A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share leadership skills with nineteen international English teachers who are visiting on a State Department fellowship. Part of the program includes internships in our area schools. In my workshop we were uncovering the culture of a local high school.
Teacher after teacher shared surprises the school had held in their first visit. “The hallways are so quiet,” “Do you know that everyone chews gum, even the teachers?” and “Your students eat in during class!”
Some of this was news to this mother of past and present high school students, and it begged a brief tutorial on the D.I.E. cultural model as we all grappled with what all this information meant. Tracking the history of D.I.E., or the Describe, Interpret and Evaluate model, it appears that it was originally posited as an approach to art criticism. Briefly this is a 3 to 4-staged strategy where you notice:
- What are you seeing (Describe),
- What does it make you think (Interpret) and
- What are you then concluding and do you know it to be true (Evaluate and/or Theorize)?
Recently, this model has been applied to foster intercultural sensitivity. Example, A man is eating lunch using his fingers instead of cutlery, chewing with his mouth open and belching loudly (Describing the scene). I might think, “I wonder if he is American?” or “Does he know that this behavior is culturally off here?” or “That is definitely not attractive by American standards.” I might then start making assumptions about the individual and his cultural competencies.
Checking my work while I then evaluate my assumptions and interpretation of the situation wakes me up to where I am overlaying my own cultural frameworks and stereotypes and where I might be completely wrong.
So, returning to the international teacher cohort, after describing their visits, we then noticed assumptions were we each making on chewing gum or eating in the classrooms. Could we draw the conclusion that these unique activities created quieter hallways? Did it make better or worse students? The exercise drove home for me once more how quickly I zip from description right into interpretation and forget to evaluate too often.
Case in point. I sat down to dinner near Valentine’s day with friends and posed a timely icebreaking question, “What is something that you love?” A reply included a description of how fortunate one of us felt to be supporting his organization through bankruptcy and negotiations with creditors. “I feel really lucky to get to engage in this level of problem solving,” he added. If I had described to you all on his plate, I wonder if your interpretation might be closer to my “wow, that sure sounds miserable.” Meanwhile, his interpretation of the situation has a highlight of my evening. I loved seeing another modeling the possibility in seeing challenges or conflicts as gifts. I also loved how he proved my lack of “die” reasoning “dead” wrong.
A practice session for breaking down my thought processes into 3 distinct stages came in the form of taking my daughter on some eastern college visits over Presidents’ Day weekend. We’d arrive at a school and how quickly I noticed that I wanted to decide if it would be good/bad for her! Maybe it was because I was woefully underdressed for the humid cold, but I was a hindrance to my daughter’s experience anytime I started to jump to conclusions. So instead, I tried to use the hour-long tours around campus to notice details instead. What was fascinating is, when I was paying attention, how much description would be devoted not to faculty capabilities or dorm room dimensions, but to my own emotional landscape as I practiced visualizing our youngest daughter off at university.
So, I pass along this as a leadership exercise for us all to practice this week. Pick an attention grabbing situation and:
- Describe the scene
- What assumptions are making, what thoughts are arising?
- Evaluate — what can you guarantee from your assessment might be true? Could I assess this completely differently?
Just as we couldn’t determine the influence of gum chewing or I couldn’t suss out if a college was truly right for my daughter, we have some room to also choose our interpretations. Watching the inspirational effects of my friend choosing to see turmoil at work as a fascinating opportunity, perhaps since we don’t know, shall we add the brave assumption of “this is great,” while breaking down our experience? As I interpret all of this, it seems worth a try!