Before you go on reading, please take out a paper and a pen and sit down for 5 minutes to write down all the thoughts that come through your head when you saw the picture in the top of this article. Without doing this, you will get much less from this article, so I highly recommend you playing along.
Next, I want you to do an exercise that was originally created by the Intercultural Communication Institute. Please fill out the chart below. In the ‘describe’ row, you only list what you see in the form of observable facts. In the ‘interpret’ row, you list what you think it is that you see. And in the ‘evaluate’ row, you list what feelings the picture evoked in you. In a first round, list only those thoughts that you already wrote down earlier, and in a second round, add any further thoughts that you have.
The model was originally created because whenever we experience something that is going against the societal values we grew up in, before we can really analyse what is happening, we start building up emotions. It may not be conscious, but we will inevitably think something like “it is wrong”, or “how rude he or she is!”. Once we become emotional, it becomes very difficult for us not to judge the action as wrong, and to evaluate it in an objective way. That’s why the first step of the model is so important. Before we look at anything else, we should just objectively describe the situation. In this case, such an objective description would be “I see a picture in which it looks like George Bush and Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud are walking together and holding hands”.
In the Western society, holding hands is commonly associated with sexuality. And so, there is a good chance that you associated their action with sexuality, too. The problem is, that even once you filled out this chart, you are still likely to make this assumption, because in your frame of reference holding hands will always be associated with sexuality, unless it is between parent and child. That doesn’t mean that in this case you judged their behaviour as wrong, but at least in means that you are likely to have interpreted it as romantic behaviour. And that is why Anna Collier from AFS Intercultural Programs has suggested a fourth step in the model: verification. She describes this this step as “what others think (about what I see)”. This is a fantastic idea!
And yet, there is still something I would like to add to this. Verification should be seen not only as finding out what others think about it, because other people may interpret it wrong, too. But instead, we should look at multiple sources for verification. We should talk to someone from the culture of the person whose behaviour we are trying to analyse, we should read about their cultural etiquette, we should observe other people from the same culture, and find any other potential source. As a result, we could in this case we could quickly find out even with research as simple as looking at Wikipedia, that in Saudi Arabia holding hands between men isn’t looked at as something sexual or romantic at all. Instead, it is a sign for men to show each other respect and friendship. So in fact, this occasion is an example in which George Bush has displayed a certain level of cultural sensitivity, by adopting King Abdullah’s cultural etiquette.
Whenever you come into a conflict situation with someone from a different culture, you can use the D.I.V.E Model developed by Anna Collier to avoid misjudgments about the true meaning of his or her behaviour. Sometimes what you will find is that both of you actually value the same things (in this case respect for each other), but display them in different ways (a handshake and firm eye contact vs. holding hands). Other times you will find that you value different things, in which case you will have to re-negotiate your relationship to find common ground.
Self-reflection is important in Intercultural Encounters, because without it we are likely to make emotional evaluations, instead of analyzing the case objectively.