Often things are not what they seem

Every once in a while, I’m reminded of the ways our assumptions can trip us up.

A friend of mine works with school-age children before and after school. When the children disrupt what is going on, or hurt one another, she takes the time to speak with them about what has gone wrong. She wants them to get along well together.

A few weeks ago, she said she had a problem. She explained it this way: “Usually, when I’m speaking with them, the children look at me and pay attention. However, when I am speaking with the African children in the group, they look away. It’s so disrespectful. It makes me upset. I don’t know what to do to get their attention. Do you have any ideas about what I can do?”

As we talked, I began to wonder if the problem wasn’t what it seemed to be. I’ve learned in cross-cultural settings that misunderstandings can often be learning opportunities. I said to my friend, “I wonder if something else is going on. Let me check this out with my colleague, Gary Kashale. He’s from Africa, and he may have some insight into what is happening.”

When I brought my friend’s concern to Gary, he immediately identified the cross-cultural confusion. He said, “Those children are being very polite. They are showing their respect by looking away and listening. In many African cultures, when children look an adult straight in the eye, they are being defiant. So the children know they are not supposed to do that.”

When I shared this with my friend, she was surprised and relieved. She said, “Well, that changes everything!” She now sees these children with new eyes.


Anne Dilenschneider, PhD                                                 Gary Kashale, MA

Dmin, LPC-MH, QMHP                                                        Pre-Licensed Counselor

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