The Power of Observation

Observation is an extremely powerful tool, exemplified by the fact that it is a basic component of scientific experimentation. Observation is also an essential tool for individuals interacting with other cultures.

One of the pieces of advice that I always give to intercultural training participants who will be working and/or living in another country is to adopt this method of information collection. A tremendous amount of useful material, especially the subtleties of behaviors, will become clear through observation of locals.

My friend, Al, responded to this advice by saying ‘that’s just logical, everyone knows that.’ While he may be right that the point seems obvious, today there are so many distractions that it is easy to miss the hints. People appear to give little or no thought to their situation and the differences around them. Too many people seem to forget or minimize the value of observation, especially as they are so busy focusing on the future and their next activity. Sadly, many individuals appear to be more engrossed in their smartphones or ipads than their surroundings.

Watching what is happening around you can provide insight into the nuances of behaviors, for example:

  • Notice where people sit at a meeting table
  • Listen to who speaks and who remains quiet
  • Observe greetings and how respect is shown.
  • Look where people place their napkins or their hands at the dining table
  • Watch the system for being served at a bakery or market
  • Determine if public displays of affection are acceptable
  • Survey the type of clothing that is worn
  • Study the interactions between friends, family members and colleagues

 Preparation, such as an intercultural training program, is always helpful but it is virtually impossible to learn and remember everything. Observation complements what you have already learned or may jog your memory. People need to watch what others around them are doing. Use the same tool that scientists apply and learn about the subtle differences of the culture in which you are living and working.

Would you share an example of something you learned through observing a new culture?