Cultural Learning: It’s Time to Experience, Reflect, and Experiment, NOW!

we are what we think One of my American friends who teaches in Japan once told me how frustrated he was about the performance of his class, which was far below average at his school. He told me that his students simply were not motivated. However, unlike many other people, he did not seek the fault with his students. He set out to understand what was wrong. Soon he realized that when he observed other teachers at his school, the way they gave feedback was different. In America, where “excellent” really means “good”, teachers constantly praise their students to keep them motivated. Everybody knows: psychological research says that positive reinforcement is the key to motivation. But not so for the Japanese, who are concerned with fulfilling the expectations of the society. When the teacher told them over and over again that they were doing an “excellent” job, they did not see the point of performing even better. After all they were already doing what was expected. Soon after realizing this, even though it made him feel uncomfortable, my friend started to use less positive words, despite everything western psychology teaches. It worked. Our cultural programming tells us how to behave in any given situation. The problem is just: this programming is frozen. In most cases, that is a good thing. Usually there is no point in unlearning what we have learned to be the right way of acting. That’s why, when expats realize that in their new environment, they are not able to live up to the expectations of the people around them, they become stressed. This comes comes with either of two different emotions: frustration or desire. The desire to make a change.

Stress can come either with frustration, or a desire to make a change. Successful expats aim for the latter.

For those who see this feeling as an opportunity, their cultural programming becomes temporarily unfrozen and is therefore able to change. For those who don’t; those who are not willing their mental frame, they will never be able to adjust to the situation of their host culture.

So how do expats learn to challenge their mental frame?

Now, that’s a very good question, and a very complicated one. Experiential learning theory (ELT) provides a good answer to that. First of all it tells us that we need to integrate our newly gained knowledge into our old mental frame. We do that in four steps, all of which require completely different skills. experiental learning theory

 Adapted from: “From Experience to Experiential Learning” by Kok-Yee Ng et. al


When your local friends ask you to try something new, maybe something that scares you, what do you say? Well, a common expat advice is: “always say yes”. However, not all people are open to new experiences, as the Big Five Personality test suggests. In ELT speak, this is related to the motivational level. Do cultural challenges frustrate, or motivate you? Do you strive on new experiences, or do they scare you? Do you put effort into getting new experiences, or into avoiding them? But jumping on every new experience is not enough; you also need to possess a “flexible range of behaviors”, as Kok-Yee Ng and her friends call it. If you react to similar situations in the same way over and over again, then how are you supposed to learn from them? No, you need to try something, reflect on it and adapt. Try, reflect, adapt. And this brings us to the second stage:


Well, the word observation should be clear enough. When you experience something, you need to observe how the people around you behave. Still, there is something much deeper to that. My question: how often do you challenge about your own beliefs, biases, and assumptions? My guess is: not very often. Not if you are not forced to. Who wants to admit to being stereotyped, after all? Luckily, living abroad forces us to do just that all the time. If we allow ourselves to experience new stuff, that is. At this point you need to understand what a cultural schema is. “A schema is a mental model representing general and abstract  knowledge of a topic. Schemata guide expectations, learning and behaviour, providing a basis for action when one lacks information”. (Joan Rentsch, Cultural Schema). Sounds a bit complicated, huh? Well, the point is that people with a high cognitive CQ have advanced cultural schemata, meaning that they are able to interpret a broad range of behaviour from the side of their host cultural. This makes them:

  • understand similarities and differences across cultures
  • able to identify their own biases
  • able to identify cultural cues

In short: observation means that we look at our experiences and try to integrate them into our cultural schema.


So, we have experienced something and reflected on it. Now what? Well, we develop a theory. Why did your colleagues behave the way they did? In what ways does their behaviour reflect different values than yours? What aspects of their behaviour make you confused, upset, angry? And, most importantly: to what extent can your theory explain future behaviour of your colleagues, and of other people as well? A few days ago we already talked about the concept of meta-cognition. Thinking about thinking. If you are good at this, you will be able to take your observations of one particular experience and create theories which you can use to interpret other cross-cultural situations. This is, by the way, the skill that you can influence the most by reading about cultural theory or taking a training. Behaviour or motivation are much more difficult to change.


Let’s come back to our American friend for a moment. When he observed his Japanese colleague who was much more reserved about the kind of feedback she gave to her students, he reflected on what he saw. Isn’t that against everything I now about psychology? But even if it is, her students look much more motivated compared to mine. Maybe Japanese students need a different kind of feedback? There he had his theory. Feedback in Japan needs to be more reserved than in the US. Still unsure whether his observation was correct, and how much more reserved he needed to be, it was time to start experimenting. He started to give slightly more reserved feedback and then adjusted further the more it seemed appropriate. So by trying new behaviour without jumping to the other extreme, he was able to figure out what the right level of enthusiasm was he needed to show to his students in order to motivate them. What about you? Has this motivated you to start changing your behaviour? Experience, Reflect, Conceptualize, Experiment, NOW!


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