Why Do We Act the Way We Do?: Taking Circumstances into Consideration

IMG_3128 (1) - Edited.jpgI have a 10-year-old brother. He’s a perfect definition of a handful; he’s high energy, low attention, not especially well-coordinated, but a lover of dangerous adventure, testing authority, and always squirming. Coming home for spring break, I got to see the little fellow again.  I was also re-introduced to a struggle with patience.

Naturally sometimes my youngest sister and my brother squabble. My little sister will lose her patience and yell at my brother. “He’s not going to listen to you or respect you if you yell at him,” I’m always quick to advise, assuming my sister must just not be grown-up enough to recognize that such little things are not worth getting worked up over. It’s just part of being a kid, an instinct you have to grow out of. It’s just part of who my sister is right now.

However, as I was on break, I’m ashamed to admit I found myself yelling at my little brother as well. “Gosh, this cold really makes me irritable,” I was thinking just the other morning. Having a sore throat and a dripping nose has a surprising effect on one’s patience.

This type of thinking is a great example of the Fundamental Attribution Error. The Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when you judge a person’s character for their actions, instead of putting the emphasis on their situation.  For example, when another student gets a bad grade, you are likely to think they are a little less smart or capable as a person. However, if you were to get the same bad grade, you’d be likely to attribute it to your situation–the tough teacher, the confusing test, the lack of sleep you had.

In American culture, we are taught from childhood that we are masters of our own fate and can control our destinies (Shiraev & Levy, 2013, p. 69). Hence, when we tend to judge actions as if it was the person’s choice and will to act that way. We see the homeless as being homeless because they are lazy, the oppressed as oppressed because they are weak, and those struggling as struggling because they are just that kind of person. Not only do we assume that they are the source of their situations, we assume that they probably deserve it (Shiraev & Levy, 2013, p. 70).

This attribution is so easy to commit we do it all the time without realizing it. But this error is an error. Thinking this way–ignoring the effect a situation has on another’s actions–leads directly to judgmentalism that really isn’t fair. My sister wasn’t yelling at my brother because it is just in her nature to yell. She was IMG_2652 (1) - Edited.jpgyelling at him because she was at the point where she didn’t know what else to do. Similarly, I can’t put all the blame for yelling at my brother on having a cold. If something as minor as having a cold causes me to act in anger towards my 10 year old brother, I need to work on my patience!

Can you think of situations where you have fallen prey to the Fundamental Attribution error? What is something you judge the character of others for but blame your situation for when you commit the same action? What are you going to do to try to think differently?


The Unannounced Challenges Facing Cross-Cultural Teachers

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A short compact man with a beautiful, well-trimmed gray beard* spreading across his dark-skinned face walked into the classroom. Setting his bag down on the table in the front of the class, Dr. Sérgio da Silva began class with a broad smile and a Portuguese accent.

As college students in the 21st century, we are more than likely to have a foreign professor at some point or another throughout our education. While it may be entirely subconscious, most students from the get-go have a slight prejudice against non-native teachers. We sometimes seem to think that these professors don’t teach well, their accents are too hard to understand, or such professors don’t “get” the culture, and we generally have less respect for foreign professors (which is very dangerous because even this assumption can affect reality).

However, what we don’t consider is that the “American” way isn’t necessarily the “right” way. Additionally, the challenges that non-native professors have to face are factors that we ought to take into consideration before we decide the edict on the professor’s teaching skills and person as a whole. In order to help students form a more empathetic viewpoint, I intend to address some of the struggles which foreign teachers have to face that we American students rarely contemplate, encouraging American college students to be less judgmental of foreign professors right off the bat.

Let me introduce to you Dr. Sérgio da Silva, a professor at Cornerstone University who is originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil (S. da Silva, personal communication, February 24, 2017). He achieved his masters in Brazil, but wanted to study abroad. After graduating with his Ph. D. from Central Michigan, he and his family stayed in Michigan and he has since been teaching in the US. Since his time in the states, da Silva has started studying Cross-Cultural Psychology and has brought up some valuable nuggets of information regarding cross-cultural teaching.

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Teaching Expectations

In my conversation with Dr. da Silva, he introduced the fact that one of the major hurdles faced by teachers for whom the school in which they teach differs from the school in which they learned is understanding the student expectations of teachers (consider this article written by a foreign student explaining how different American professors’ expectations are from his own). One example of this is that students in the US expect the burden of learning to be on the professors. Students are paying big bucks to end up in college classes and if the students don’t accomplish the grades they expect, they blame the professors and their teaching styles. In Brazil, on the other hand, it is seen as the students’ job to learn the material–going to college is a privilege and it is up to the students to make as much out of it as they can (Kuhn, 1996**).

Dr. da Silva explains that where he grew up, “students assume that professors are competent in their areas, and it is the students’ responsibility to do the work of learning themselves, even if the professor does not present instructional content in a fun, engaging, or even “organized” way. Cultures where individual performance is valued above authority seem to place more emphasis on the ability of professors to “engage” the students, than on their depth of knowledge.” To a professor used to having students who take great initiative for their studies, presenting information to a more passive group proves to be a bit more challenging. da Silva concludes by saying, “From this perspective, student evaluations of teaching using adjectives such as ‘boring’ or ‘unengaging’ may be understood as ‘incompetent teacher’ creating problems for faculty who come from a different cultural background.”

Lesson Organization

Organization, too, is different. Students in the US expect clear landmarks, marked transitions, and strict organization. Professors who run off on rabbit trails are seen as easily distractible and in general gain less respect. In Brazil, distractions are “positively expected” as a way for the students’ questions to be fully addressed (Kuhn, 1996**). The students and the professor are free to let the lesson flow from whatever seems most appropriate in the given situation.

In addition, US students expect professors to be extremely clear with their outlines and obvious in their structure, distinctly marking their transitions and main points. Brazilian students, on the other hand, are accustomed to following the flow of presentation by their own attention. A professor who is used to having students catch on to the lesson organization on their own would struggle with feeling comfortable stating what he feels to be obvious. It may appear demeaning to the students to make the obvious so clear.

The importance given to what students perceived to be ‘well organized’ was greater [here in the US] than I was used to in my country,” stated Dr. da Silva. “In my academic experience as a student, organized teachers were those who had deep knowledge of their disciplines, and were able to communicate to the class, even if they did not give us any outlines to follow and told many stories.”

Therefore, Dr. da Silva found this aspect of American expectations for organization to be an especially challenging one so he put forth extra, sincere effort and has, in fact, proceeded to make his lessons out in extremely clear, short outline form which he puts up on the PowerPoint for the sake of his American students who expect strict organization.

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Authoritative Persona

Another obstacle that is certainly rarely considered is that of knowing how to effectively pull off the appropriate persona that is expected of an American professor. This consideration was brought forward by Dr. da Silva. Dr. da Silva encountered problems responding in the correct emotional response necessary for the variety of roles a teacher must play. For example, he had trouble being strict partly because he simply didn’t have the vocabulary. In learning English, da Silva had been taught the friendly ways to speak and friendly things to say. He didn’t have training in how to respond to a student who didn’t agree with da Silva’s grading or who was being disrespectful.

Along with this, not only does one have to know English, one has to know the expected and appropriate responses and common phrases for different situations. Because of cultural differences, when Dr. da Silva was talking to people, he would often feel disrespected, offended, or accused. In situations where the professor doesn’t have experience in the new culture, he/she will revert back to their original culture’s “cognitive scripts.”

Psychology professor Sergio da Silva in his officeThese cognitive scripts are likely to involve a number of facial expressions, body movements, and translated idiomatic expressions that, although were effective back in her cultural setting to establish authority in respectful way, may be interpreted in the culture of the students as weak and over-defensive,” Dr. da Silva explains. “Also, the very situation of having the students approaching her, and their expressions of discontent, may be interpreted by this professor as having a meaning or social value very different from what the students intended.”

What Now?

These differences cause tangible struggles for students and teachers who are from different cultures. It is important to realize that no matter how hard one tries, there can never be perfect harmony in communication across cultures. Dr. da Silva attempts to “embrace the mismatch”;  to “sit here in hurt, accepting and loving myself even when I realize I don’t fit perfectly.” He understands that it hurts, but understands that there is more than just the hurt.

Deborah Tannen said it well in her book That’s Not What I Meant; How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships when she stated, “What seem like bad intentions may really be good intentions expressed in a different conversational style.” We American college students are quick to dis professors who grew up in a different culture. And, while it is true that there are things that may make classes with such teachers an experience requiring more mental effort, this is something that is two-sided. The amount of work non-native professors have to struggle through is admirable. So as students it is essential that we withhold conclusions, embrace the mismatch, and try to see the world from their point of view.

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While foreign professors may not teach in the epitome of American-style teaching, who is to say that, just because we grew up with American expectations, that ours our the best way to be?

Please leave comments. Let me know of your experiences with foreign professors. Have you ever considered the struggles they face?

*The beard has since been removed.

**Link only works for students with access to JSTOR–which includes all Cornerstone students

Additional resources:

Examining different educational expectations

How different cultures approach student motivation

Kuhn, E. (1996). Cross cultural stumbling blocks for international teachers. College Teaching, 44(3), 96-99. 



How Other’s Eyes Influence Your Sight

FullSizeRender (1) - Edited.jpgIn the summer of 2015, a group of staff from Center Lake Bible Camp went on a trip to Marquette in the U.P. Despite having a stomach bug, I had a blast. We visited this amazing park called Dead River Falls, where we jumped from rock to rock, climbed boulders, swam beneath water falls, and went cliff jumping. There were no signs saying to keep on the paths and we were free to test our climbing, leaping, and scurrying skills as much as we desired. The adventures were those of my dreams and I was in love with the place.

Therefore, when my family took a vacation in the upper peninsula, I insisted that our family (with kids ranging age 8-17) check the place out. Nearly immediately after we arrived, however, I realized this place was not going to be the ultimate place for my mom to hang out; I didn’t realize quite how steep the trail was… She took off to go shopping. As the rest of us (my dad and four of my siblings), continued on, I suddenly realized how treacherous the paths were, how fast the water was gushing, how high the rocks were, how slippery the path was, how sketchy the bridges were, how dangerous the place was–especially for my clumsy, careless 8-year-old brother. Even working our way along the hillside to get to the boulders, I was convinced my little brother would trip on one of the many roots, slide all the way down the eroding hill, and hit his head on the sharp rocks, before slipping into the gushing waterfall.

Although with the competent young, strong, adult camp staff I had had the adventure of my life, immediately when my uncoordinated little brother and several younger sisters were along, I feared for their lives and the experience was not exactly fun. This is just another demonstration of  how perception varies depending on so many variables. Have you ever started that movie that your friend said was great only to have the friend suggest you stop watching part way through? With different people, the movie seemed less appropriate.

Not only do different people have different perspectives, but perspectives change based on who we are with. This plays a role in the saying “Bad company corrupts good moral” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Not only does bad company push us to compromise our morals, but it is likely that, in the presence of such company, we don’t even perceive our choices as that negative. Now, of course, not all perspective-changers are negative (in fact, arguably most are neutral and amoral (not related to morals at all)), but it is valuable to be aware of the fact that perspectives change. For Christians, whose goals are to glorify God above all else, this means we should keep Biblical morals in view the whole time.

But even from the amoral perspective, recognizing how many different things affect perception can be handy. When making plans for what activities to do with your friends, which movies to watch with the family, or where to go on vacation, plans might turn out better if you have the foresight to make sure you’re planning with the right perspective in mind.

What are some of your different experiences of the same thing? What changed your perspective? I would love to hear your perceptions!

Ontologically Impaired (Dead)

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My roommate and I were sitting at dinner recently when I leaned over and, nodding forward, I stated, “Wow, look at that table. Can you imagine sitting with that group?”

“I would die,” were her exact words. For a few seconds more we considered the reasons we did not want to sit with the group sitting at that table, before my roommate exclaimed that we needed to stop. I immediately agreed. Gossip is a very dangerous weapon.

While I believe gossip is always a risky game, Christians especially need to keep a tight reign on our tongues (and thoughts!). Ephesians 4:29 says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

One of the concepts I have learned from my studies of communication is that, just as reality forms how we communicate, how we communicate forms reality. This is seen concretely in considering the following scenario: on the first day of class, I get a slightly negative vibe from my teacher. As the semester continues, I mention this to my classmates, most of whom–in some shape or form–are willing to reciprocate my negative viewpoint. Having further cemented by original perspective, I continue through the class with this perspective, finding more and more that I dislike. As discussed in my previous post “You’ll See What You Want to See” perception works in such a way that, if not countered, we’ll see what we expect to see. Hence, the worse I speak about a class, the more negatively I’ll think about it, the more I’ll see the bad end of everything related. Talking negatively about the class will help to create a reality of negativity about the class.

As stated in my Cross-Cultural Psychology textbook,* “…not only do our beliefs, values, and perceptions affect our use of language, but our use of language affects our beliefs, values, and perceptions (p.52).” Take the title of this post for example (which I drew from this textbook). “Ontologically impaired” and “dead” mean the same thing, but speaking of them with different words changes the way they affect our emotions. Similarly, the way we speak of people changes our perceptions of them.

On the flip side, being positive (even if it’s forced) will help to create a positive reality. Consider Amy Cuddy’s research on how (non-verbally) communicating confidence actually makes a person more confident. Communicating confidence actually raised confidence-boosting hormones! Communication really makes reality.

Therefore, even if the gossip never even goes farther than your lips, gossip is never innocent. Even so much as thinking the negative thoughts can make them a reality, if you allow the thoughts to incubate. For others’ sake, as well as for your own, stop yourself from speaking and thinking negatively about others. Aim to make a more positive reality. Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Have you ever experienced how thinking or speaking negatively or thinking or speaking positively actually affected the situation for the worse or for the better? If not, give positive thinking a conscious, sincere effort and see if you can tell a difference. Let me know how things go!

*Shiraev, E. B., Levy, D. A. (2013). Cross-cultural psychology: Critical thinking and contemporary applications (5th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

The Latest Epidemic

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On Friday I was having a rotten day. I had been making plans for weeks to go skiing that afternoon/evening and I love to ski. I should’ve been excited, but I didn’t feel like doing anything. At all. But I was the one who had set everything up, so there was no backing down. I dragged myself over to where the group was to meet.

The room where we were meeting was energized by excitement and anticipation. Several people were practically bouncing off the walls, people were talking quickly, and everyone was smiling. Even by the time we had all met up and then climbed into the cars to drive to Caberfae, I was starting to get excited. The emotional change I went through in about 15 minutes was extreme. I had an absolute blast that night, hanging out with people who were delighted to be hanging out and speeding down the hills.

Emotions are contagious. They really are. This phenomena is called “emotional contagion” (which is simply the name for emotions being contagious).  The value of knowing about emotional contagion is that recognizing it can build immunity–an essential tool to have when you find yourself in the company of an individual or two who have a bad case of negativity–or can be used to manipulate positivity.

The battle is quite psychological, honestly. Therefore, If you are aware of how real emotional contagion is, you can combat it simply by making the conscious effort to recognize its existence. Realizing you are growing grumpy for no other reason than that someone else is radiating grumpiness, you can attempt to oppose the negativity with positivity. Give it enough effort and positivity may get the upper hand and spread to the others. Attitude is mainly a choice so emotional contagion is most dangerous when you are unconscious of its occurring.

Recognizing emotional contagion also gives you the opportunity to use it to manipulate the contagious nature of emotions for the better. One of my readers asked how we can spread joy. With the perspective of emotional contagion, we can see how easy it is to share joy. While it’s true that being overly enthusiastic can do the opposite of what was intended, simple expressions of joy, enthusiasm, or gratitude can go a long way. Even looking at a picture of a smiling person (such as the baby pictured above) can create a slightly more positive feeling, so even smiling at others, offering sincere appreciation, or enthusiastically offering help can help spread joy. There isn’t necessarily one way to spread joy, it’s a matter of being positive in the small things and, through that, contaminating others with positivity. Don’t overthink it.

Recognize the power you have. Chose your attitude–not just for yourself, but for those around you. You may think being grouchy is only hurting you, but it’s catchy!

Tell me your experiences with catching emotions. When have you caught a good mood? What about a bad mood? Try being more conscious and aware. Does it make a difference on how well you can combat it?



Relationships in the 3-D

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The summer following my freshman year in high school, I went and volunteered at Center Lake Bible Camp on the summer missions team. Coming from a home school background, friend choices were very scant  (and don’t get me wrong–I’m so glad I was home schooled). Imagine my delight when I found myself surrounded by a whole swarm of similarly-aged high schoolers. I finally had the choice of who to befriend and that summer I made the closest, bestest friends who I thought would last forever.

But when camp was over, after exchanging contact info, we parted ways and, despite my desperate attempts to keep in contact, I discovered the brutal reality that not all good things last. For the most part, I lost touch with those friends.

Even though I am not still interacting with most of those friends, I do have marvelous memories of my time with them. And memories–the past–is one dimension of relationships. So in a way, even though I lost my friends, I didn’t lose them completely. However, just having memories doesn’t make the dimension alive, you have to actually consider these memories from time to time for this dimension to be active. It’s only when you are conscious of the past that it counts as being there.

The second dimension is the present–which is made active when I am currently friends with the person, keeping in touch, interacting. You can even bring a friendship into the present dimension just by thinking about the friend–since doing so is keeping the person and the relationship current.

The final dimension is the future. This dimension is made up of any plans or expectations for future relationship. For example, I had met a girl on campus and saw her every so often and, in passing, we would converse. But the relationship never had the future dimension until she said one day, “BethAnn, we should hang out!” When we both had expectations of a lasting relationship, the future dimension was activated.

While there is obviously more to any relationship than these dimensions, a general rule is that if you add a dimension, the given relationship is strengthened and if you take away a dimension, then the relationship is weakened.

Even when I am at college and away from family, I can keep my relationship with my sister strong if I make the conscious decision to, every so often, reminisce about (preferably with her) memories from the past with her. I also have to keep the relationship alive in the present, maybe calling, emailing, or visiting her every so often (or even just texting to let her know I’m thinking about her). The last dimension can be strengthened by reminding my sister that I plan to be her friend for the rest of our lives. I expect to keep in touch and I want our relationship to continue.

So what do you think? Have you experienced these different dimensions? Can you think of ways you’ve applied these? Do you have relationships with just one or two dimensions? Who are those people with whom you have 3-D relationships?

You’ll See What You Want to See

Image result for confused faceOne evening I was sitting in Concert Choir class when I asked a question of my professor. His answer prompted my thinking face, which (without my knowledge) he took to be a look of discontent or annoyance. The next time he looked at me was when a neighboring singer had sung off-key. I thought his second look meant he was reprimanding me for my neighbor’s mistake. I returned his gaze with an expression of innocence mixed with denial. Throughout the rest of practice, my professor kept making eye contact and I kept responding with expressions of confusion.

At the end of the class, I dismissed the episode, thinking he had just been correcting me for a mistake I didn’t make and I was just going to let it go. Later, however, I discovered my professor thought he had said something that offended me, which, in his opinion, was why I kept responding to his eye contact. Every face I had made after that simply (from his perspective) confirmed my offense. When he started with the assumption that he had done so, everything afterward was seen through that lens. He read the signs, he connected the dots, he saw the obvious…and he came to the wrong conclusion.

This is the problem of perception. While my argument is not that everything perceived is wrong, I believe it is essential that we recognize that not everything we perceive is right. From my teacher’s perspective, he had a lot of reason to be sure he had offended me–time and time again I made faces at him. But every single face he interpreted incorrectly because he made the wrong assumption about the first one. And the faces I was making after that first one weren’t even related to his response to my question, but related to a whole different issue (the one of the off-key singer).

This can happen larger scale as well. On first impression of a quiet person, I could assume this person just didn’t like me. After that, even completely unrelated things can be drawn upon to prove my point. She might not laugh at my joke. She might leave an event early to do homework. She might not ask me questions when I ask her questions. Even though I might not even second guess these if I had started with the perception that she likes me, but is just quiet, I could, because of my original assumption, use this as further evidence of dislike.

While this can go the other way as well (we might make consecutively positive judgments about a person or situation or reaction), I feel it is mainly the negative perception cycles where the most damage is done.

So please, when you find yourself making negative judgments about a person, situation, or occurrence, chill out a little and consider the fact that it is possible that your judgments are wrong. Even when the connections seem obviously clear, even then you could be making a mistake. Be ready and willing to assume the best of the other. In the case that your assumption is wrong, arguably it is better to assume the best than the worst.

Let me know what experiences you’ve had. Have you ever recognized a time when someone “took” you all wrong? Can you see what may have caused them to see the situation differently from how you meant it? Do you think there could be any situation you are currently in which you are perceiving with the wrong impressions? I enjoy hearing your responses 🙂