Last week, we talked about unconscious learning.

A refresher: unconscious learning is when we learn something without any memory of how, where, when, or why we learned the idea, concept, or method.

As the Great Toilet Paper Conundrum demonstrated, this can lead to cross cultural confusion. By thinking we, alone, are justified in our method, we instinctively point out the “wrongness” of another culture’s ways, without even knowing why we think our own way is right.

It’s strange, I know, but most things that are culturally anchored in us – like our values and norms – are not conscious choices. They’re just what we’ve always known. In this way, our cultural foundation offers us an invisible frame of interpretation, enabling us to try and understand everything going on around us…but also often disabling us from seeing the world from another’s perspective.

Alternative Facts

Our cultural frame of interpretation directs how we see and understand the world. It even affects how we interpret fact from fiction.

What are facts?

The sky is blue, the grass is green, the Earth is round.

These things are concrete, objective, and invariable, right?

Not necessarily.

In this current world of so-called “alternative facts,” the word “fact” seems to have taken on a new meaning.

We depend on facts in business. They are our stronghold, the basis of clear communication and logic.

But when working in a multi-cultural environment, what one might see as fact, another might not see as such…or they might simply ignore the fact’s validity, altogether.

Don’t get me wrong – we’re not living in an alternate universe, where photographic evidence disproving the size of a crowd is not reality. Rather, what I mean by this statement is that, despite an accepted set of facts, conflicts often arise regarding said facts when you’re managing across cultures.

Frame of Interpretation

The truth is, it’s not the facts that clash; it’s our frames of interpretation. When this happens, each party often insists that the other party prove the validity of the facts in question. But once they do, this proof is often ignored.

Take, for example, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s insistence that the size of the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever, despite clear photographic evidence that it was not.

“Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered at the National Mall,” he told the press. After laying out a deluge of “alternative facts,” Sean Spicer pronounced, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”

Needless to say, after this statement, resistance was met on both sides – the press vs. the White House…and everyone else in between who had an opinion on the matter. Thus, the term “alternative facts” came into vogue.

When Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts,” what she really meant was that the Trump administration had a different frame of interpretation than the press. While the administration’s motives behind declaring unfact as fact are not the same as those that determine a cross-cultural misunderstanding, the result is the same: in a multi-cultural environment, you should always assume that what may be cold hard fact to you may not be to your foreign counterpart.

All because your frame of interpretation differs from their own.

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