Scenario: what is above and below the water?

Whilst reading the following scenario consider what is above the water and what is below the water.

"Rosie is a kindergarten teacher. Charlie is a 4 year old Aboriginal boy in her class. Rosie observes Charlie filling the fresh paint pots at the painting easel with sand.

Rosie approaches Charlie and drops down to her knees to be at eye level with Charlie. She talks to him about not filling the paint pots with sand. Bending her head to try and make eye contact with him.

Charlie is standing still and keeps his eyes lowered to the floor not making eye contact with Rosie. Rosie is doing her best to look into his face.

Suddenly Charlie pushes past Rosie and runs to the other side of the yard crying and looking over at her. Rosie appears startled by his response but stands up and walks towards him, Charlie runs away again and hides behind the big gum tree."

Paint pots

What is happening in this scenario?

Let’s break this interaction down to show what is above the surface and what is below the surface of Rosie and Charlie’s cultural icebergs. This will be followed up with cultural tips for educators to consider should they find themselves in similar situations.

Part 1: Above the surface 

Charlie is standing in front of Rosie with his head down and eyes lowered.

Below the surface - Charlie:

Consider the cultural values or manners that Charlie’s family may have taught him. Perhaps his family has taught him that when he is being addressed by an older person it is respectful to stand with your head down and eyes lowered.

How is Charlie feeling? Perhaps Charlie is hoping that his body language is expressing his respect to the educator as the older person.

Below the surface – Educator:

  • How might the educator be feeling?
  • Is her first instinct to feel slightly irritated by Charlie’s behavior?
  • Is she thinking that he must be hiding something from her?
  • Does she question his honesty?  

Within some cultural groups there is cultural value placed on the action of standing and looking a person in the eye as a way of demonstrating honesty and trust worthiness. Yet in other cultural groups to lower the head and gaze demonstrates respect and honor.

When these two conflicting cultural values meet face to face it is possible for there to be misunderstanding or miscommunication if one or both do not understand how the other is expressing their respect.  

Cultural tip:

In the scenario provided above the teacher had a great opportunity to help Charlie begin to understand concepts from the two cultures he needs to learn how to operate within. One way that Rosie could acknowledge that she understands that Charlie is using his home culture to show her respect is by saying “Thank you Charlie for listening to me when I am talking to you.” when he lowers his gaze.

Part two: Above the surface

Child and educator kneeling downRosie has dropped to her knees so she can be at eye level with Charlie. She is attempting to make eye contact with Charlie’s lowered gaze.  

Below the surface - Charlie:

Consider the cultural values in relation to body language that Charlie’s family may have already taught him. 

He may be feeling uncomfortable with Rosie kneeling at his level and moving her head to look him in the eye.

Below the surface – Educator:

People from some cultural groups view the act of standing and looking down on someone as placing the standing person in a position of domination.

Lowering herself to the same level (as Rosie has done with Charlie) is attempting to create an interaction between equals.

Some cultural groups view the act of standing and looking down at someone as putting yourself in a position of domination. Other cultural groups may view this as acceptable for an ‘elder’ type person to be standing above those that they are addressing, this easily enables the ‘receiver’ to lower their head and gaze as a sign of respect and honour. The action of an ‘elder’ equalizing the interaction between themselves and the other person, in this case the child, is about an elder showing the child respect. When these two conflicting cultural values meet there can be a creation of misunderstanding and discomfort.

Cultural tip:

Rosie might consider standing or sitting beside Charlie to talk to him. She might also consider not insisting on maintaining eye contact with him but allowing Charlie to listen to her instead.

Part three: Above the surface

Charlie pushes past Rosie and runs away.

Below the surface - Charlie:

Perhaps Charlie is feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of this experience. He may not know how to react to the unfamiliar behaviour of the teacher.

Perhaps he feels the need to ‘escape’ the educators attempts to make him look at her face.

Below the surface – Educator:

Perhaps the educator is also feeling confused at Charlie’s response to her trying to speak to him.

She may not understand why her response is causing Charlie to feel so uncomfortable.

She may also misunderstand the message he is sending her.

Cultural tip:

Take time to consider and not exercise judgement when encountering new or different cultural behaviours in others. Keep in mind that you can only see ten per cent of that person. A whole ninety per cent of a person’s values, beliefs, thoughts and attitudes are hidden from view. Take the time to get to know what lies below the surface, get to know the individual, learn about their culture and interact with them. Find ways to uncover and understand the values and beliefs that underlie the person’s cultural behaviours. Sometimes what we have initially perceived to be unusual or inappropriate behaviour may be necessary or acceptable behaviour within that persons own worldview.

Last modified: Friday, 15 July 2016, 4:18 PM