Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that things were unequal or unfair? One of the capuchin monkeys in the video above seems to feel that way.
The video clip is from a TED talk given by Frans de Waal, a scientist at Emory University who has looked at primate behavior and compared it to human behavior and culture. In this clip, researchers are looking at inequality, as well as empathy and cooperation in capuchin monkeys.
The reactions of these monkeys reminded me of situations created for people when participating in cross-cultural simulations or games. In one of these games – Barnga – a simulation game created by creative interculturalist Sivasailam Thiagarajan (Thiagi), participants play a card game. After a little while, some participants move to other tables to play with different groups of people, and then move again a few more times.
Similarly to the capuchin monkey when first getting cucumber for producing a rock, the participants begin by playing the game quite happily. However, after they start to switch to other tables and play with different players, some participants start getting confused, annoyed, or frustrated when other people start winning while playing the game in different ways than expected. Some people think other players are cheating in order to get an unfair advantage, causing them to become quite angry. Their confusion and annoyance is compounded by a rule that participants are not allowed to talk after the first round of the game (they can gesture or draw to communicate). I saw one Barnga participant throw down his cards and walk out of the room, which reminded me of the capuchin monkey throwing the cucumber at the researcher and then rattling the bars of his cage to try to escape.
What participants don’t realize is that some other players receive different rules for the game, which makes their unexpected behavior logical since they are playing according to their set of rules. Barnga is a popular cross-cultural activity which very effectively illustrates what may happen when people have behavioral expectations (based on their own cultural values) and then interact with others who have different rules. In real life, some examples of cultural differences could include ideas about how to effectively handle a conflict, take turns or line up for something, or talk to people who are older or younger. When people are not aware that they are operating according to different rules, whether in a card game or in real life, this can cause confusion and conflict, similar to the culture shock that people often feel when traveling to another country and interacting with those from different cultures. For example, if you are from a culture where conflicts should be discussed calmly and directly, and you have a conflict with someone from a culture where conflicts should be avoided by changing the subject, this will most likely be frustrating and the conflict will probably not be solved. (For more on intercultural conflict styles, the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory by Mitchell Hammer is very helpful.) If you are from a country where people wait in a line until it is their turn to do something and someone walks to the front of the line, this may annoy others who are waiting. If you are from a culture where older people are treated formally and respectfully and someone treats an older person casually and informally, you may feel uncomfortable. At the NAFSA: Association for International Educators conference coming up in the last week of May in San Diego, there will be workshops and sessions that include opportunities to participate in other cross-cultural simulations and interactive exercises.
So in the future, if anyone ever asks you for a rock in exchange for cucumber, or behaves in a way that you don’t expect, try to step back and look at the situation to figure out what might actually be occurring, before having an opinion about that person.