in the video was saying that this was a difficult shift for the mindset of some Russians because it’s a culture with high authority and employees are used to being “scared” of management. They had to work to get the employees to trust the management so that the would actually report the mistakes…a “progressive change of mentality.”

They even had psychologists on the team (yay, representing!) and this one lady talked about how when someone makes a mistake, they tend to blame the machine because they feel guilt and shame. So they had to find ways to work around that to, again, build trust and, although they didn’t use these words (I’m sure this is the same point), psychological safety.

The concept of “transparency” also came up in the video and although I don’t study that at all, I’ve heard of it more now because GDF SUEZ’s policy is also one of transparency. So to me, I thought that was the norm for companies, but apparently being “transparent” is an “innovative” thing that companies that want to be leaders are trying to do and promote. My response, “Well, duh.”

So many things I’m learning here, I’m so glad I got this internship! 🙂


Filed under Culture, Diversity, I/O Psychology

TEDxWaterloo Part II

Part II: Our World Started Yesterday

Speaker #4: Paul Saltzman

I was in the presence of greatness who was in the presence (and among) greatness, the Beatles! What are the chances of someone waking up one day, hearing “God” speak to him (although an atheist) to go to India, lying to get there, having his heart broken, and finding the exact ashram that the Beatles were staying at and allowed in after camping out outside for 8 days? (Not because he wanted to see the Beatles, but because he needed asylum from his aching heart). His talk from the heart of his personal journey was incredible. What I took from this talk was that you have to listen to the silence and the void; that’s when the universe will tell you something and fill you in.

“Love, health, and peace inside.” What brings them to you?

“Creativity is infinite.”

“Nothing changes in my life until I do.” I love this quote.

Words from the talk, “magic” and “humility.” They are so much more inspiring and ring true when coming out of his mouth!

Speaker #5: Caroline Disler

One very intelligent lady. Although her content was very interesting and informative (again reaffirming the notion that the West hasn’t always been hotshot, but she wasn’t here to Western-bash), what I remember from this is emotional contagion in action. It seemed to me that she was so worked up by what she was talking about and she let out loud sighs a lot that I felt irritated like she did. (Afterward, a friend of mind said he overheard her say she had a migraine so that could explain it).

Apparently we can’t say “Western civilization” because it’s an oxymoron?

Video #2: Wade Davis

This might be my second favorite TED talks of all time (my favorite is by Sylvia Earle). His talk particularly resonated with me because I’m interested in cultures and I’m conducting cultural research.

“This is one model of reality…There are other ways in orienting yourself to the earth.”

“Cultures create different realities.”

“Storytelling can change the world.” It’s funny that this theme has become more visible and prominent in my life now. I’m sure it has always been there but it has never been so vivid to me until recently. Because I have to give big presentations/talks soon, I am more drawn towards this concept and want to master the techniques and use them in academic talks. Luckily, I am attending Ignite Waterloo on March 3rd and one of the speakers who is my friend’s brother mentioned that he was going to talk about storytelling 😀

The question I had after the video: where are Tibetan girls? Has anyone ever seen pictures of them?

Speaker #6: Madhur Anand

Frankly, the biggest disappointment for me. For some reason I had high expectations of her and she didn’t deliver what I envisioned. I don’t even know what I envisioned but it wasn’t there. I have a background in Ecology so I was looking forward to this particular talk. I think somewhere down the line, I got lost (in a bad way) in her chlorophyll metaphor and when her metaphors and play on words weren’t doing it for me, she kind of lost credibility as a published poet in my mind (not that I have any poetic abilities!) However, I did enjoy how she started the talk discussing her favorite colour (green) and that she was wearing all black besides her green scarf.

But she did introduce me to the poem Planet Earth by Patricia Kathleen. The poem has been selected by the UN to foster dialogue among nations.

I also learned that the city of Sudbury, Ontario is going a fantastic job with its forest restoration! A star for Sudbury!

Speaker #7: Michael Socco

I like what he’s doing but I didn’t write a lot of things down. I also like his energy. The one thing I did write down was “aesthetic: ‘right’ not because something’s useful”


Filed under Culture, Life

Collectivistic/Individualistic names

I was reading Penelope Trunk’s blog today and came across this comment:

Throughout history, most people have had common names, and common names help people to fit in and be part of a group. Uncommon names make people feel different and encourage them to think of themselves more as individuals.

What is interesting to me is that in the US and Canada, where people are extremely individualistic, people have very common names (I know at least 6 Jennifers); however, in Thailand, where people are more collectivistic, people have very unique first names* (Thai people have “official” nicknames and those are usually more common). In Thailand, there is not a single person I know that has the same first name as anyone else or myself! (ok, I lied, I know one person who has the same name as me, she’s my mom’s friend’s daughter whom I’ve never met)

Is it the issue of the name pool size and not the issue of individualism/collectivism then? Most Western names are drawn from the bible (surprise) and no one really cares about the meaning. I’m not sure where Thai names originate, but they all have meanings and people actually care about what those names mean in naming their child.

Another interesting thing to note is that in Western culture, parents usually name their child the same names as themselves (John junior, John the third, etc.) whereas I don’t know of any Thai person who names their child the same name as themselves (but I have seen “mixed” names, where parents mix the father’s and mother’s names together).

If names and naming reflect culture, what does this say about Western VS Thai culture?

*But perhaps Thai names is an isolated case. Japanese names are quite common. Korean names not as much but their last names are still similar. Chinese names I don’t know the variety but their last names are also quite similar. I am not familiar with names from other countries to make a comment on them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture