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Educator Resources

Interpreting Behavior: Expanding Our Point of View

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Students will be led to grasp the importance of understanding behavior from the perspective of the culture in which that behavior is the norm.

This lesson and the next ones are designed to help students see a situation from two points of view. In doing this, they will begin to understand the importance of being able to see things from another culture's point of view. They will learn that understanding another culture involves being able to interpret behaviors, customs, actions, and practices from that culture's perspective, not their own. In the process, they will learn that no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way—even if they are part of the same culture. Students will practice viewing a situation from another culture's point of view.


  • Students will know that understanding another culture involves being able to interpret behaviors, customs, actions, and practices from more than one point of view.
  • Students will know that any behavior has to be interpreted in two ways: the meaning given to it by the person who does the action and the meaning given to it by the person who observes the action.
  • Students will be able to explain how various people may interpret the same reality in different ways. Students will practice the skill of interpreting a situation from two different points of view.


  1. Ask students whether they have ever had the experience of going to a movie or watching a video with a friend and, at the end of the movie, each person thought different things in the movie were important, funny, sad, boring, or interesting.
  2. Ask students how that can be. How can two people watch the same movie and see different things?
  3. Now, on an overhead projector, if possible, show the class a complex scene with many things happening—from a painting, advertisement, book illustration, or other source that none of the students has seen before. Ask the students to concentrate carefully, and expose them to the scene for exactly 10 seconds, and not longer. Then ask several students, in turn, to report what they saw. Ask them to be specific about details, and invite other students to offer their recollections or interpretations if they saw things differently. Students are likely to see and interpret different details—just as witnesses to crimes and accidents often differ as to the details of what they saw fleetingly.
  4. Follow these first two activities with a class discussion. Lead students to the awareness that no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way. All people bring to the situation their own values, beliefs, and life experiences—and powers of observation.
  5. Explain that we all believe that we observe reality—things as they are. But what actually happens is that the mind interprets what the eyes see and gives it meaning. It is only at this point, when meaning is assigned, that we can truly say we have seen something. In other words, what we see is as much in the mind as it is in reality. If you consider that the mind of a person from one culture is going to be different in many ways from the mind of a person from another culture, then you have the explanation for that most fundamental of all cross-cultural issues: the fact that two people looking upon the same reality, the same example of behavior, may see things very differently.
  6. Make the point that any behavior observed by two people from different cultures has to be interpreted in two ways:
    • The meaning given to it by the person who does the action
    • The meaning given to it by the person who observes the action

Only when these two meanings are the same do we have successful communication—successful in the sense that the meaning that was intended by the doer is the one that was understood by the observer.

  1. Now have students participate in a lesson that will help clarify these concepts. Distribute copies of Worksheet #6,Understanding Cultural Viewpoints (Part 1), and have the students complete the worksheet.
  2. Ask students to discuss their answers to the questions in groups of three. Have them note similarities and differences in their responses to each question. After five minutes of small-group discussion, ask students whether all three students in each group shared exactly the same response. Were their viewpoints similar, was there some variation, or were they quite different? Explain that it is rare that three people will have exactly the same opinion on a subject. Opinions might be similar, but not identical—or, depending on the makeup of your class, they might be distinctly different.
  3. Reinforce the idea that if two people from the same culture often view a situation in different ways, it is even more likely that two people from different cultures will view a situation differently. Culture exerts a powerful influence on our point of view.
  4. Now have students complete Worksheet #7, Understanding Cultural Viewpoints (Part 2). In their same groups of three, ask the students to compare their responses to the same questions, but now with the knowledge of the cultural context. Ask how their responses changed.
  5. Explain to students that if they were to go to another culture, they would need to be careful not to make judgments about a particular behavior or custom until they understood the cultural context—and the reasons that behavior was accepted as "normal."
  6. Remind students of the point made in Lesson 6, Americans: We always view something as "normal" based on a certain standard. In the case of Americans, the standard is American culture. When in the presence of another culture, we have to set aside what the standard for normal is in our own culture and try to understand the reasons something is accepted as normal in another culture (according to that culture's standard). 

Frameworks and standards

Enduring understandings

  • It's easy to misinterpret things people do in a cross-cultural setting. To keep from misunderstanding the behavior of individuals from another culture, you have to try to see the world from their point of view, not yours.

Essential questions

  • Why might it be possible for me to misunderstand individuals from another culture?
  • How can I learn to see things from another culture's point of view? Why is it important? 


Have students choose a current world event or a historical event and write articles on the event or issue from two perspectives, representing opposing points of view or points of view that represent different countries.