When you see this number, what do you think of?

If you’re an American citizen, you might think of the emergency contact number. Or, you might think of 9/11, the date of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.

If you’re a Porsche fan, you might think of the famous 911 sports car.

And if you’re an IT-specialist, without context, the number 911 is just that – a number: data.

These various correlations are all due to the frame of interpretation through which we view data. And this is one reason why, in a multi-cultural environment, you should never assume that facts will be unanimously interpreted.

Data vs. Information

IT-specialists differentiate between data and information. Numbers, without context, are data. Apart from numerical value, they are insignificant.

Without context, 911 is just a number. To turn it into information, you must provide the context. Otherwise, our varied cultural frames of interpretation can cause crossed wires in communication, misunderstandings, or simply no understanding at all.

“911 is the emergency contact number in the US.”

This provides the data context, making it information – and important information, at that, for anyone in need of assistance while living or traveling in America.

But without the transition to information via context, the same data can become information of various other types (an emergency number, a Porsche, the anniversary of a terrorist attack), based entirely upon the context of our life experience.

A Framework

Shake your head left to right in Sri Lanka, and you are in agreement. This is often called “the waggle.” In the West, the same gesture means you’re disagreeing.

Give a thumbs up in the West, and you are showing approval. In Bangladesh, the same gesture is an insult.

The V sign – otherwise known as the “peace” sign – was adopted by American activists during the Vietnam War to promote peace. But if you go to South Africa, Australia, or the UK, flash the “peace sign” with the back of your hand toward someone, and this, too, is an insult.

This is what culture provides us: a framework to interpret daily facts, turning data – and all else, even our gestures and body language – into information. These different frameworks are why our interpretations and world views vary so greatly across cultures.

Depending upon your cultural framework, you may understand the same data, or even the same gesture, differently than your cross-cultural counterpart.

A Framework Exercise

An exercise that I’ve developed for my students highlights how we can interpret one piece of data differently.

I provide a piece of paper to half the class with the numbers 12, 13, and 14.

I provide the other half of the class a piece of paper with the letters A, B, and C.


When the class is asked what the middle figure is, half of them see a B, while the other half sees the number 13.

This, of course, is because our frame of reference determines how we interpret the data around us – the frames, in this case, being B & C versus 12 & 14. This demonstrates how a single piece of data can churn out multiple interpretations, depending on the frame from which it is viewed.

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