Look Beneath the Surface Before Jumping to Conclusions

Are you quick to judge an English Learner families’ behavior?  Do you assume you know why they reacted to your request in the way they did?  

In this final installment of our series on culture, “Look Beneath The Surface,” Dr. Mooney explores the concept of power distance, showing how different understandings—of both power and the responsibilities of teachers and parents—may be influencing the behavior you find confusing. 


As a teacher of English learners, you have had cross-cultural interactions. Many have gone well, and later you wondered why you were ever nervous about meeting students and families from another culture. Other interactions may have been a little bumpier. Despite your best reflections, you could not figure out why a person acted in the way that they did. You may have even had unpleasant confrontations.

Many cross-cultural miscommunications are the result of not understanding the invisible dimensions of culture. We all wear our cultural glasses that we acquired by living in our home culture, and as we look through our glasses to view the actions of others, we evaluate whether those actions are positive or negative. 

Our invisible assumptions, values, and beliefs tell us what their actions mean.

Or so we think.

Rather than evaluating the other person’s actions accurately, we may actually misinterpret their behavior because the invisible dimension of their culture—not ours—is driving their behavior. We often jump from observing behavior to evaluating it.

Observe > > > > > Evaluate

And after the encounter, we often forget the actual behavior and just remember the intention that we assigned to it. For example, you forget Jose’s parents were late to the Parent Teacher Conference but remember they don’t value your time or care as much as needed about Jose’s education. It is even easy to attribute these intentions to all families who share Jose’s cultural background.

For many teachers, it is difficult to understand some families’ apparent lack of involvement in their child’s schooling. Educators invite families to Parent Teacher Conferences, ask for volunteers in the classroom, and encourage families to assist children with reading or other homework tasks. Some families seem to be unresponsive to these requests. 

In cross-cultural relationships, it could be that the invisible cultural dimension of power distance is the cause.

Power Distance

Cultures with a Low Power Distance value horizontal relationships where people are on a level playing field. Everyone is expected to have a voice in decision-making. There is a strong sense of what is fair, and individuals feel compelled to complain and negotiate when situations need to be improved. The inequalities in power and status that exist are believed to be man-made and largely artificial.

Cultures with a High Power Distance recognize that a few people have a lot of power, and the vast majority has little. This unequal distribution of power is viewed as natural, requiring those with power to accept the responsibilities that go with it. Individuals do not make direct eye contact during conversations with superiors as a way of showing respect. They often seek to please those in authority—even accepting blame for a failure whether they are personally responsible or not.

In the classroom…

In most situations, the stereotypical American teacher has a fairly low power distance. They want to be on a first-name basis with their colleagues and administration. They want to know they can express frustrations to their principal without fear of retribution. They also expect parents to be involved in students’ education. They even proudly say that “parents are a child’s first teachers.”

So, when families don’t respond in corresponding ways, the behavior can be confusing. Why wouldn’t a parent with free time want to volunteer in the classroom? Why wouldn’t they read with their children every night or assist with homework as needed?

Families from high power distance cultures are confused, too. They wonder why the teacher, who is the professional, would ask them to teach their child. “Why would the teacher want me to come to the classroom?” They might think, “I don’t invite them to clean my house or cook my dinner. Why do they want me to do their job?” These questions are not a shirking of responsibility on the part of the parent. Instead, the parent feels unqualified to perform these roles. The teacher is viewed as the person with authority in the school setting. As a trained professional, they are equipped to teach the child well. From a high power distance point of view, a parent crossing this line is disrespectful to the teacher.

What Do You Do?

In the current climate that degrades the professionalism of educators, you can be grateful. Grateful that your students’ families value your role and respect your position in their child’s life. You can also be grateful when they fulfill their role as parents well. When they ensure children are loved, fed, dressed, and present in school. When they require children to do homework, even when they cannot read the English instructions or content in order to assist. 

You can also pause. Instead of moving from observation of behavior to evaluation, the authors of Exploring Culture suggest another strategy (see resource listing below). They recommend that in any cross-cultural interaction, we pause after observing behavior that is confusing to us. Instead of jumping to conclusions about the behavior, we should first seek to understand. This likely means doing some research about the culture. 

A great tool to begin with is Hofstede Insights (https://www.hofstede-insights.com). Their Country Comparison Tool on the homepage addresses national, not individual, culture. But, it is a good starting point to understand cultures that are not your own.

Another way to learn about a culture is to find a cultural informant. This would be a person from the other cultural background who also understands your culture. In a school setting, you might talk with a bilingual teacher or paraprofessional, or a front office staff member who shares the cultural background of the families you serve. You could describe the behavior you saw and ask the informant if culture may be playing a role. If it is, they can explain the thinking behind the behavior, in essence, revealing the invisible dimensions of culture that are at work. 

Equipped with this information, you are better able to follow Hofstede, Pedersen, & Hofstede’s advice. They recommend seeking to understand behavior before deciding what we think (interpretation) or feel (evaluation) about it.

Observe > > > > Understand > > > > Interpret > > > > Evaluate


So, the next time you’re tempted to judge another person’s behavior by thinking, “I know why you did that,” seek first to understand it, and the motivations driving it, before you jump to interpreting or evaluating. When you do, I think you will find that your cross-cultural interactions will be less frustrating and more enjoyable – for everyone.

Learn more about culture…

Exploring Culture: Exercise, Stories and Synthetic Cultures
Gert Jan Hofstede, Paul B. Pedersen, and Geert Hofstede
Intercultural Press, 2002
ISBN: 978-1877864902

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