Critical incidents across cultures

Author: Jane Jackson


The paper describes a critical incident development project that took place in an intercultural communications course in Hong Kong. In this experiential program, students developed two critical incidents. One focused on the perspective of a Hong Konger who had experienced a confusing or troubling encounter with an American/Canadian; the other one required them to interview a sojourner from the States/Canada to write about a cross-cultural incident that the interviewee found confusing in Hong Kong. The project heightened the students’ awareness of their own culture and the ways in which differing expectations, values, and behavior can affect communication across cultures.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


A critical incident is a narrative that illustrates a misunderstanding between two or more people from different cultural backgrounds. In the fields of intercultural and cross-cultural communication, it is now a standard training tool (Arthur, 2001; Baxter and Ramsey, 1996; Brislin, 1993; Cushner and Brislin, 1996, 1997). Students read the incidents and are then presented with a number of explanations. They are encouraged to select the one that best explains the misunderstanding from the target culture’s perspective. After small group discussions of each option, the students are provided with feedback on the choices, with reference to relevant research findings. In the process, they deepen their understanding of the complex cultural factors affecting intercultural encounters. This paper focuses on the crafting of critical incidents by undergraduate students in Hong Kong.

The intercultural communications course

Student profile

Twenty-seven undergraduates (three males and twenty-four females), with an average age of 20.9 years, participated in a thirteen-week intercultural communications course at a university in Hong Kong. The class, which met for three hours each week, included four American exchange students, native speakers of English, who were in their third year of studies. The rest of the students, who were Hong Kong Chinese, spoke Cantonese as a first language and were in their final year of undergraduate studies. Two of the Hong Kong students had studied in the States for a year; seven others had spent part of a summer studying English in Canada, the States or Britain. Nine of the local students had never visited an English-speaking country, while the rest had made brief visits with an average length of one week. For all of the students, this was their first course in intercultural communication and, for many, their first opportunity to interact directly with someone from another culture.

The critical incident development project

Description and rationale

For their major project, which was worth 40% of their grade, the students were to work individually or in pairs to develop two critical incidents. The project was designed to heighten their awareness of their own culture and the ways in which differing expectations, values, and behavior can affect communication across cultures. The assignment would bring them into close, regular contact with someone from another culture.

The process

The students were provided with a definition of critical incidents, an overview of the methodology and sample incidents/ facilitator’s guides from the Wang, Brislin, Wang, Williams and Chao (2000) text. At the beginning of the course, they were also given specific guidelines for the project.

Identification of informants

For the project, each student had the option of writing the incidents alone or with a partner. The students could find their own cultural informant or the class tutor could link them up with Canadian/ American international students through the International Student Club on campus. The American students in the class were encouraged to work with their local classmates or other students in their hostels.

Purpose of meetings with informants

Outside of class, each pair was to develop two critical incidents that focused on miscommunication between a Hong Kong Chinese and a Canadian/American. One critical incident was to center on the perspective of a local Chinese who had encountered some difficulty in interacting with a North American. The context could be Hong Kong, the United States or Canada. The other critical incident was to focus on the experience of a Canadian/ American who was in Hong Kong. The students were also encouraged to write about one of their own personal intercultural experiences

To gather data, the students were to meet with their cultural informant several times during the semester. In these informal meetings, they were to encourage their informant to identify three or four incidents that he or she had found troubling or confusing when interacting with someone from the target culture. It was emphasized that a series of informal, friendly meetings would be much more effective than a single, formal interview as the informant would be much more likely to reveal personal experiences if there was rapport between them.

Criteria for the critical incidents

The students were also advised that the ‘ideal’ critical incident should portray a situation:
that is common in Sino-American interactions;
that the informant found conflicting, puzzling, or difficult to interpret;
which could be interpreted relatively easily by the reader, given sufficient knowledge about the cultures involved.

Drafting of critical incidents

The students were advised that they would need to draft several versions of each incident before it was polished enough for use in class. They might even start to write about an incident and decide to discard it. They were also given the following guidelines to keep in mind as they drafted each incident:

  • Change the names to protect the identity of your informants.
  • Drop irrelevant material.
  • Be prepared to write MANY drafts as you polish your critical incident.
  • Be creative and strive for clarity in your writing.
  • Check for accuracy in your writing (e.g. grammar and spelling).

Drafting four alternative explanations

For each critical incident, they drafted four explanations for the miscommunication. In the accompanying facilitator’s guide, they discussed the limitations and merits of each explanation, drawing on background readings about the culture and the views of expert informants.

Peer review of critical incidents

Towards the end of the semester, using a ‘peer feedback critique form,’ the students provided constructive feedback, highlighting strengths as well as areas that needed improvement in the incidents. All of the students then had the opportunity to revise their critical incidents outside of class.

Validation of critical incidents

The students showed their incidents to ‘experts’ in the cultures concerned, following guidelines established by Cushner and Brislin (1996) and Wang et al. (2000). This phase was essential to avoid stereotyping or a focus on situations that were so unusual they were unlikely to happen again.

The students asked each of their four validators to read their critical incident. Each validator then rated the accuracy of the four alternative explanations that followed each incident by checking one of the following options on the validation form:

  • I am certain that this is correct
  • Very likely
  • Likely
  • Unlikely
  • Very unlikely
  • I am certain this is not correct

Revision of critical incidents

After reviewing the comments of their validators, the students revised the material so that it was accurate, interesting, and ready for use in class.

Discussion of critical incidents in small groups

At the end of the course, the students exchanged their critical incidents with other pairs who then tried to work out the most plausible explanation for the miscommunication. Following this, the readers were shown the explanation of the merits and limitations of each choice, along with supporting references.

Critical incident portfolios

In the last class, the students submitted their project portfolios which contained all draft material, including ideas/ drafts for incidents that were eventually discarded, peer review forms, validation forms, and the final product (two critical incidents with the accompanying facilitator’s guides).

A sample critical incident and facilitator’s guide

The following unedited critical incident and facilitator’s guide were developed by two of the Hong Kong Chinese students in the intercultural communications course. All names have been disguised; the student authors preferred to remain anonymous.

An interrupted lesson

Last year, I took a course ‘Ecological environment of China’ at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I expected that all my classmates would be local students. After I entered the lecture theatre, I saw a few exchange students chatting with each other in the first rows of the seats until Professor Lo began to talk.

I remember the topic of the lecture was ‘the impact of the Three Gorges Dam.’ I really felt that the topic was boring because it was rather factual and theoretical to me. The impact of the project was obvious and not difficult to understand. Thus, I thought I would fall asleep throughout the lessons. However, my expectation seemed to be wrong due to the exchange students.

The lesson started smoothly and all students were silent. No one made a sound at the moment. After Professor Ho lectured for half an hour, an exchange student called Natalie suddenly raised her hand. As Professor Lo was concentrating on his lesson, he was not aware of her, or maybe he did not expect any questions from students. However, local students sitting behind those exchange students saw her clearly. Their first reaction was to open their eyes widely. We felt a bit surprised because there were rarely any students asking questions during lessons. After a while, Professor Lo saw Natalie and she spoke. She said, ‘I’d like to ask where the exact place of the Three Gorges Dam is? And how serious does it affect the soil? Professor Lo smiled and nodded his head, and then he answered Natalie’s queries. After she got her answers, she continued her attention on Professor Lo’s lesson.

We, local students, thought that the remaining one and a half hours would be passed in silence. We tried to pay attention to professor’s lecture. However, as his tone is too flat it seemed to be a lullaby to us; our eyelids began to fall. At this moment, not only Natalie, but also other exchange students took turns to raise their hands and ask questions. I looked at my classmate who sat beside me, and saw her looking at me, too. Other local students also looked and smiled at each other, feelling half surprised and half doubtful. The exchange students were so eager to ask that, along with the students, Professor Lo also showed his uneasiness. He rarely encountered so many questions in a lesson as today and he was certainly worried that he could not finish his syllabus.

Following the question and answer session, the exchange students amazed us again as they pushed the lessons to the climax when they could not agree with Professor Lo’s point of view. Near the end of the lesson, he mentioned the impact of the project, that pros exceeded cons due to the future economic development of China. There was nothing wrong with his standpoint. Of course, we know that it was hard to say which factors surpassed another, but Professor Lo’s view reflected his own idea and one of the facts only.

Therefore, we got his view and tried to think of our own perspectives. I thought to myself that I could not totally agree with Professor Lo. It was because I regarded the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on environment irreversible. However, I had no intention to speak my point out, as it was unnecessary and also embarrassing to talk in front of the whole class.

Yet, an exchange student called Alison held the same view as me. She did not know anyone in the class, including other exchange students. However, she started to ‘debate’ with Professor Lo. I felt the atmosphere strange and intense, which I had not encountered before. Other local students were also startled by Alison’s behavior and they murmured with each other. Local students soon filled the classroom with so much voice. Some of them even tightened their eyebrows and showed an embarrassed expression. A thought came to their mind: ‘How come a student challenges a professor and doesn’t give him face?’

Luckily, time was up and the lesson ended. The exchange students may have needed to hurry for the next lessons so they left on time. At that moment, Professor Lo sighed and felt relieved just like the local students.

What’s going on here? Choose the best explanation and be prepared to defend your choice.

  1. The Westerners, like Alison and Natalie, always like speaking. They speak and talk a lot wherever they go, no matter what the situation. So, the local students tighten their eyebrows to show their dissatisfaction.
  2. In Western culture, because of the failure in the Western educational system, people are impolite and disrespectful to others, even to teachers. This is reflected in the behavior of the exchange students to Professor Lo.
  3. The Westerners regard themselves as superior. They look down upon the Chinese. Thus, they are arrogant even in front of a Chinese professor.
  4. The gap between Hong Kong and Western students is mainly due to cultural differences. Students in Hong Kong tend to be more reserved and quiet while students in the West are used to playing an active role in the learning process. This may also relate to directness and authoritativeness in the different cultures.

Facilitator's Guide

Feedback on responses:

This is not a good explanation. Whether a person is talkative or not, very much depends on his or her own personalities or environmental background. It should not be related to his or her race. In other words, a Chinese or a Hong Konger may also be talkative as far as he or she likes talking. Therefore, it is wrong to say Westerners must be talkative.

There is hardly any evidence to prove that the Western educational system is a failure. They mostly pick up a more open method to learn and there is more interaction between teachers and students. Moreover, even if a person behaves improperly in some way, it does not mean that their education is the only factor to blame.

It is a kind of overgeneralization and stereotyping if we regard some rudeness of Westerners or Easterners as discrimination. In this case, Alison shows her disagreement to Professor Lo because she has a different viewpoint not because Professor Lo’s race is Chinese. It is also not rude in her culture. Look further.

This is the best explanation. Due to cultural differences, people have different practices. In this case, the difference is ‘direct’ versus ‘indirect’ communication (Samovar and Porter, 2001, Schneider, 1997). This means the degree to which culture influences whether people prefer to engage in direct or indirect communication.

For Hong Kong people, they are more indirect in expressing themselves because they are more reserved. The indirectness is also employed in an attempt to preserve dignity; feelings, and, most importantly, in Chinese society, to give ‘face’ to others is important to preserve harmony (Bond, 1991). That is why local students do not challenge the professor so directly to save his face.

However, Westerners are usually more frank and blunt. They speak out whatever comes to mind. They also try to avoid vagueness and ambiguity and get directly to the point. Thus, they raise their hands to express their own views and ask questions whenever they do not understand. So, we may feel uneasy or unaccustomed about their openness and directness in expressing themselves.

Moreover, the Hong Kong educational system has long been criticized as ‘spoon-fed.’ That means students are expected to learn passively when teachers transfer their knowledge to them. The difference between Western and Hong Kong educational systems affects their students accordingly. It is not uncommon that Hong Kong students passively listen and take notes when teachers hold all the information and disseminate it to the students (Watkins and Biggs, 2001). Yet, those exchange students are taught to participate actively in the learning process; this is known as ‘participatory learning’. As a result, they interact with the teacher during lessons in order to learn effectively.

What’s more, the exchange students have an informal communication style with people while the Hong Kong students have a more formal one. There is no difference even in front of a professor. They think they have the right to speak without considering the authoritative figure because they believe in equality. However, we may feel them too direct in expressing their thoughts when talking to the professor. This is mainly due to the cultural differences in authoritarian belief. Hong Kong people, even though Wwesternized, have the sense of hierarchy. They try to respect and save ‘face’ for authoritative figures, like teachers. In other words, they have an ‘authoritative orientation’ (Brislin, 2000; Wang et al., 2000)

Besides, the view of silence in the East is much different from that in the West. Easterners do not feel uncomfortable with the absence of noise and talk, just like the situation in the classroom. Many students keep silent during lessons and let the teachers talk. They think silence is necessary without any big deal. Yet, Westerners regard silence in the classroom as boring and non-interactive. Therefore, they try not to keep the silence for long by asking questions or giving opinions.


The experiment with student-authored critical incidents in this context was rewarding not only for the students but for me as well. By writing and examining their own critical incidents, the students developed a more realistic sense of the challenges involved when communicating across cultures. Also, the nature of the project forced them to see situations from different perspectives and to develop a better appreciation of the factors that can impact on Sino-American relations. It was well worth the efforts involved.