Cultural Sense-Making for Building Bridges

Jun 18, 2018

March 20, 2019 U.S. Consulate Presentation in Chengdu, China

This week I was invited to speak once again at the US Consulate in Chengdu. After my year as a Fulbright Scholar at Sichuan University, I decided it was time for a change, so I’ve transitioned from being a full-time academic to part time as I set up my cross-cultural management and global leadership consulting business here in Chengdu. I’m straddling both parts of the world – China and USA – as I work with educational and business organizations to develop cultural competency.

It’s always an honor to speak at the US Consulate because about 40-50 Chinese citizens attend these sessions every Wednesday afternoon in order to listen to presentations by US Americans and learn about our culture. The lectures are about people-to-people diplomacy and the cultural exchange is always exciting and heartwarming as I share a little about my perspectives on cross-cultural communication while I learn to integrate into Chinese culture. The Chinese participants share about their culture and provide keen insights into world events. I feel that I come away with more than I give because my neighbors are so kind and thoughtful in helping me learn their language and culture. Often we go for coffee or tea at the "Paris Baguette" café down the street.

This time around was even more exhilarating because the US Ambassador to China, Terry Bradshaw, came to visit, and there was a buzz of excitement in the air. We had to wrap up early but I quickly shared the story of how Ambassador Bradshaw came to his position because of his own people-to-people diplomacy many years ago when he was the governor in Iowa. (*see below for brief recap or previous blog for longer explanation)

My topic for the week was how to make sense of each other’s cultures when we don’t understand the differences that can cause misunderstandings and bad feelings. I view cross-cultural exchange as a positive occurrence, and while I would like to primarily focus on our similarities as human beings, the fact is: human beings often misunderstand each other because we have different worldviews, life experiences, cultures, and personalities. So, a healthy understanding of differences can go a long way in making sense of each other’s cultural norms as we try to build bridges for mutual understanding.

This blog relates to my previous one when I talked about the Miss Universe Pageant contestants who were criticized for being nasty to a non-English speaking contestant. I promised to follow up in the next blog with some tips on how to analyze what happened. My point in this last blog was that as a society we shouldn’t shame people for their mistakes but walk alongside them and encourage others to think mindfully about how to reframe what they say. I'll first explain the concept of Cultural Sense-Making** and then talk about how we can try and withhold judgement, lest we fall into the same trap of being overly critical.

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Dr. Joyce Osland (**San Jose State University) is well-known as a leader in the field of intercultural management because of her cutting-edge research and prolific written presence in the academic community. She explains a simple way of understanding the cognitive process (Cultural Sense-Making) that we go through when our brains try to make sense of abstractions. Cultural Sense-Making is about framing and then re-framing our understanding of a situation based upon shifting our perspective and opening up to new opportunities and ways of looking at the world.

  • The first step is framing the situation, which involves the expectations we have about a situation. Before, during or after an event, our minds are subconsciously feeding us information based on prior experiences. Our brains attempt to make sense of ambiguity by comparing past experiences to current ones – it resorts to a default in order to confirm prior knowledge from which we create a frame.
  • The second step involves making associations, where we quickly analyze those cues and try to match them to schema, or mental patterns that we create. These schemas are cognitive frameworks that help us to interpret unfamiliar information and experiences – as explained by cognitive psychologists.*** This is a natural process of learning about the world by making associations that are affected by our background, our experiences, our beliefs, and our attitudes.
  • The third step is selecting a script, which we make based upon the frame we create and the mental patterns (schema) that we have deduced through our associations – this script becomes our road map to navigate the unfamiliar situation. Our script is often influenced by our previous experiences and we then draw similarities or differences between what we know and what we don’t know. Often we tend to react based upon our default, but the purpose of selecting a script is to help us take control so that we look at issues with an open mind...and positive intent.

If we are aware of how our brains pull us back into a default system (of what we previously know), then we can consciously try to monitor our perceptions, reactions, and actions in order to be in control of the script we choose – we don’t have to respond negatively but can withhold judgment and seek to understand the variety of cues (and miscues) in order to react appropriately. 

Here is how I’d like to analyze what the three English speaking Miss Universe contestants (USA, Columbia, and Australia) said about their Vietnamese and Cambodian colleagues back in December 2018. If we examine the observable actions: words, movements, gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice, we all will have a different interpretation – Were they: Patronizing? Criticizing? Joking? Miss USA was the one talking and we don’t know her intent because we are not in her mind. But as I listened to and watched the video again and again, I didn’t sense that her tone was condescending – to me it appeared that she was sympathizing with her fellow contestants and she commented that at least those able to speak the common language of the pageant could communicate. Granted, her word choice, “She’s [Miss Vietnam] so cute… [and] poor Miss Cambodia…” and the fact that she was talking with two other contestants, might lead us to believe she was gossiping. But if I take time to look at this video objectively, I don’t get that impression. Rather than fall into the judgment trap myself, I watched and re-watched in order to try and understand where she might be coming from, while looking for positive intent. 

As I wrote in my previous blog, I think that this is a case of “defense” on the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (****Milton Bennett). One person was comparing herself to another based upon her frame of reference, tacitly assuming others should be able to speak her language. If she was to work through the Cultural Sense-Making model, her reaction would hopefully be different.

  • Framing: "Some of our fellow contestants don’t speak English."
  • Associations: "Most contestants do speak English and it must be a challenge to navigate the daily tasks when you don’t understand the language. "
  • Script: “Contestants who come to this competition have such courage when they don’t necessarily know the language. I can only imagine what a challenge that would be and I admire her. I wish I knew how to speak another language! Let's make friends with her and welcome her so she feels included.”

Yes, it was a poorly timed video and the language chosen wasn't the best, so it was interpreted as condescending rather than supportive. If Miss USA could have worked through the Cultural Sense-Making model and tried to reframe her perspective by taking a step-back before she formulated her script, she could have had a more positive outcome. 

Miss USA learned from her critics and apologized to both Miss Vietnam and Miss Cambodia, and later made a public statement: 

“Miss Universe is an opportunity for women from around the world to learn about each other’s cultures, life experiences, and views. We all come from different backgrounds and can grow alongside one another. In a moment where I intended to admire the courage of a few of my sisters, I said something that I now realize can be perceived as not respectful, and I apologize. My life, friendships, and career revolve around me being a compassionate and empathetic woman. I would never intend to hurt another. I am grateful for opportunities to speak with Nat, Miss Cambodia, and H’Hen, Miss Vietnam, directly about this experience. These are the moments that matter most to me.”

We can all learn to build cultural bridges with our neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances while having tremendous impact regarding the little things in life. We need to be aware that we all implicitly frame situations and then make associations based upon our past experiences. If we can pause and think about it from various angles based upon another person's perspective, then we can consciously select a script that has positive impact and which enables us to try to understand things on their terms.


*Ambassador Terry Bradshaw met the now President Xi Jinping back in the 1980s when Xi led a delegate to his small town in Iowa. Bradshaw, then governor, was tasked with hosting this delegate. They developed a friendship which has lasted all of these years and this is why he was tapped to be the current US Ambassador to China. Long-term relationships built on trust and friendship are critical in Chinese culture and the Ambassador surely knows how to engage in cultural sense-making as he builds culture bridges between the US and China.

See also a previous blog from Fall 2017 about this story.

News article: 

** Joyce Osland, Executive Director, Global Leadership Advancement Center, and Professor, School of Global Innovation and Leadership at San Jose State University College of Business. This concept comes from Prof. Joyce Osland and Alan Bird: Bird, Alan. & Osland, Joyce S., (Winter 2005-6), “Making Sense of Intercultural Collaboration”, International Studies of Management and Organization35 (4), 115-132. See also this: Article

***Piaget, Jean. (2001), in Robert L. Campbell, (ed.): Studies in Reflection Abstraction (Sussex: Psychology Press).

**** Milton Bennett, IDRI Institute, Italy



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