Opening Our Eyes To Cultural Differences


The Cultural Navigator is a great tool for this, and can be introduced at orientations, trainings or large-group onboarding sessions to teach new students and recruits about the importance of cultural competence.

At Thunderbird, we start our bi-annual orientations in a large lecture hall with about 250 new students. After introductions, we move to a brief cultural roleplaying exercise that goes like this:

A male and female student walk silently into the room together, with the female, who is shoeless, following the male, holding her head down. He sits on a chair and she sits next to him on the floor. She feeds him crackers. When he is done eating, they get up, and she follows him back out the door.

We then ask the students in the audience how they perceived the role-play. It becomes obvious here how their personal values and biases control how they evaluated what they saw. Many of them tend to show very Western cultural biases when they explain what was going on. They note the seeming subservience of the female in that she was shoeless, sat on the floor, kept her head down and fed her male partner. They conclude that the man is in a higher position and that the woman is his servant.

Then we explain that the man and woman’s culture is matriarchal and that the floor is considered sacred to them. The woman was barefoot because females are the only ones allowed to touch their feet to the floor, which is also why she was the one sitting on the floor and not the chair. Similarly, she was feeding the man because women are the ones considered sacred enough to touch food in their culture.

This role-play exercise is a fantastic way to kick off any kind of cultural competence-building event, because it shows participants that even when they think they are keeping an open mind, their cultural biases play a major role in how they perceive others, which in turn influences how they interact with them. Knowing how to spot your own cultural biases and understand others’ is an essential skill in business interactions of all kinds.

Karen Walch