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We See What We Know

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Cultural Lenses Impact Our Meaning-Making: For my American and North-Western hemisphere-inspired audience: What do you see at first glance in the image to the left?

Oft cited interculturalist Geert Hofstede poses that “every person carries within him or herself patterns of thinking, feeling and potential acting which were learned throughout their lifetime … As soon as certain patterns of thinking, feeling and acting have established themselves within a person’s mind, (s)he must unlearn these first before being able to learn soFrosty imagemething different, and unlearning is more difficult than learning for the first time” (2010).

Our mind indeed uses learned patterns, past experiences and familiar context to obtain information and glean meaning from the world around us. These patterns allow us to easily interpret and respond to images and scenarios presented to us. The outline of the first image – especially in the wintertime – most likely will remind many Northern Americans of a snowman – some may even know it by name: Frosty.

When I traveled in Burundi recently, a curious, obviously home-made craft was dancing on the dash board of our driver’s car. It took me a moment and then I realized that I was looking at an “African Snow Man”. Maybe somehow a craft kit from the Northern hemisphere had made its way into an African school and when asked to color the shape, the child used his imagination that was informed by local context, thus creating the image of an African wearing a pink sweater and waving a blue rag.

African FrostyContextual sense-making in its purest and cutest expression. It made me wonder, how often we see outlines and then quickly color them in with what we see based on the patterns in our mind created by the culture that plays the most prominent part in our lives. The trick to cultural dexterity then is not necessarily to unlearn what we know but to ask ourselves:”What else is there to see and what other possible interpretations of this reality might someone else think of?”

What have you encountered that involved looking at the same thing through a different cultural and different context-based lens and thus triggered different interpretations?

1 Comment

  1. ptambe30 says:

    Very well written. Its important to keep one’s mind very open when in a new cultural context or else one is bound to make many mistakes.


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