Cultural Sense-Making in Action

Apr 13, 2021

The Cultural Sense-Making Model by Osland and Bird

This is a guest blog by one of my online course participants, Kelly Flynn, and is used with her permission. Kelly is a project manager and engineer and took my course, Advanced Intercultural Management*, because she wanted to enhance her intercultural awareness skillset for international communications and business relations. She was responding to one of our weekly Discussion Board posts regarding the Cultural Sense-Making Model, which we’ve been discussing in these past two blogs on LinkedIn. Here is, in Kelly’s own words, how she used the model to think of best intentions (on the part of her co-worker) and create a positive script (regarding how she reacted to his question) in order to have a successful outcome (both people feeling affirmed as they sought to understand each other).

In Kelly’s own words:

I had an interesting interaction at work on Ash Wednesday**. As a Catholic, from time to time, I am used to others make teasing comments such as "you have something on your forehead," or "you roll around in the dirt this morning?" I have a good sense of humor and normally provide a witty repartee in response. I also never take offense because I don't think the people who have – and do make these comments to me on Ash Wednesday – do so in a malicious way. 

Recently, on Ash Wednesday, a coworker came to my desk, and during our conversation, he stared at my face and exclaimed in an almost horrified voice, "What happened to your head?!" I assumed he was being sarcastic and was about to respond with a witty retort, but after reading his body language, I realized he was actually being serious. [Framing the Situation]

His family is originally from India, but he was born and raised in the USA, and in most regards seems as "American as they come." I incredulously asked him, "Do you not know what Ash Wednesday is for Christians, especially Catholics?" He honestly had never seen ashes before. I was completely blown away by this. He is only 24 years old, so I wondered if being of a younger generation had something to do with this? I also pondered that perhaps there are now fewer practicing Christians who get ashes on Ash Wednesday or there is less publicity for the beginning of Lent than in years past? [Making Associations]

Regardless, he was raised in New Jersey and went to public school, and he recently graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia. I contemplated asking him if he practiced Hinduism, thinking that maybe those religious practices might shed some insight into other faiths. In any case, I found it almost unbelievable that he had never seen someone with ashes on their head until this moment. We had a nice conversation, and I explained the meaning and purpose of Ash Wednesday to him. I also let him know that I had assumed he was joking about my forehead as others have in the past. [Making Associations]

The incident intrigued me, so I sought out one of my other Indian co-workers....however, this co-worker was born and raised in India and only has been in the USA for school and work the past few years. He told me he had never known about Ash Wednesday until he was exposed to it last year during Lent while at a restaurant. This made more sense to me as he is from India, where there are few Christians. However, I also wondered why it was so strange to this young man given that in Indian tradition people wear a “bindi," or red marking, on their foreheads.*** [Making Associations]

This whole experience was eye-opening. I had thought back to the Cultural Sense-Making Model that we learned in class – how we frame a situation, make associations, and select a script in order not to judge but rather try to figure out what someone else might mean (through words or behaviors). I have learned not to assume that people living in the USA would automatically know about our religious customs and beliefs. However, it also makes me wonder why people who move to the USA, and especially people who are born in the USA, do not know the religious customs of a country that has many practicing Christians? To me, that is disappointing, since I try to learn about other cultures and religious customs in order to better understand people in my nation, and I especially would do so if moving to a different country. But I guess not everyone has this particular interest or motivation. I still do not know entirely what to make of this incident, but I at least found it interesting and am glad I did not take offense.   [Selecting a Script]

My commentary: Kelly did a great job not taking offense by quickly thinking through how she might respond. She framed the situation based upon her previous understandings, experiences, and background, and tried to make associations (e.g., she tried to make sense of someone else’s experience – someone who also grew up in the USA but did not know about this religious practice). She made internal comparisons, not judging, but reminding herself to learn about other people’s customs as well. Finally, she selected a positive script and reacted accordingly by engaging in a conversation with the curious colleague. She also sought out another associate for their perspective – knowing that everyone has different experiences in life and that it would be interesting to hear another viewpoint. In all, she didn’t take offense, considered the best possible motivations, and was both open and curious to learning about others as well as sharing her insights.

I admired Kelly’s authentic and thoughtful reflection as articulated through her eloquent writing skills. Her experience was inspiring and quite timely, so I was delighted when she agreed to be a guest author on this post. It is through sharing a real-life experience such as this that we can gain insights into how to become more interculturally sensitive – one person – and one interaction – at a time. Thank you, Kelly, for sharing with us such a great life lesson!


*Updated Online Course Coming Soon

**The Meaning of Ash Wednesday: On the first day of Lent (the 40 days preceding Easter), Catholic believers receive ashes in the form of a cross on their forehead in order to reflect on their spiritual life. In receiving ashes, believers embrace Jesus’ journey of the cross of suffering and the promise of resurrection. The ashes symbolize believers’ realizations that they are in need of Christ’s forgiveness and salvation in order to be redeemed from sin and darkness.

***The word, 'bindi', is derived from the Sanskrit word 'bindu' or a drop and suggests the mystic third eye, ‘ajna’, of a person, which represents the spiritual seat of consciousness and wisdom. In north India, it indicates the married status of a woman; in the south, all girls will wear a bindi. Among men, the bindi has been interpreted as a good luck symbol. Bindis are worn not only in India, but also Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Mauritius. Incredibly, this special mark has been used for almost 5,000 years, and is mentioned in India’s oldest text-the Rig Veda


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